Kristina Olsson

Kristina Olsson with her book at a signing recently

I read Boy, Lost … cried for a while … rang my mother … wrote to an almost adopted brother who spent his life in institutions because I had taken his place … then cried a little more.

Boy, Lost is a powerful story of loss, separation, unwarranted punishment and the ongoing ramifications of these horrors.

Almost as soon as Westender published a short notice that Kristina Olsson’s latest book is shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the accolades began to flow. <Letters, p9> Many people have been similarly affected by this true-novel.

The story of Kristina’s mother, her brutal separation from her first child and the ongoing implications of that for the mother, the son and Kristina’s family is tragic, powerful  and moving.

Writers are lucky, though. We have the chance to examine, structure and externalise our emotional processes. I’m even luckier, I was invited to interview Kristina and explore her story to share with you.

Boy, Lost is not just a personal account it is the story of Kristina’s family. I asked her about the challenges that presented.

“I approached it as a journalist, with the habitual distancing that we use so we can get up in the morning without weeping, so I could deal with the material. After a year, I realised that it was just not working and I had to claim the story, I had to find myself in it, I had to recognise the impact that my mother’s suffering had on me, my siblings and my parenting. Once I claimed the story as my own it flowed.”

“The two questions that haunted me as I researched this book were, ‘Why did no-one help my mother?’ and ‘Why did no-one help Peter?’ Motherhood and childhood are treated as euphemisms, the women are always second-class citizens and take the guilt on themselves.”

She noted that in the fifties the men returning from the war had no expression for the immorality and brutality they had experienced. It was not part of the official narrative and so many women bore the brunt of those men’s shame.

“But no-one spoke about it.”

I asked her about her observation that the pain of separation crosses generations. If she and her siblings could be affected by events that happened before they were born, might there not be a dark core in Australian culture that carries forward old wounds and if so, what can we do.

“Absolutely. Women have been emotionally and physically diminished and punished and left feeling unwarranted guilt and shame. We have to empower women and power has to be taken.

“The programs of the nineties that centred on women being able to speak, to recognise their circumstances and name the problem, were all about that. That is something missing from the current climate of government.”

She noted this is especially important in regional Australia where life is harsh, weapons handy in many homes and isolation the norm.

She said that the danger is that the problem becomes invisible when there is the top of the power structure does not have the right attitude.

“The view that it is all about the bottom-line goes hand in hand with the idea that ‘might is right’. The bottom line should be the health of all citizens.”

I discussed the challenges engaging men in dealing with domestic violence. On one hand I am driven to ‘do something’ on the other, centuries of men ‘doing things’ has achieved little. Even worse, I am aware of my own controlling, power mongering behaviour and the negative impacts that has had in my family.

A little boy lost

William Blake – 1789

The Priest sat by and heard the child;
In trembling zeal he seized his hair,
He led him by his little coat,
And all admired the priestly care.

The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,
And burned him in a holy place.

Where many had been burned before;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such thing done on Albion’s shore?

“One concern that I had is that [my mother’s first husband,] Michael is not stereotyped as the villain. That’s one reason I go out of my way to explore his culture, not to excuse but to explain his behaviour.

“The greatest challenge is that we are all capable of cruelty.”

Unaware of her own mother’s story, Kristina almost duplicated it: marrying young, following her new husband north, finding herself pregnant in a remote area without a support network. With her own story a dark secret, her mother could not help.

The impact of the publication of Boy, Lost on Kristina’s family has primarily been felt by her brother, Peter, the subject of the book and his full sister, Sharon, who is a well-known mental-health professional.

“It was his story, I never would have written it if he had not asked. It has been liberating for him, he has been able to see himself as a ‘good’ man and participate fully in the family and society, partly as a result.”

Kristina noted that her other siblings are far more sanguine and her mother’s generation almost silent.

“That generation has seen so much and takes everything in their stride. I think for them it is just another story. On one hand they are glad to see the truth told, on the other, they have to relive the pain.”

As we move into an era where the government has an expressed agenda to bury the dark secrets of the past it is up to the rest of us to keep these stories alive. Little wonder that Kristina Olsson has struck such a cord with so many.