When actor Toni Collette went on an on-air search for her ancestors, she discovered far more than she initially bargained for
Growing up, Toni Collette had always been dimly aware of her parents’ troubled family histories. Collette’s mother, Judy, had spent years in care after her mother died and her father then abandoned the family.
Meanwhile, the actor’s father, Bob, was unsure if the man he called Dad was actually his father.
As such, Collette, now 42, had only ever known one of her grandparents – her paternal grandmother, Norma. But in the years prior to her death, Norma kept silent about Bob’s murky background.
So it’s no surprise that when Who Do You Think You Are? came knocking, Collette jumped at the chance to take part.
“I wanted to do it for myself but I also really wanted to do it for my kids (Sage Florence, 7, and Arlo Robert, 4) and my folks,” she says.
“I had no reservations whatsoever.”
But despite that, she was taken aback by the effect of what she discovered would have on her family.
As a child, Collette says she knew the bones of her mother’s backstory. Her maternal grandmother, Ivy, died hours after childbirth when Judy was only six years old.
Horrifically, Ivy collapsed on the newborn baby and suffocated her to death.
Rather than keep his remaining four kids, Collette’s grandfather, Joseph, chose to put them all into care.
Tragically, the siblings were sent to live in separate homes.
Unsurprisingly, Collette didn’t have much sympathy for her grandad prior to the show. But that was about to change.
Travelling to Bathurst, where her mum was born, she was about to learn more, not just about the man that Joseph was, but the time he lived in.
It was an emotional process that brought tears, surprising revelations and also empathy.
“It humanised my maternal grandfather,” she says.
“We’d all made assumptions about the kind of guy he was. We were wrong.”
What Collette discovered was that Joseph had given up his kids, believing he had no other choice. In the years that followed, he continued on a steep downward spiral, drifting into a life of crime, alcoholism, drugs and homelessness.
“So much of (the discovery) was sad,” Collette says. “But it’s always better to know the truth of what happened than not. And much of it is rather exciting – I felt like a detective uncovering great and personal truths about my grandparents.”
For Collette’s mother, it was a hugely emotional discovery.
“The entire process deepened an already close relationship with my parents,” Collette says. “It was quite cathartic and liberating for us.”
After tracing her maternal line, Collette moved on to unravelling the mystery of her father’s paternity.
After submitting to a DNA test, Bob learned what he’d long suspected – his mother Norma’s ex-husband, Harold, was not his biological father. But then who was? Collette discovered that during World War II, Norma had ended her marriage after beginning an affair with an American serviceman whose name she never revealed.
During her investigations, into his identity, Collette says she came to know her grandmother in a new and revealing light.
“I was very close (to Norma),” Collette says.
“Coming to understand her as a woman with needs and desires rather than a superhero has been massive for me.”
Collette says she looks forward to one day showing her children the TV search.
Actor Toni Collette stars in the 2015 season of
Who Do You Think You Are?