Inside Story

Speaking into the silence

Two compelling works of hybrid non-fiction explore how the past lives on in the present

Drusilla Modjeska Review essay 2 July 2018 3160 words

Other languages, other worlds: Maria Tumarkin’s grandparents, Faina and Iosif, in Kiev in 1935, from her earlier memoir Otherland.

“If we say it could have been me, shouldn’t we ask who was she?” It’s one of the many challenges Maria Tumarkin puts our way in her new book, Axiomatic, with its focus on trauma and the legacy of the past. It’s a question that also hovers over Kate Rossmanith’s Small Wrongs, which homes in on remorse and punishment. Who is she, weeping in the dock — or, more likely, not? Trauma and punishment, remorse and legacy: move the terms around and there are elements of each in these two timely books. And what does any of it mean in a world of polarised narratives and gross inequalities? “Curious thing,” Tumarkin continues, “empathy via identification.”

These books pose unsettling challenges, and necessary ones. Interestingly, both come to us from small independent publishers. This is not just the way of the future for publishing in this country, Tumarkin says, but already its formidable present. As is — I say with cautious optimism — this hybrid form of nonfiction written for a hybrid audience.

First, Rossmanith’s Small Wrongs. In Australia, as in other common-law jurisdictions, remorse is “a significant factor” in sentencing procedures. Deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation are core pillars in the complex sentencing matrix; remorse is a mitigating factor. If there’s remorse, rehabilitation is assumed to be more likely, and reoffending less likely. But what, exactly, is remorse? How, if at all, is it to be measured? How does the judge know if the court is witnessing remorse, or merely the performance of remorse? What if remorse is there, but the accused is unable to express it? Can remorse be physically present but emotionally absent, or vice versa?

Early in the book, Rossmanith has coffee with a journalist. He’s in his sixties when they meet, and he tells her that thirty years before, when he had a small child, he’d been in court on drug charges. In the group of heroin users he hung out with, the job of getting and supplying would move among them, not by design but by circumstance. It happened to be him on the day he was caught. He was young, and confident his middle-class credentials would get him off. He had no remorse at all. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been one of the others; that’s how things were. But he was smart, and twigged in time. At his second hearing, he hung his head and uttered just two words: “deep regret.” His sentence was suspended.

“You know,” he says to Rossmanith, “I think remorse is an old person’s game. It took me years to really regret selling heroin, and the regret mainly has to do with my family. My wife and I reconciled. We are still together. But even now I worry about my daughter. I still have a lot of remorse. What pains me most is that she got that protective thing kids get. She worried about me all the time… Kids take it on in some way. They feel responsible. So, anyway, as I said, remorse is an old person’s game. The time it takes to align your personal view with a larger societal view — to align yourself with a larger consciousness — is really slow.”

The comment stays with Rossmanith, and it stays with us as we go with her into courtrooms and parole board hearings, into judges’ chambers and magistrates’ rooms. While the alignment of the personal and the societal in sentencing is a realm for the court, for the accused remorse is entangled with fear and regret, denial and rage. Although she witnesses profound moments of remorse — that shift in posture and demeanour when the tears come — for the most part she watches how time plays against those in the dock. For a start, there’s a disconnect between the way time moves in everyday life — its “soupiness” she calls it; everyday time when things can slip, accumulate, hide, accelerate — and the event that lands someone in court, when time shudders and clangs, strangely arrested in that crisis moment. What happens then to the everyday time of the accused? Is there time between the event, the trial and the sentencing for remorse to raise even a glimmer?

In the higher courts, there can be weeks, even months between the trial, or the plea, and the sentencing. It may not be time enough for remorse, but it is time enough for the judge to pass sentence. In the magistrates’ courts, there’s rarely time. Magistrates may have to hear seventy matters in a day. It’s sentencing on the run. Even the best of magistrates, the most experienced, the most compassionate, are moving against time, not with it. Month after month Rossmanith watches the array of offenders, some dressed for the occasion, as if that’d be enough, some out of it on drugs, some sullen and wretched, some without a clue what’s going on. She watches as the parole board makes its way through the paperwork for dozens of prisoners caught in drawn-out punishment time. Some appear by video link from jail, not knowing which of the split screens to look at. A petulant young man who seems doomed ever to repeat appears in person before the board; no split screen for him, and somehow, somewhere, something breaks through — real feeling: fear, maybe, regret, hope, hopelessness. Remorse? Maybe. A young person’s remorse tinged with anger and despair.

As she watches, Rossmanith focuses on the conundrum that faces every judge, every magistrate, every parole board member: how to assess and give objective weight to a factor that is crucial to the sentence but by its nature subjective. She reads the sentencing acts, the regulations that run to hundreds of pages, procedures that become more and more complex as if the process of sentencing can be nailed. A magistrate shows her the complex rubric she uses, and then says she moves the factors around until “it feels right.” A Supreme Court judge tells her that as well as reading the psychiatric reports, he can pick up remorse, or its absence, across the courtroom. These are all thoughtful people. They take their role seriously. One judge mentions his own experience of remorse. These are the people you’d want to come before. They are also the ones who chose to speak to Rossmanith. Not all did.

As an ethnographer with academic guidelines and procedures to follow, Rossmanith also has to deal with the question of how to be objective when relying on the subjective. Ethnography as a discipline has grappled with this for decades. It’s a paradox that requires her, she writes, to take notice not only of what is going on around her but also of what is going on inside her. A doubled perspective that is necessary “if the nature of what has been observed is ever to be understood.”

She began this research as a new mother going through the stresses and strains that working couples of her generation are up against — career requirements, mortgages, child raising — which can take a toll on the best of marriages. There she is, studying “remorse” while at home the mood darkens; she and her husband become “expert” at avoiding the conversation they need to have, hardening themselves against the slights and hurts they inflict on each other. It doesn’t help when she prangs his VW on the way home from court one day. In heavy Sydney traffic, she slams into the car in front. No one is hurt. Her husband’s car is dented, but the other car is no longer driveable. Rossmanith immediately leaps to take responsibility, pressing money on the young driver to get the car towed. Remorse? Heaps of it. It’s a comic moment, a naive rush into one form of remorse, yet still not taking on the issue at home, or the challenges of a daughter growing up. Spoiler alert: they make it in the end.

And so does her relationship with her father — a scientist, a kind man, but emotionally aloof in ways that were hard for her as a child. Kids take it on in some way, as that journalist said. Rossmanith’s father was born in 1943 in war-torn Vienna, which meant his first experience of everyday time was in the ruins of a defeated city. A Lutheran child, he grew up surrounded by humiliated adults in shock, or denial. He was ten when he and his mother arrived in Sydney to find another language, another world, an Australian obliviousness best dealt with by letting the past lie low, lower still if such a thing were possible. And so Rossmanith and her siblings grew up with a loud silence beneath the boisterousness of their mother’s family. It’s the speaking into this silence, the revoicing of this past, delving into its meaning, that completes the woven threads of Small Wrongs.

Maria Tumarkin came to Australia in 1989 as a young teenager from Ukraine. Her Jewish parents and grandparents had lived through Nazi occupation, Soviet rule, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. She knows about Australian obliviousness, the perils and attractions of conformity, not that she was ever much good at conforming. She hated school: the over-institutionalised version in Ukraine; the regulated classroom in Australia, hand up for the toilet, and outside, the unregulated playground. As a writer she pushes at the edges, and then pushes further; she wants to shout, and sometimes she does. Axiomatic is a bracing ride. At its heart is the big question of the past and its traumas. How do they play out? Where does trauma begin? In history? Genes? Family? Society? Is comfort to be found in the familiar truisms we’re so quick to roll out?

Take the cliché “time heals all wounds.” Does it? Does time heal those who witness suicide close up? What about the teenage girl who finds her younger sister’s body? At school the teacher hands her tissue after tissue, as she sits there silent, refusing the offer of leaving if she’d prefer, of going home. How do you continue on with the everyday of teaching with that in the room? Especially if it’s Antigone on the curriculum. And what about Bryn, who made friends with the wayward kids, and who spoke normally enough to his teacher the afternoon before he killed himself? What was his story? It doesn’t make sense. But sense isn’t the point. Do the guidelines with their congested language help the teacher when she stands in front of that class the next day? Is there help to be given, and had? Do the bureaucrats really believe that such griefs can be “managed”?

Bryn’s teacher lets the students talk: talk that is only meaningful if it opens out way beyond any guideline. She’s one of the good teachers, one of the teachers who spoke to Tumarkin. What about the teachers who don’t, or can’t let the students speak. Who don’t care, or can’t cope? Tumarkin knows the girl who found her sister. What is her story? Does time heal her, or does she just grow new parts? She asks Raimond Gaita about the suicide of his mother when he was a boy, which he wrote about in Romulus, My Father. He says he had to find pity for that boy. He talks of the Greek concept of Pity, “a sorrowing compassion that is marked through and through by awe at our vulnerability to misfortune.” What happens to pity when journalists come knocking at the door?

“I cannot take your past away,” a magistrate tells a man up before him on his second drink-driving offence. This is in a chapter titled “History Repeats Itself.” Like Rossmanith, Tumarkin watches one offender after another as matters are quickly dealt with, and for every shattered person there’s a shattered backstory and rarely the time to hear it, even if it were able to be told.

Tumarkin sits beside Vanda, a community lawyer in St Kilda. Most of her clients come from a “tar pit,” Tumarkin writes. “People who don’t get to do much choosing in their lives… Poverty, abuse, addiction, mental health stuff, they are what’s in the tar, the sticky parts.” Some of Vanda’s clients are expert in self-sedation, arriving at court asleep on their feet. Drugs, drugs, drugs. Men who are desperate, suicidal, homeless. Girls for whom abuse is everywhere, women who lash out, spinning with an anger that tumbles back and fells them. She goes with Vanda to the funeral of a young girl in a church where the priest does the service for those whose deaths would otherwise go unnoticed. She thinks of Orwell’s “How the Poor Die.” All these years later, with all our wealth, is this how the poor must die, still, here, now, in Australia? Oblivious Australia. She sits with Vanda in her small, shabby office. No booklined chambers for her. How long can she keep doing this, she asks? Ten years, Vanda says, but then she thinks about all that she’s gathered in, the relationships, the people she sees every day on the streets, on public transport. Could she let it all go, knowing what she knows?

Tumarkin uses the metaphor of the trucks. Most of us get hit by a truck sometime in our life, or are driving the one that causes the hurt and damage. For those of us with the backing, the education, the family and the time to recoup and rebuild, the crisis might be cathartic: a new starting point, often enough without having to stand in the literal dock in a literal court. And if the “cushy middle-class” ones do find themselves in court, there are lawyers, psychiatrists. These are the privileged ones; they get to keep their lives. But if you are living on a highway, metaphorically speaking, as most of Vanda’s clients are, it’s one truck after another, there’s nowhere to retreat, or recoup. Just another truck. Society punishes people, Vanda says.

“Recurrence is the point,” Tumarkin writes. “The point’s the repetition.”

Not all the characters who inhabit Axiomatic are broken on the highway. Far from it. The book throbs with life: formidable characters, risk-takers, those who refuse to bow or be bowed. There’s humour and resilience in the fury that swirls through the book, as well as moments of tenderness and unexpected disclosures. There’s the grandmother who was sentenced for hiding her grandson from the drugged world of his mother. Okay, she lied to the police, she kept them off the scent. But a custodial sentence? Born a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, she knew about hiding, about not letting anything show. She stood, silent in court, no remorse to be seen. There was none; her silence was something else entirely. Why didn’t she speak, Tumarkin asks? If ever there was a case to make, it was hers. Who would she speak to? That was her answer. Who could she talk to?

And then there is Vera Wasowski. This is “Give Me a Child Before the Age of Seven and I Will Show You the Woman,” the chapter that nearly breaks the book. Tumarkin comes close to losing control — as a writer, I mean — but she doesn’t, not quite. It’s also the chapter in which we encounter a vulnerability in Tumarkin that, despite everything she’s let us see, or glimpse, is oddly unexpected. She’d known Vera for a long time; she’d been working on a book about her for years. The book never quite got there; there was something recalcitrant about it, as can happen with a book. And then Vera, who insisted she had no interest in telling her story, published a memoir. What to do with the swirl of emotion? What to do with the 20,000 words sitting there; all that work.

One of the reasons Vera’s story is so difficult and compelling is that Vera is exactly that: a fiery woman who refuses all definitions, not just the stereotypes but the very words a writer might bring to her. Sharp and uncompromising, she has “low tolerance” for polite society, polite anything. The word routinely used of her is “outrageous.” Six years old when Germany invaded Poland, she’s one of the very few Polish Jews alive at war’s end. And, being Vera, she challenges every trope of the Holocaust survivor. She even manages to outrage a group of (mostly middle-class, conservative) Australians on the March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau, by insisting on how much she loved the Polish countryside, Polish food. Poland. Her Poland. Did she have to repudiate everything Polish to refuse Polish anti-Semitism? She is Polish-Polish and Jewish-Jewish. Insistently, doubly both.

If Vera challenges Holocaust narratives, so too does Tumarkin. Is that what makes this chapter so scarifying? Or is it because it ranges over so much else, taking in characters, refugees from other worlds, other places, riffing on lives left behind, and shapes taken on, or resisted. The age of seven, Tumarkin tells us, is when the brain of the child first “remembers” in ways they’ll go on to remember. Before that it’s moments, sensations. The grandmother who was given the custodial sentence remembers the joy of finding a doll in the bombed-out rubble.

And Vera? What does she remember, what has she put together since? What does the telling, or the not telling, do for her, do for a past, a present, too complex for a single narrative? What’s she doing in Australia anyway? Oblivious Australia. How long will it be before Australian children say: the Holocaust? Oh yes, I saw the movie. The Holocaust story that becomes sentimentalised. The heroic gentile saviour, the child innocent in the attic, the parents who do not turn towards the child watching from the window, resisting what Orpheus could not. Betrayal as salvation. Or the other way around.

How to tell this story again? Can Tumarkin avoid — can anyone avoid — the tarnishing that comes with the retelling? And what about us, the comfortable denizens of the West, with our placards? Never Again. Of course it could happen again, and one way or another right now it is, in this, our world. Not the same, but with as many refugees, displaced persons, traumatised children as there were back then, when that war ended. There are plenty of bombed-out cities; just not ours. That’s my addition, but it’s there. You can’t read this chapter and not get the backwash from it.

And what are we going to do about it, any of it, all of it?

That’s the question that hovers over both these books, as it does over all of us, readers and writers alike. The formidable face of the present. ●