Trauma Inherited and Magda Szubanski’s ‘Reckoning’

3 Jul

I’ve greatly enjoyed reading Magda Szubanski’s memoir Reckoning. It’s a rigorously honest and (of course) funny account of growing up in outer suburban Melbourne, discovering her talent for comedy and acting, finding her own identity and sexuality—but all of this played out in the rich and complex relationships with her Polish father and Scottish-Irish mother. Her father’s drivenness is a major theme, pushing his children to achievements in academic and sporting fields, but all along there is the sense that much of this is to avoid something. Magda searches to understand her father’s deeply held secrets, relating to his activities as a teenager in the Polish resistance during Hitler’s takeover of their homeland. He survived the war, but lived with immense trauma, deeply buried and yet (she finds) evident in so many ways. (So many families have known these dynamics.)

Magda herself travels to Poland to find her roots. She first does this before ‘the wall’ came down and the opening up of the Soviet bloc countries to liberation and democracy. Later visits, with her parents, reveal much more, as also visits to Ireland. (One wonderful section discusses the place of deeply repressed anger in that culture, and she quips that, after all, it is called ire-land).

The theme of repression is right through and it is this I want to note in this brief comment. At one crucial point, Magda comes to see that her own life has been the playing out of trauma, trauma in her parents’ lives and (in the case of her mother) their parents’ lives and communities. She comes to see that trauma can be inherited and become part of our social and psychological DNA. There is a lot of really interesting work in contemporary neuro-psychology to support this idea. Patterns of anger response, for instance, can be laid down in our brains, sometimes very early in life, so that they are virtually beyond our conscious control. They ‘just happen’. But there is also good reason to believe that these can be revised, and new patterns developed.

All this is of immense importance for us, in considering the situation of communities who have been subjected to long and grinding oppression. The indigenous nations of Australia (and other parts of the world too) are subject to such inherited trauma. So too, communities who have known war and oppression for decades. I think of many students I have known from Burma, some of whom have lived for 30 or more years in refugee camps. And then think of the Palestinian-Jewish conflicts, of decades, even centuries. Again, the asylum seekers we have dumped in prison camps, detention centres and other places, who have endured so much trauma already in fleeing their homelands: they too and their children will face these realities. ‘Face’ them, or somehow live with them even when they are not able to be brought to consciousness.

There are, too, many individuals whose own stories of oppression come to mind here. Not least of these are those treated so horrendously by the church, either in sexual abuse or terrible rejection because of their sexuality.

Magda Szubanski has done us a great favour in publishing this memoir. It is well written and amusing, but also so clearly focussed on the quest to understand the issues more broadly and to offer something other than her own self-development and discovery. At the end, she reflects on what she realizes her father was trying to teach her all along, but could never say. Essentially it’s about having courage, the courage to be oneself. That is no easy thing. It involves negotiating and working through all that we have inherited, most of which is unspoken and often unrecognized. Yet it leads to freedom and joy. That’s quite a good thing to be reckoned with.

Magda Szubanski, Reckoning: A Memoir, (Text Publishing, 2015)

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