Magda Szubanski: 'I had to make peace with what my father had done.'

By Andrew Dickson.

Despite being one of Australia’s best loved and most successful television personalities, life has not always been easy for Magda Szubanski.

As her new memoir Reckoning reveals, success hides a dark and, at times, challenging background with Szubanski revealing she sometimes struggled to understand who she was and where she came from.

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And that started with her father, Zbigniew.

“When he was 19 he was in Warsaw during the war, fighting in the resistance and he was recruited to be in a top secret counter-intelligence execution squad that was assassinating Polish traitors who were giving secrets to the Nazis and also telling the Nazis where Jewish people were hiding,” she told the ABC’s 7.30.

“The job of his unit was to execute those Polish traitors.

“He effectively started killing when he was about 15 or 16.”

Magda Szubanski's memoir reflects on a troubled past that may not be apparent to fans of her comedy.

She said her father did not appear traumatised by his past and claimed to sleep well at night, but Szubanski still felt a sense of guilt.

"He chose to be a history-less man and not look back," she said.

"I had to make my own peace with what he'd done and I had to open that door on history and start to look into his deeds, and how they'd affected him and in turn how they'd affected me.

"As I was growing up, I struggled to understand where that guilt had come from, and I needed to really know that he was on the right side, and I needed to understand, in a complex way, what war does to people and what the legacy is, and how that translates through the generations — in order to understand myself."

It also made Szubanski reflect on her own courage, or lack of it.

"I grew up in the shadow of great courage and altruism of my grandparents, who hid Jewish people, and my father," she said.

"I had to then ... make my own relationship with courage, and also in some ways examine my cowardice as well.

"What would I have done in those circumstances and would I have had the courage that my family had?

"Would I have the moral fibre to do the right thing?"

Plethora of challenges growing up proved terrifying at times.

But that was just the beginning of her challenges growing up and wondering how she fitted in to suburban Melbourne in the late 60s and early 70s.

"We were a migrant family," she said.

"I had a weird name, Magda Szubanski, which I couldn't even pronounce until I was about 10.

"When I was 6 my father got cancer, there were a whole lot of things that were rocking the boat for me, and then I discovered the Brady Bunch.

"It was a guiding rope on the vertiginous slopes of my family life.

"TV with all of its blandness just seemed such a relief compared to the turbulent nature of what was going on in my family."


On top of all of this, there was also the realisation that she was gay.

Oh, the shame: ‘I didn’t know if these stars were dead or alive.’

Szubanski was terrified to tell anyone, even her family, for fear of rejection.

"That's the one thing that gay people have to grow up [with], knowing that they are a minority of one within their family," she said.

"People can be irrational about it, no matter how much they love you, and I know really kind of groovy parents, when they found out their child was not straight, have reacted really badly and rejected them.

"It's a terrifying thing to face because it's such a primal rejection.

"For me it turned out OK — it was fine, my parents were great.

"But you don't know until that moment, because disgust about sexuality is something that people don't have control over and to be on the receiving end of that is quite terrifying."

Kath & Kim's Sharon hinted at Magda's inner sadness.

While bottling up the fear and loathing, she was still able to draw on it, particularly for what is perhaps her most enduring creation - Sharon Strzlecki in Kath & Kim.

"That kind of forlornness and that melancholy that you can feel in Sharon is certainly part of my nature and that's something I wanted people to see with this book," she said.

Finally, a word that explains the weird atmosphere in abandoned places.

"The brighter the light the darker the shadow in some respects, and people have seen the sort of light side of me a lot but not necessarily this darker side.

"And Sharon has those bass notes within her character, and I think that's part of why she appeals to people.

"I think that melancholy in her really resonates with people, and that vulnerability."

It was only many years later, in 2012, that Szubanski felt comfortable in coming out publicly.

"Immediately afterwards I regretted it and thought 'what the frick have I done?' Because I just wasn't sure how it would all unfold," she said.

"Then gradually that coming out empowered and healed me in a way I could never have anticipated.

"In a lot of ways I'm very grateful for the good relationship that I have with the Australian public and the fantastic feedback that I get and the warmth and love and encouragement."

And now she is in a place she never could have imagined.

"I've gone back and kind of meticulously worked through all of the demons that I've inherited and I have looked at some pretty dark corners of my psyche and of my family's psyche.

"I feel now that I'm standing on the most solid, happiest ground I think I've ever been on in my whole life," Szubanski said.

"So, I actually feel fricking fantastic."

This post originally appeared on the ABC and was republished with full permission.
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