While on her OE in 1981, Robyn Cotton was enjoying a walk in the hills above the village of Lesmahagow in Scotland when she was brutally attacked from behind and strangled. So tight was the attacker’s grip, Robyn struggled for breath and felt herself drifting into unconsciousness. A rush of adrenalin urged her to fight back and the man let go, giving her a chance to break free. Issuing a threat on her life if she went to the police, the attacker took off, leaving Robyn bewildered and traumatised.
Now living in Tauranga, Robyn recently published her first novel as a way to finally put an end to this episode in her life. She has returned to the town several times and the spot where the incident took place, and while it no longer has any hold on her, she wanted an ending to this unfinished story.
A Skylark Flies tells the story of Rose, a fictional character who shares Robyn’s experiences. It also tells the story of Tommy, a young man who attacks Rose. Robyn knew nothing about her attacker, yet wrote the story to make sense of why he did it, and in doing so has created a novel offering hope, strength and positivity.
“I had the freedom to write the ending I never had,” says Robyn. “Through the book I could say things to my attacker that I never had the opportunity to say face to face, which was a really positive experience.
“Tommy’s story is totally made up. I started out writing just from Rose’s point of view but it morphed into more of a novel because I always wondered why he did it. There were no other crimes committed in the area around that time, so I do believe it was a one-off. I forgave him a long time ago and wanted to tell him that.
“I also wrote it for my family, especially my daughter because I was always telling her how to protect herself and wanted her to understand what really happened. Through the writing I was able to pull all those feelings back. I’m very grateful to the publishers, DayStar Books. They believed in me; otherwise it might still be sitting in the bottom drawer.”
The turning point
Back in London, during those first few weeks after the attack, Robyn was fearful of being outdoors alone – even in daylight – and was always looking behind to check she wasn’t being followed. One day on the bus she realised she could either spend her life as a victim or do something about it.
“I was always a pragmatic person but had never been tested like that. That day on the bus was a turning point. If I was going to live a normal life I had to focus on the positives not the negatives.”
There were positives. Firstly, in the heat of a terrifying experience she could trust herself to keep her wits – her automatic reaction was to fight back and not give in. Secondly, she counted herself lucky because, statistically, what were the chances such an experience could happen twice in someone’s lifetime?
So well did Robyn bolster herself that within a few months she was hitchhiking alone through Europe before returning home to New Zealand! Admittedly a little reckless in the beginning, she says, but Robyn’s courage turned into a permanent resilience which has helped her face up to challenge and adversity across all areas of her life. She says it gave her the sense that, ‘I can do anything and I’ll be ok’.
Pragmatism and positives
On returning to New Zealand she put her maths and science degree to work in the field of food technology in the dairy industry, both here and in the UK. In 2002 she established her own consultancy, advising companies how to run effective R&D programmes and improve their innovation performance.
During the last two years she has reduced her workload as she learns to live with Parkinson’s, a neurological condition that causes fatigue, lethargy and shaking in her left arm and leg. Robyn is relatively young to have the disease and is applying her pragmatism to look for the positives. For now, every day is a good day as long as she’s walking around and doing things, and every achievement makes her feel that this condition – which deteriorates over time and has no cure – has not beaten her yet.
“When I launched the book I had the feeling of ‘take that, Parkinson’s’! My mantra is PEP – prayer, exercise, positive thinking. I’ve found that if I push through the lethargy by walking in the hills or playing squash, I get to the other side and feel better. I don’t allow myself to have rests during the day.
“It hasn’t slowed me down and doesn’t define who I am. But I am more appreciative – I take time to smell the flowers and think about how good life is. There is always hope of a cure in my lifetime.”
While she has scaled back her paid work, Robyn has ramped up her voluntary contribution. She offers her time and expertise to International Needs NZ – a Christian aid organisation with 34 partner organisations throughout the world. Partners work alongside countries in the developing world to help with community projects, such as rescuing girls from the sex trade and getting them back into school.
She has been a board member since 2008, is a member of its Governance Council, represents the NZ organisation at international congresses and chairs the global Governance Capacity Building Committee.
“The West does not tell the developing world what they need. There are lots of talented people in these countries already and all they need is someone to come along and help. Everybody is equal and I really believe in that. I love it.”
A Skylark Flies is available in Tauranga at Books a Plenty, Paper Plus, Sonshine Books and Welcome Bay Stationery. It was published by DayStar Books, Auckland.