Magda: love, suc­cess and my dad, the as­sas­sin

Though prac­ti­cally a na­tional trea­sure, Magda Szubanski has al­ways felt like she was an im­poster, only here “on oth­ers’ good graces”… un­til now. In her ex­plo­sive, award­win­ning mem­oir, she shows the world “the real Magda” for the first time, and the re­spon


THERE WAS A mo­ment back in her Syd­ney ho­tel room after the best night of her life, a night when Magda Szubanski, aka Sharon Strz­elecki, won Book of the Year and Bi­og­ra­phy of the Year at the pres­ti­gious Aus­tralian Book In­dus­try Awards in front of a crowd that in­cluded rock star au­thors Jeanette Win­ter­son, Glo­ria Steinem and Tim Winton, when Magda said to her­self: “I must re­mem­ber to tell Dad… and then I thought, ‘Oh, he’s dead.’”

It’s 10 years since can­cer claimed Zbigniew Szubanski at the age of 82. “I’ve never for­got­ten that he was dead be­fore, but it was like for a mo­ment he was so present,” says Magda.

Ac­tu­ally it’s no sur­prise that Magda con­jured her fa­ther at this peak of cel­e­bra­tion, for the mem­oir, ti­tled Reck­on­ing, is not just about Magda, it’s all about her dad. And what ties Magda to her fa­ther more than DNA is that both have lived dark, painful dou­ble lives.

In the book, Magda talks about her fa­ther’s legacy; it’s a smooth stone that she has seen in a 15th-cen­tury paint­ing. “They would cut a hole in the pa­tient’s skull and then re­move what they called the ‘stone of mad­ness’,” she writes. “I swear some­times I can feel that stone in my head. A pal­pa­ble pres­ence, an un­wel­come thing that I want to squeeze out of my skull like a plum pip.”

The stone, she says is made of “cal­ci­fied guilt and shame”.

We are sit­ting in a room flanked on three sides by books in Magda’s Mel­bourne pub­lish­ing house, drink­ing tea; and although she’s talk­ing about dif­fi­cult, har­row­ing times – her fa­ther’s dark past as a bru­tal as­sas­sin in Poland, slay­ing col­lab­o­ra­tors in cold blood, and her own jour­ney from sui­ci­dal closet les­bian star­ing at Mel­bourne’s train tracks try­ing not to jump – Magda has never seemed hap­pier or more in­vig­o­rated.

We last spoke barely a year after she came out on na­tional TV and though she was cer­tainly re­lieved to have un­masked her­self, there was still a rab­bit-in-the-head­lights ner­vous­ness. A ‘yikes, what have I done now’ anx­i­ety. But this Magda is very dif­fer­ent: con­fi­dent, in con­trol and some­how ra­di­ant.

“I don’t want to sound evan­gel­i­cal and born again, but it re­ally has been an amazing thing for me at this point in my life to do such a 180-de­gree turn,” ex­plains Magda.

“Some­one said the other day, it was like dis­cov­er­ing a whole other room in your house, and that’s ex­actly how I feel. It’s a re­ally ex­cit­ing time and a re­ally un­cer­tain time, but I feel far less afraid of death than I used to.

“I’m 55 now, so I’m not young, but you see peo­ple ei­ther con­tract and start to tell them­selves sto­ries about be­ing old and it’s all over, or you open up into it. And I ab­so­lutely feel like

I’m the lat­ter, open­ing up.”

That open­ing up is as much about her leap into the world of bi­og­ra­pher and au­to­bi­og­ra­pher as it is about declar­ing her sex­u­al­ity and kick­ing into touch her pre­car­i­ous role as a weight­loss am­bas­sador for Jenny Craig.

Reck­on­ing went on sale in hard­back in Oc­to­ber last year, bran­dish­ing a bold, brave and un­em­bel­lished pho­to­graph of Magda. The cover shouted: this is a book about the woman be­hind the slap­stick and funny faces; a woman to date the pub­lic had only glimpsed. This is the real Magda telling her com­plete story for the first time.

“I felt that we had to have an im­age which was about the un­adorned per­son,” says Magda’s pub­lisher, Michael Hey­ward, who was blown away when he first de­voured Magda’s man­u­script over a week­end in 2014. “She wasn’t go­ing to be made up for the cam­era; it wasn’t go­ing to be an im­age where she was in character in one of her many roles. We were go­ing to see the whole woman. That was more im­por­tant than dol­ly­ing up the cover. That’s what Magda wanted, too.”

Magda had been work­ing on the book for close to eight years and at first it was never in­tended as a full-blown mem­oir.

“It had two gene­ses,” she says. “I filmed my fa­ther in 1997, with the very clear in­ten­tion of ei­ther mak­ing a film or writ­ing a book about his story. Then im­me­di­ately after Dad died,

I did start writ­ing. Then I thought I would write a book about weight loss and con­flate the two; and then the whole weight-loss thing – it’s not just that I put the weight back on – but re­ally that just fell away, be­cause it be­came not so in­ter­est­ing to me. The other story just took over. It be­came re­ally ap­par­ent after I came out what the kind of frame of the book was.”

Magda orig­i­nally turned in more than 250,000 words, but Hey­ward wasn’t daunted. “There was clearly a mag­nif­i­cent book in­side those pages and I wasn’t the only one to think so. My wife Penny read it, too, and a cou­ple of other peo­ple at Text Pub­lish­ing, and we were all in­stantly head over heels in love with the book… this was one of the great­est rev­e­la­tory mem­oirs that I’ve ever read by an Aus­tralian.”

As well as a mem­oir, what the book evolved into is a coura­geous and very per­sonal study of post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD) – firstly Magda’s fa­ther’s and then Magda’s. The two are in­trin­si­cally linked and while one may be about war and the other about sex­u­al­ity, both are about ac­cep­tance. It is this pow­er­ful self-ex­am­i­na­tion that makes the book so com­pelling.

Reck­on­ing be­gins with Magda’s dad. At the age of 15, fer­vently Catholic Zbigniew be­came self-ap­pointed “judge, jury and ex­e­cu­tioner” in his own “pri­vate army” in Warsaw, Poland. As Hitler’s troops stormed the city, Zbigniew and his gang of child­hood friends would roam the streets “do­ing what­ever dam­age they could, es­pe­cially killing Ger­mans”.

At 19, he was cho­sen as a non­com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer in the Pol­ish ex­e­cu­tion squad, a top se­cret unit in an un­der­ground army that would as­sas­si­nate agents of the Gestapo and Pol­ish traitors. No one was ex­empt from their “ruth­less vengeance”, says Magda, not even friends.

Zbigniew shot many in a cruel and an­gry war and though it feels as if he was one of the good guys, it’s a past that weighed heav­ily on the suave, tennis-lov­ing fam­ily man, and a trauma Magda feels she im­bibed and car­ries with her.

“He said he got no thrill out of it, but it’s a sim­i­lar kind of thing with young men in the IRA or now join­ing Al Qaeda or ISIS. That was the thing he wanted to cau­tion against; what that deadly Molo­tov cock­tail of testos­terone and in­jus­tice and a brain that hasn’t even stopped grow­ing can do. He was 15. Your moral

com­pass isn’t fully formed then.” Even­tu­ally Zbigniew was caught and spent the last years of the war es­cap­ing from prisoner of war camps and ul­ti­mately flee­ing to Scot­land. He never saw his par­ents again and later em­i­grated to Aus­tralia, and though to the out­sider Magda’s dad was a warm and lov­ing man, she al­ways knew that in­side he was bleed­ing.

“That’s what I think PTSD is, partly. It’s a kind of a moral trauma that a lot of peo­ple who go to war or who are in­volved in any way with vi­o­lent acts ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Magda. “A lot of peo­ple say to me, ‘God, he was a hero, he was on the right side,’ but he would never, ever, have de­scribed him­self as a hero.

“He was deeply aware of the moral am­bi­gu­ity, the grey ar­eas of life, and when you take a life, it’s never that clear-cut, even if you’re on the right side. I could feel this in my fa­ther, and that’s what Reck­on­ing is about. It’s about the peo­ple he killed.

“He went from be­ing a young man who was very judge­men­tal in the way that young peo­ple are, who saw the world only in black and white terms, to some­one when he was older who un­der­stood the hu­man­ity and the weak­ness and the hu­man frailty of those peo­ple.”

There’s a mo­ment in the book when Zbigniew takes his daughter hunt­ing for rab­bits. From hours of tar­get prac­tice, teenage Magda thinks she is a dab hand with the .22 ri­fle that her fa­ther gave her as a gift. But her ex­e­cu­tion is flawed and the rab­bit is wounded, not dead. “You have to fin­ish it off,” Zbigniew in­sists.

“I couldn’t do it. I was hor­ri­fied. I can’t eat rab­bit to this day,” she says.

Magda failed her dad that day. “I thought I was like him and there was that real sense of ‘if I’m not like him, what am I?’ That pro­voked yet an­other iden­tity cri­sis,” she says.

Iden­tity has been at the heart of Magda’s strug­gle, largely be­cause even though she was aware of her sex­u­al­ity as young as 12, as a Catholic raised in sub­ur­ban Vic­to­ria, she was iso­lated, ter­ri­fied and alone. Ashamed and con­fused, Magda’s teenage years were scarred with self-loathing and fear.

“If I could have known when I was 12 what would hap­pen, it would have changed me ut­terly,” Magda says to­day. “I want to say to young peo­ple now: hang in there and hang tough be­cause it does get bet­ter, it re­ally does, and you need to draw on what­ever sup­port you can find to get you through any of those tough times.”

At 55, Magda fi­nally seems to be in a good place with her strug­gle, but it hasn’t been easy. “This book has been enor­mously heal­ing, but it’s not that ob­vi­ous cathar­sis that peo­ple think, but a slow process. It’s like giv­ing wa­ter to a plant,” she ex­plains. “I was re­ally clin­i­cally de­pressed in my teen years, I was in a ter­ri­ble state, and that was horrible to go back to.”

Says Hey­ward: “Magda’s mem­oir was about an end­less jour­ney, peel­ing the lay­ers off the onion, thin skin by thin skin, to find out who she is. It had to do with try­ing to un­der­stand fam­ily and his­tory and sex­u­al­ity.

“It’s a book of im­mense courage, I think. She’s also an ex­tremely good writer. When she de­cided to tell her fam­ily that she was gay, there was a sen­tence there which said, ‘It wasn’t that I had but­ter­flies in my stom­ach, I had Bo­gong moths in my stom­ach.’ She’s ter­rific at that stuff.”

When she fi­nally told her par­ents, Magda was in her 30s, fear­ful that a mag­a­zine story was about to out her – it didn’t, but the re­sult was pos­i­tive, es­pe­cially from her beloved dad.

“I read his re­ac­tion with a tear in my eye,” Hey­ward says. “He says, ‘You know we love you just as much.’ That was ab­so­lutely won­der­ful.”

It was cer­tainly far from a done deal. Through­out her child­hood and adult years, count­less com­ments and ca­sual ho­mo­pho­bic asides had kept Magda firmly in the closet, paral­ysed and sui­ci­dal.

“You don’t know how deep that runs and be­ing on the re­ceiv­ing end of some­one’s dis­gust is re­ally un­pleas­ant. It doesn’t make you feel

I want to say to young peo­ple, hang in there, be­cause it re­ally does get bet­ter.

good about your­self,” she says.

“That sense of be­long­ing and hav­ing a right to be in the world – I never felt I had that. I al­ways felt I was here on other peo­ple’s good graces and I don’t feel that now at all. I don’t feel shy about talk­ing about my sex­u­al­ity. Es­pe­cially since com­ing out, it just gets eas­ier and eas­ier.”

It’s been a whirl­wind 10 months for Magda. She has trav­elled from Launce­s­ton to Noosa, Perth to Wagga Wagga and ev­ery­where in be­tween and talked at more than 100 events to thou­sands of fans.

“There were peo­ple who loved Magda be­cause they loved Kath & Kim, and there were peo­ple who loved Magda be­cause she’s such an im­por­tant per­son in the gay com­mu­nity,” says Hey­ward. “There were mums and dads, there were young peo­ple. There was a guy in Syd­ney who had her face tat­tooed on his arm, he loved her so much, and Magda signed his tat­too. Then there were peo­ple who were the read­ers, the book buy­ers of Aus­tralia, who weren’t buy­ing the book be­cause it was by a fa­mous Aus­tralian, they were buy­ing the book be­cause they’d heard it was such a fan­tas­tic book to read.”

Reck­on­ing is head­ing for sales of 100,000 with the pa­per­back ver­sion due out this month. And if Magda is go­ing to take one thing from the past year, it’s that she is loved for who she re­ally is.

“Yes,” she agrees with a slight wob­ble in her voice. “To have emerged from be­hind the mask and still feel that af­fec­tion and ac­cep­tance has been re­ally mov­ing.”

So is this fi­nally Magda’s time for hap­pi­ness?

“I think this in­sis­tence on al­ways be­ing happy, I find it re­ally bor­ing. It can lack soul. Not that you court un­hap­pi­ness, but life is com­plex and life can be tough,” she ex­plains.

“I feel I’ve been get­ting closer and closer to the right path. For a while there I was run­ning par­al­lel and now I feel like I’ve stepped onto it. I am who I’m meant to be. I felt for a long time that I was an im­per­son­ation of my­self, not quite me.”

Magda is now a fer­vent cam­paigner for mar­riage equal­ity and is both ex­as­per­ated and sad­dened that Aus­tralian politi­cians aren’t more proac­tive. “It con­stantly sends the mes­sage that my love and my re­la­tion­ships are in­fe­rior and some­how pose a threat to hu­man­ity, to the well­be­ing of the fam­ily,” she says. “Don’t get me started on the Catholic Church. When [Pope] Bene­dict was say­ing that one of the great threats to hu­man­ity is ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and gay mar­riage, I think: ‘Do you want to talk a lit­tle bit about the Catholic Church and what it’s done to hu­man­ity, and pae­dophilia?’ I feel quite cross with the Catholic Church, as a lapsed Catholic, the power they have and how they use it just to pro­tect their own priv­i­lege and to hide their own sin­ful­ness.”

Magda is cur­rently sin­gle and con­fesses a big white wed­ding has never been high on her agenda.

“I was never, ever the girl who was in­ter­ested in mar­riage, which is why it’s in­ter­est­ing that I’m this big ad­vo­cate for mar­riage equal­ity, be­cause frankly, I don’t even know if I’m ca­pa­ble of it. But God-dammit, I should have the right.”

As for kids, Magda ad­mits that, at 55, that ship has prob­a­bly sailed. “There are times when I re­ally [think about it] and other times when I go, I am just too plain self­ish, and the oc­ca­sional can­did friend will say, don’t do it.

“I’ve got nieces and neph­ews and grand-neph­ews and a beau­ti­ful god-daughter [TV pre­sen­ter David Camp­bell’s 18-month-old daughter Betty]. So I just put it all on them, poor bug­gers.”

We wanted to have Magda’s 91-year-old mum Mar­garet at our photo shoot, but when I talk to her on the phone, she says much as she would have loved to have come, she is not feel­ing up to it.

Mar­garet was di­ag­nosed with pan­cre­atic can­cer nine years ago. She’s had no treat­ment and is still as sharp as a tack men­tally, although her en­ergy is wan­ing. She is con­cerned she’s let­ting her “beau­ti­ful daughter” down. The ta­bles have cer­tainly turned.

Magda her­self is busy ren­o­vat­ing and en­joy­ing her mo­ment in the sun. “I hon­estly don’t know where I’m go­ing or what I’m go­ing to do next,” she says. “I’ve never felt quite this rud­der­less, but in a re­ally great way. I just feel like all bets are off. It’s an in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing time of life.”

I was never the girl who was in­ter­ested in mar­riage, but I should have the right.

Clock­wise from top left: Zbigniew in 1947, Magda takes a selfie with mum Mar­garet, and writ­ing the book in her study. Op­po­site: Magda with her re­search books.

Magda poses as the Statue of Lib­erty with her book and 2016 Book of the Year Award.

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