We sat in her little cottage in an enchanted wood, and Simonne Butler said, "I've been to hell and I know the way out. So take my hand and come with me." But which hand? The left hand that was chopped off at the wrist, or the right hand, which was sliced apart vertically through the palm? It's always rude to stare and I hoped that I was being covert but really I found it hard to take my eyes off her hands. Each scar held the memory of their violent and famous damage, when Tony Dixon went berserk with his Samurai sword on a summer's afternoon in 2003; they also told the story of their spectacular bionic reattachment. They were strange and powerful exhibits, objects of horror and pity and awe, although actually they were just body parts that belonged to a woman who goes about her life, and the hands go along for the ride.
Dixon was her ex. He had smoked tremendous amounts of P when he attacked Butler, and his new girlfriend, Renee Gunbie. He left them for dead in a house in flat, rural Pipiroa near Thames, and sped off, to Hamilton for a gun, then to Auckland to shoot a stranger dead, to open fire on police, to announce his intention to go down in a blaze of glory, to finally give himself up and live a few more years as New Zealand's weirdest killer. He died in prison, a suicide.
Such is a journalist's precis of events; Butler takes up the story with a rather more direct style: "Dead and gone, yay. Nicest thing he ever did for me. If nobody ever asked me a question about him again, that'd be sweet. I don't think about him. He doesn't even pop into my mind. He's just like some random dude I used to know."
More or less all I did for a couple of hours in her house in west Auckland was ask questions about Dixon. He's one of two very strong, quite vivid characters who appear in her new memoir, Double-Edged Sword, a compelling and unusually well-written survivor's story. As literature, the Louise Nicholas book My Story is a dull read, one clich after another; Butler's book, ghosted and as such beautifully-shaped by Andra Jenkin, is artful, intense, actually quite funny sometimes. It's true crime. It's got a lot of good, hard-boiled sentences: "He was a freelance thug." And: "I was the soldier and Tony was the war." Also: "He wanted me to bow down, to kneel, so that when he chopped my head off it would land in the washing basket, because he didn't want a mess."
Dixon, eventually, recedes in the telling, and Butler emerges as the most interesting character. No small feat to overshadow that sonofabitch. True, he wasn't a bad father to at least some of his kids, and a woman fell in love with him after he went to prison for the murder and the sword attacks. No one is a complete monster who is better off dead, but Dixon came close. As for Butler, who has beautiful eyes, a sensual manner, and a loud, enormously happy laugh, she now operates in the unseen world sort of thing. Mumbo doesn't get much more jumbo than her role as a shaman whose medicine name is Moonstone Phoenix.
There were lots of short brown bottles of flower remedy in her cottage, and also the collected works of Jackie Collins. I asked, "What is a shaman?" She said, "A shaman is somebody who walks between the worlds of the unseen reality and the seen reality, and their job is to create order and balance in the universe. So yeah. Pretty much that's it."
Good; and she also offers spiritual counselling and flower essencetherapy. "I specialise in trauma recovery, eliminating depression and anxiety. I help people move past trauma and to be able to live a joyous and empowered live again."
She was describing her own life. She knew about trauma; she knew the way out. I said, "How are you now?"
She said, "I have to pace myself. I have to be careful about where I'm spending my energy and who I'm spending it on - there are times when people suck the life out of you, like an energy vampireI have to sleep sometimes for four days. I hit the wall and not only do I get tired, I end up in pain."
"Where do you feel the pain?"
"In my hands."
"Always the hands," I said, looking at her hands.
"Yeah," she said. "Always the hands."
Her book is a love story gone bad, very bad, and it's also a very Auckland story. "It was in Clevedon that I was hit with a ratchet." And: "I was at work when Tony was arrested in the St Lukes mall carpark." There's the first date in Penrose (Coke and tinned salmon), making love five times a day in Beachlands, burgers from Al & Pete's, oh and the time he was up in the trees at Judges Bay spying on her with his night goggles when she met friends for dinner at Mikano.
Love and sex, weed and acid, and violence. Dixon beat her without warning, regularly, during their two-year relationship. She said, "When I counted it up, there were 12 times when I was actually knocked unconscious. There's probably only five or six in the book. Like I didn't mention the time I got hit in the knees with a 4 X 4. There were lots of different implements.
"He'd plan it all day. We had conversations about this; he told me he'd start getting angry, and then think about hurting me, and that would make him happy for the day, and then I would come home and he'd hurt me."
I said, "But other times you were just really happy."
She said, "Certainly there were times I was so ridiculously happy and I didn't think life could ever get even better. I mean everyone thinks he was violent and angry all the time, but he wasn't. What it was, was we would have a day, a week, a month of amazingness and then three minutes of psycho craziness. It was like a train that just whizzed by. He wouldn't wake up angry and be grumpy all day. He was more of a clown. If I was angry, he would spend the entire day trying to make me laugh."
I said, "You were in love."
She said, "By the time I was 22 I was absolutely madly in love. Yeah. And a lot of the reason for that was that he was so needy and so into me. And then he started doing things that made me think he was amazing, like driving really fast." Like driving from Wellington to South Auckland in four and a half hours in a stolen car while Butler was on Ecstasy. Like driving at night in the middle of the road at 180kph with the lights off. Dixon loved Commodores, also Holdens; all his cars were black; he vacuumed them, polished them, stripped them, and now and then put back together.
"His passion was souping up a V8 to get extra power and extra speed," she said. "It might be that it needed longer extractors for the exhaust, or a six-speed gearbox instead of an automatic, but you can usually soup up your power by 25 per cent by changing the exhaust ... I spent a lot of time sitting in exhaust shops rolling joints and passing tools."
I thought she was describing a kind of bogan nirvana, but the first time I ever heard from Butler was when she got in touch to say how much she hated my classification of Dixon in my book The Scene of the Crime as "a bogan ninja". So not true, she protested; it was as though I had violated the codes of the bogan by assuming Dixon was one of their number. She explained, "I'm not a bogan; I'm a westie - we're higher class! A bogan is black jeans, black T-shirts, mullet, greasy hair, doesn't wash much, listens to metal.
"Tony was no bogan and no westie, either. He loved Kylie Minogue! He was constantly stealing my Kylie CD. He was an east Auckland boy; they tend to have a nicer dress sense. He liked to wear Barker's trackpants and Adidas. If he saw a new pair of Adidas that he loved but didn't fit him, he'd buy them in my size because he had to have them in the house. His image was really important to him. He spent more time in the mirror than I did. So vain, and so insecure."
I said, "Was he handsome?"
She said, "I was never into him physically. His lips were too thin and his eyes were too close together."
We would have a day, a week, a month of amazingness and then three minutes of psycho craziness.
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A correction, then, for my publishers HarperCollins to make in the next edition of
: he was a thin-lipped ninja in Adidas and Barker's, his eyes too close together as he picked up his ornamental Samurai sword and started swinging.
She said that she can play the attack like a movie. It opens with Dixon locking the door behind her when she called at the house in Pipiroa; it ends with Dixon bending down beside her as she lay on the floor, her blood sticking to the knees of his pants, and saying to her: "I'll see you in hell later."
Those last few seconds after he locked the door and before the blade struck, and struck again, and again, and again, were the last that she remained whole. Dixon tore her asunder. He separated her. He divided her, and I asked her whether she thought of herself as two different people - the Simonne Butler who walked into that house, and the Simonne Butler who was airlifted out, minutes away from death, about to have her hands reattached in 27 continuous hours of surgery.
She said, "For many years it was like my life completely stopped then. There was before and after, and it segregated my life completely. Now there doesn't seem to be a disconnect. Now I'm just me."
I said, "The violence of the attack - it was so insane, so one of a kind, that people like myself are still fixated with how shattering it was. We think of the sword and what it did. But you don't."
She said, "Trauma can be an opportunity to put ourselves back together stronger and better and newer. Most people get lost in the shattering . But when everything falls apart, we only lose the things we don't need."
"What would have happened to your life if you hadn't been attacked?"
She said, "I was always going to find this path. This is what I was born to do. I have a really deep understanding of the human capacity to heal on all levels. But this fast-tracked me. It was absolutely horrible, it was the worst thing in the world, but I learned how strong I am, and I learned how to heal effectively, and I now have a platform to go out and help people."
The very least compliment you could give Butler is that she's staunch; she has another, stronger quality as well - serenity. New Age westie, born 1975, full of good humour with an appetite for life, who survived to tell the tale, and tell it skilfully, of the time she was chopped apart and left for dead by a wretch.
Fear haunts the book; laughter jumps out when you least expect it.
She said: "They took my dishes! They took my cutlery!" She could only laugh at the opportunist monstrousness of thieves who went to the crime scene - the house in Pipiroa - to loot it. "All of my jewellery and all of my make-up and all of my perfumes. My mum rescued my bath mats, bless her. Pink bath mats with yellow hearts."
I said, "Did you ever go back to the house?"
She said, "I had to, to sell it. I spent months preparing myself to go back. I really prepared myself hard-out for it and I walked in, and - nothing. I got to where it all happened, and there were no blood stains, not even a mark where it had been."
"Do you revisit the attack? Or does it revisit you, in sleep?"
"Never," she said. "I've had nightmares; not of the attack but about Tony turning up at my door - not to hurt me, just turning up, like nothing had happened, and trying to get back in my life again.
"The thing that freaked me out when I got home from hospital wasn't the violence but having to live in the world again. There were years when I couldn't leave my house. There were five places I could go to and anything other than that, I'd be a blithering mess. If I needed to go to the dairy for something I'd have to prime myself up for three hours.
"And I thought I was being followed. Tony's reach was so far, and so I never knew whether I was or I wasn't. There were still so many people on his side. It was like he was a cult leader. So many people were at his bidding. "He has this charismatic patter. He makes friends so easily. He gets what he wants."
Strange the way she slipped into the present tense, as though he were still alive, a 48-year-old man roaming around, knowing how to make people like him. But he died in 2010. The anniversary is next Friday: November 25. It won't register with the woman he loved and wanted to decapitate. She talked about feeling so scared after she got out of hospital, so frightened at the prospect that one of Dixon's goons might come after her, that she slept with a hammer under her bed for about eight months.
"A very big hammer," she said, and then she laughed and laughed and laughed. "It was so big I couldn't have picked it up!" Not with those hands, that claw up in winter, and she has to soak them in a basin of hot water when she gets out of bed in the morning. After that, they're good to go.