Magda Szubanski on her new book, coming out and her father the assassin
She’s been in our lounge rooms for nearly 30 years. Her characters and their catch phrases have become folklore and she has made us laugh more than probably any other comedian in Australia. Magda Szubanski, comedian and actress, has now written a memoir, and she spoke with Rachel Cook about the book, her family, her battle with depression and being ‘a big fat lesbian’.
When Magda Szubanski came out on The Project in 2012 it was hardly news to the LGBTI community, nor to many in the wider community. But while the rumours had been rife for years, Australia’s most loved comedian had not publicly confirmed them until that point.
After The Project, Szubanski went into “melt down”. The response she was expecting never came. Instead there was an uncharacteristic silence.
“It was bizarre,” Szubanski says, “because there was such a palpable response when I lost weight I had people yelling at me in the street ‘congratulations’ and ‘well done’ and then when I came out I thought there would be a similar kind of public reaction and there was nothing. I didn’t know how to read that silence. Did it mean we don’t care or did it mean we don’t like you? I didn’t know what it was.”
While the lack of response could have been partly due to the fact that few would have been surprised by the revelation, we cannot underestimate the courage it took to come out to 20 million people. Given that Szubanski has been in our lounge rooms fairly regularly for decades, it is not surprising that she was expecting a mini tsunami of commentary and public discourse.
Still unsure of how the country had received her public disclosure, Szubanski took herself to Spain. She wanted to be in a place where the LGBTI community was experiencing not only equal rights but marriage equality as well. It was during that time she came to terms with Australia’s response, or lack of it, and healed on a number of levels.
“I realised that the majority of people were really fine with it, but more than that there was something that transformed in me in the act of coming out,” Szubanski says.
“I just started to feel this incredible inner strength that I really hadn’t felt my whole life and that just grew stronger and stronger to the point now where I just feel incredibly strong and am so glad that I did it.”
The media’s urge to out celebrities is robust and God help those who don’t come out when the media and the public (straight or queer) think they should. When Ricky Martin came out he was slammed for not doing it earlier, with deriders accusing him of waiting until he had made his fortune before being open about his sexuality. American actress Kristen Stewart of The Twilight Saga fame, is continually harassed by journalists and paparazzi demanding she come out. It’s easy to simultaneously lack empathy for, and have high expectations from the famous.
In Szubanski’s newly released autobiography, Reckoning, there’s a chapter titled ‘Becoming a Fat Lesbian’. Enrolled at Catholic girls’ school, Siena, and harbouring a crush on one of the nuns – the “young and pretty” Sister Agnes, Szubanski had begun to sink into despair.
She writes at the beginning of the chapter:
“There is a word. An awful ugly word. A name. A label. I am at the bathroom sink. I have locked the door. I can hear my family outside. The TV somewhere in the distance. I stare at myself in the mirror for the longest time. I start silently calling myself this word in my head. I am too scared to say the word aloud in case saying it makes it true. If I take that word outside of my head, and put it out in the real world, I might never be able to make it go away.
“I slide the mirror of the bathroom cabinet open. There on the shelf are the tablets. I have a plan. If I do it, then the whole revolting mess will just go away. If I do it, then they would know. I want them to know something is very wrong. But I could never tell them what it is. I want them to help me. But no one can help me. I bury that word deep down. Because it’s an evil word.”
Far too many LGBTI people can relate to these passages.
Szubanski writes deeply about realising her sexuality, her internalised homophobia and the far reaching and often dismissed damage that discrimination does to people. Part of her hope is that her book and its honest account will heal those she calls the “walking wounded”.
“We have gone from the discourse of shame to the discourse of pride with nothing but a fucking parade,” Szubanski says.
“There is so much damage that has been done to people from millennia of being eradiated by homophobia. We all know the level of drug taking and alcohol abuse that’s in our community and we either berate ourselves for it or we just go along with it and we never question it, but a lot of that is to do with damage.
“We are running on broken legs, and you are expected to keep up. I think that the more we can see ourselves in that context, which is not to victimise ourselves, but realise there are a lot of people who have been very damaged.
“I hope I can bring into the discussion the healing work that we need to do and how kind we need to be with one another.”
Part of the reason Szubanski waited until she was 50 years old to come out publicly was to do with healing that damage. She had gone through years of therapy and a great, long journey towards self-acceptance and she knew she wanted to be emotionally and mentally ready when she made the decision to go public. She says that decision wasn’t just for her own sake, but also because she was afraid she might “say stupid things that would be destructive to the community”.
“I wanted it to be a very strong, clear message and also because my sexuality is slightly complex. There wasn’t the place for any kind of sexual fluidity 15 years ago; nowadays you can have that conversation, but back then it was pick a side. I’m pretty much a lezzo, but never say never.”
(Magda Szubanski at Hares and Hyenas. Photo: Samantha Jarrett)
I first met Szubanski in 2000. She was, just as she is now, extremely likable, fiercely intelligent, honest, fragile, open, curious and of course funny – not a bad combination. But there is something else, which is why Reckoning is not your standard autobiography.
The first line of the book reads - 'If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin'. Reckoning is not just Szubanski’s story it is the story of her family, especially her father and his life in Nazi occupied Poland.
Szubanski’s father, Zbigniew Szubanski (known as Peter), was 15 years old when Hitler invaded Poland. He became part of a Polish execution squad and his job was to kill agents of the Gestapo and those who collaborated with them. Her father told his family, “I was judge, jury, and executioner.” It was a weight he carried all his life and indirectly passed down to his daughter.
Szubanski believes in the idea that trauma can be ‘inherited’ through the genes. She says in writing the book she realised she had to tell her father’s story too, as her story would not have made sense without the latter’s.
“Increasingly there are studies coming out talking about epigenetics and the way that stress is communicated on the genes and the DNA,” Szubanski says. “I think it does seep down through the generations because my father didn’t talk about it a lot but it still gets communicated.”
Writing the chapters about her father were the most difficult. Coupled with the fact she started writing the book not long after her father’s death in 2006, to research she had to transcribe interviews she had conducted with her father via film, and pored through reams of books and accounts of the holocaust. She says of the experience that it was like “going right into the guts of the heart of darkness”.
“I had a reactive depression and to be honest I had to be put on medication it was so full on,” she says.
She still gets heart palpitations just thinking about that experience.
But while writing the story of her father was almost unbearable at times – over the eight years it took to write she did abandon it on several occasions – what it did do was take her to a place where she could experience complete empathy with him. As she says, the act of writing a book allows you to immerse yourself emotionally and let yourself be surrounded by all of it.
“You’re in this weird space where you are in your little office writing and you’re completely in your head and your feelings,” Szubanski says.
“It was the closest I got to experience the moral trauma that my father experienced. He didn’t experience physical trauma so much, but that loss of his innocence and that loss of the belief that he was a good person, even now it makes me feel teary to talk about that because I think that’s something that we really underestimate, but I found that heartbreaking.”
There was also the inevitable question: what would you have done in that situation? That situation being in Nazi-occupied Poland, would you have hidden Jews, would you have spoken out against the Nazis, would you have killed?
“The constant question you’re asking yourself is what would I have done,” Szubanski says, “and I don’t mean that in a light way, I mean really looking at yourself with all of your flaws and your weaknesses and your chicken shit moments and going, really, what would I have done? But you don’t know.
“You might transcend or you might not. I found that really confronting and it forced me to look at my own courage and my own cowardice.”
When Reckoning was finished the original manuscript had gone from 851 pages to 400 – a still sizeable work. Without a doubt, Szubanski had gone through one of the most intensely emotional experiences of her life.
I ask her what that moment was like, when she realised the book was finished.
“It was extraordinary,” she says. “I wept because this has been my constant companion for eight years…”
Then she stops, her voice breaks, and it’s obvious how overwhelming this experience has been:
“It’s time I spent with my father, and I think in some ways it will be like finally letting my father go.”
Then in classic form she bounces back and tells me this is a journey everyone should go on, and not just that, but that she’s thinking of taking the plunge again.
“I’ve got an idea for another book,” she says. “I think I’ve been bit by the writing bug now and I love it.
“This idea is quite different and I might abandon it. But I have to say as much as I’ve loved all the things that I have done in my career, this book is the thing that I have loved the most by far.”
Reckoning by Magda Szubanski is published by Text Publishing and is out now. An Eveneing with Magda Szubanski at Hares and Hyenas October 16 is sold out.
(Images - Magda Szubanski at Melbourne’s Hares & Hyenas book shop. Photo: Samantha Jarrett samanthajarrett.com.au)