MAGDA SZUBANSKI Reckoning. Reviewed by Shelley McInnis
This memoir untangles intergenerational trauma with intelligence and insight.
In Magda Szubanski’s memoir, Reckoning, the author outs herself as many things: a secret reader of forbidden books, a one-time sharpie from the wrong side of the tracks in Croydon, Victoria, and a woman for whom weight works as a kind of armour.
Most of us already knew, from The Project on Valentine’s Day in 2011, that Magda is a lesbian. What is truly striking about Reckoning is how the well-loved comedian of Fast Forward, Babe and Kath & Kim declares herself as a sensitive intellectual who is cursed, or blessed, depending on your point of view, with the fervent desire to understand. The word for that in Polish, she tells us early on in Reckoning, is rozumiesz. ‘Many conversations in Polish,’ she writes, ‘begin with that word.’
Szubanski’s desire for rozumiesz manifested early in her life with curiosity about a book her Polish father Peter (originally Zbigniew) kept hidden in the bottom drawer of a teak veneer cabinet in the family home. The book, to which Magda returned repeatedly until she was sprung, contained shocking pictures of dead people, but also a mysterious photograph of her father looking ‘fresh-faced in a double-breasted suit’. He was, as it happens, lining up with other members of the Polish resistance and about to take part in the Warsaw Uprising.
Szubanski manages in this deftly-paced book to tell inter-linking stories about her own angst-ridden development, where shame about adolescent crushes on Marsha Brady and Sister Agnes was compounded by fear that her own dear father might have been a Nazi collaborator. Eventually, her investigative persistence uncovers that he was, in fact, a hero of the Polish resistance. A short man with a strong physique, a love of cats and unfashionable shorts, he had once been a gun-runner, a leader of people through sewers, and an assassin of Nazi collaborators. What’s more, he had participated in these so-called aktions from the age of 15. Magda’s relief at her discovery is tempered by awareness of what this wartime heroism cost her father and everyone around him. When she was a girl and her mother was depressed, her father had been unable to respond with kindness. Perhaps, the author speculates, straining for rozumiesz, her mother’s sorrow had spoken ‘… too loudly to his own gentle heart, lying dormant inside the armour of the assassin’.
‘It was as though,’ Szubanski continues, elaborating, ‘the only feelings he could tolerate were the abstract ones. Injustice, a sense of right and wrong, unfairness.’ She reckons that she inherited, through what she imagines is a kind of genetic memory, her father’s fondness for emotional abstraction. Certainly, her journey towards self-acceptance involved many difficult years of depression and therapy to untangle a ‘rat’s nest of intergenerational trauma’. Eventually, when she was 32, she came out to her parents as a lesbian. Her older brother Chris was with her at the time. It went well, she says, a case of perfect timing, but it would be another 15 years before she would out herself more publicly, on television.
Unfortunately, by then Szubanski’s father was dead. He died in 2006, taking with him his lion’s heart of courage and leaving Magda and her Scottish mother Maggie with their trembling hearts, their faltering ways, and their gift of the blarney. If Peter had still been alive, Magda thinks that he would have been pleased with her big outing. When he was alive, he often told her she had nothing to fear. She was ‘intelligence personified’, he said. Judging from the skill with which she navigates the mine-laden terrain of this book, with nary a false step, I would say he was right.
Magda Szubanski Reckoning Text 2015 HB 400pp $49.99
Shelley McInnis is a Canberra-based memoirist and book reviewer who once worked as a journalist, lecturer, and health policy analyst.
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