MO­MENT OF TRUTH

Magda Szuban­ski re­veals the phone call that forced her to con­front her great­est fear – and the un­ex­pected re­ac­tion it sparked.

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - This is an edited ex­tract from The Moth: All These Won­ders edited by Cather­ine Burns (Ser­pent’s Tail, $29.99), out next month.

So, you may or may not know that for a while I was the very pub­lic face of Jenny Craig weight loss. I lost a lot of weight, which was great. But then I started to put the weight back on, which wasn’t so great.

And I got a call from the pub­li­cist, and she said, “Dar­ling, I’ve just had a phone call, and the pa­parazzi have got some shots of you on Bondi Beach in your bathers.”

Now, I’m not an es­pe­cially vain woman, but there aren’t too many women I know who would feel com­pletely com­fort­able with hav­ing can­did, unflattering pic­tures of them­selves in their wet, cling­ing bathers splashed across ev­ery news­stand in the coun­try. And for just a mo­ment, I felt so vul­ner­a­ble that I wanted to cry.

Be­cause I knew what was in store. I was about to be “Kirstie Al­ley’d”. I was go­ing to be pub­licly shamed for my fail­ure to keep the weight off. And that was not a prospect that I rel­ished.

But there was a deeper and far more dis­turb­ing fear. I felt as though a cold hand had reached deep into the depths of my soul, and was rat­tling the cage of a long-buried fear that I’d com­pletely for­got­ten I had. That fear was a fear of the mob – that some­how I would do some­thing un­wit­tingly, and that peo­ple would turn into an un­rea­son­ing, nasty, ir­ra­tional mob that would at­tack me.

It must seem strange to hear me say that, be­cause I’ve been fa­mous in this coun­try for a very long time. And I have a great re­la­tion­ship with the pub­lic – peo­ple are very nice to me. In fact, one of the nice things that peo­ple say is, “Magda, you’re so brave with the com­edy char­ac­ters you por­tray in your per­for­mance. You’re so brave.”

I think of­ten when they’re say­ing that, what they’re re­ally say­ing is, “You’re so brave be­cause you’re pre­pared to let your­self look unattrac­tive on na­tional tele­vi­sion.” And I can’t re­ally re­late to that be­cause, to be hon­est, will­ing­ness to look unattrac­tive has never, ever en­tered into my cal­cu­lus of what it means to be brave.

I can’t re­ally re­late to that word, brave. I can’t re­ally claim it, and that’s be­cause of my name.

You know me as Magda Szuban­ski. But the way my fa­ther would have said the name is [us­ing a thick Pol­ish ac­cent] Magda Szuban­ski. Be­cause I’m half-pol­ish. And that Pol­ish­ness com­pletely de­ter­mines how I feel about that word, brave.

When my fa­ther died, a woman came up to me at the fu­neral and said, “Magda, you must un­der­stand. Only the bravest of the brave were asked to do what your fa­ther did in the war.”

In 1939, when my fa­ther was 15, Hitler in­vaded Poland, and the world as my fa­ther knew it ceased to ex­ist. His world of boat­ing, and ski­ing trips to Zakopane, and nights at the the­atre was over, re­placed by six years of bru­tal Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion.

And in 1943, in pos­si­bly the dark­est hour of that oc­cu­pa­tion, my fa­ther, who was only 19, was re­cruited to be­come an as­sas­sin in a top-se­cret coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence unit. The chief job

“I felt so vul­ner­a­ble, i wanted to cry”

of that unit was to pro­tect the high com­mand of the Pol­ish re­sis­tance. And the way that they did that was to as­sas­si­nate col­lab­o­ra­tors.

Just to make it very clear, my fa­ther was on the good side, fight­ing the Nazis. But the way that he was do­ing that was by killing his own peo­ple. And the crimes that these peo­ple, these Pol­ish col­lab­o­ra­tors, had com­mit­ted was that they were telling se­crets of the re­sis­tance to the Ger­mans.

Some of them were telling the Gestapo where Jewish peo­ple were hid­ing. It’s im­por­tant to know that Poland, un­der the Nazi regime, was the only coun­try where the penalty for hid­ing a Jew was the death sen­tence. In fact, just even know­ing of the ex­is­tence of a Jew and not re­port­ing it would likely get you killed.

And my fa­ther’s par­ents, my grand­par­ents, hid many Jewish peo­ple dur­ing the war. Of course, I didn’t know that when I was a lit­tle kid. Nor did I know that my fa­ther was an as­sas­sin. I just thought he was an or­di­nary dad out there mow­ing the lawn in his terry tow­elling hat.

And if you’d known my dad, you wouldn’t have picked it ei­ther, be­cause he was a very warm, af­fec­tion­ate kind of guy. But there were hints. It was like swim­ming in a warm river, and sud­denly you’d hit an icy-cold patch that would just make your heart stop.

I didn’t re­ally know an aw­ful lot about the war as a kid, and what I did know was from TV and movies. Of course in those movies, it was al­ways about Amer­i­can sol­diers, oc­ca­sion­ally Bri­tish, very rarely French. But I never, ever saw any Pol­ish peo­ple. And so I kind of came to the con­clu­sion that my fa­ther must have been fairly pe­riph­eral to the war, and maybe he wasn’t re­ally there in a big way, in the thick of it.

Un­til one day when I was about eight or nine, and I was sit­ting with my fam­ily in the lounge room of our home in Croy­don North [Vic­to­ria]. We

were watch­ing a doc­u­men­tary, and it was about the Holo­caust.

This was noth­ing like the war I’d seen in the movies. And as I saw those im­ages of or­di­nary peo­ple, not sol­diers – women, chil­dren, old peo­ple, lit­tle kids plead­ing for their lives, gaunt eyes star­ing from be­hind barbed wire, piles of naked bod­ies be­ing bull­dozed into pits – I was be­side my­self, ut­terly be­side my­self with grief and de­spair and a kind of help­less rage. But also a kind of in­com­pre­hen­sion. I couldn’t un­der­stand what could hap­pen that could make peo­ple do that to one an­other.

And just at that mo­ment, my fa­ther looked at the TV screen and he said, “Ah, that’s the street where we used to live be­fore it was re­zoned as part of the Warsaw ghetto.” Sud­denly I re­alised that that hor­ror wasn’t out there – it was right here in our lounge room.

I looked at my fa­ther, I sup­pose for guid­ance and val­i­da­tion and com­fort. But he was com­pletely unaf­fected, com­pletely im­pas­sive. And I felt then that there was a huge gulf that sep­a­rated us.

As I grew older, I re­alised that the cru­cial dif­fer­ence was that he had been right there in the thick of it. And that im­me­di­ate threat of the Nazis – of death, of tor­ture, of be­ing sent to a con­cen­tra­tion camp – meant that he’d had to per­form a kind of emer­gency emo­tional triage, and he’d jet­ti­soned ab­so­lutely ev­ery sin­gle feel­ing that didn’t sup­port his sur­vival.

But I hadn’t been there. And with­out that ur­gent im­per­a­tive to dis­as­so­ci­ate, I had the lux­ury of hav­ing a nor­mal hu­man re­sponse to this hor­ror. And I was ter­ri­fied. When I looked at my fa­ther, I saw his fear­less­ness, and it was re­as­sur­ing. But I saw some­thing else that evis­cer­ated me – I saw his dis­com­fort with my feel­ings. I saw his sub­tle, al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble, but un­mis­tak­able com­plete con­tempt for my fear.

In that mo­ment, I vowed I would never feel fear again.

So be­gan a kind of life­line master class in the art of dis­as­so­ci­a­tion, as taught to me by my fa­ther, the as­sas­sin. But, of course, I hadn’t con­quered the fear, all I’d re­ally done was to drive it into the deep­est, dark­est cor­ner of my un­con­scious. As I grew up and ma­tured, the fear didn’t – it re­mained the fear of a nine-year-old girl, pet­ri­fied. So now, when the pub­li­cist was wait­ing for my re­sponse, in an in­stant my world had changed. What had started out as an in­no­cent swim on Bondi Beach had be­come a mo­ment of reck­on­ing, and now the pa­parazzi had me in their sights.

That fear came scream­ing out of my un­con­scious, in my face, and I was re­duced to be­ing that nine-year-old girl again. I felt as though ev­ery ir­ra­tional fear that I had about hu­man na­ture, about what hu­mans are ca­pa­ble of, was about to come true.

The pub­li­cist said, “So, dar­ling, what do you want me to do?” And I could feel my world crum­bling. I could feel the ground giv­ing way be­neath my feet.

But just as I was about to fall, some­thing hap­pened, and it was some­thing I didn’t see com­ing. Some­thing com­pletely un­ex­pected. And a voice that I didn’t know I had came out of me.

And I said, “F*ck them. Do your worst. Do your worst, pa­parazzi. You are not gonna shame me off the beach. I’m gonna go down to Bondi, and I’m gonna be a fat mid­dle-aged lady, along with the su­per­mod­els and the mus­cle men. I’m gonna wear my wet, clingy bathers, and there’s not a freak­ing thing you can do about it.”

So they pub­lished the pho­tos. Be­cause I’d re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in the same game, the pho­tos were unflattering, but the head­lines said, “Magda Sports Her New Beach Body.” It was quite crazy, but noth­ing ter­ri­ble hap­pened, and the Aus­tralian pub­lic were lovely to me.

But this isn’t about me say­ing, “Aww, gee, look, I was brave like my fa­ther would have wanted me to be.”

I’m the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion. I have the lux­ury and the very great priv­i­lege of be­ing able to feel the nor­mal feel­ings that my fa­ther, poor bug­ger, couldn’t feel.

And, fi­nally, I was able to for­give my­self for feel­ing that fear.

“i vowed I´d never feel fear again”

HID­DEN FEARS Magda Szuban­ski, aged 11, with her fa­ther, Peter, in 1972.

CHAR­AC­TER BUILD­ING (from top) Szuban­ski (cen­tre) with her Kath & Kim co-stars; in 1995 Babe; dur­ing her weight

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