Friday, September 30, 2011

Larissa's Broken Record

DAVID Marr, who figures in the previous post, can leave the reader a little confused at times, but his talent for dragging facts into a fog of omission and leaving them there to perish is perhaps preferable to some other folks’ annoying little ways. With Marr it is at least possible to follow his tracks and drag lost truth back into the light of day. With Larissa Behrendt, however, the confusing trails make even the simplest attempt at verification an energetic exercise. Consider, for example, some of the Bolt plaintiff and well known tweeter’s accounts of her father, ancestors, family and “raised black” upbringing. This account of her dad, as told to the Silly’s Malcolm Knox, is a good place to begin:
That story begins with her parents. Paul Behrendt was the eighth of nine children born to a German editor and an Aboriginal woman in western NSW, Lavinia Boney, who had been taken from her family and was working in Parkes Hospital when they met.
So here is the first confusion, a relatively minor one. Was Larissa’s gran  “Lavinia”, “Lavena” or perhaps a third variant? Knox could have taken it down incorrectly or Behrendt may not have known how to spell the name of the woman she venerates as the fountainhead of her Aboriginality. Whichever party messed up, the short summary of her death certificate suggests the latter is the case, also listing the year of grandma’s death as 1942 and Lithgow as her final resting place. It is definitely the right woman, as Paul Behrendt’s 2006 obit in the National Indigenous Times notes that he was born in 1939 in Lithgow, where the cemetery register has his mum listed as having been interred under yet another spelling, “Lavina”.

Also of interest is this press report in the SMH of November 12, 1934, which names Larissa’s granddad, Henry the German editor, as one of those hospitalized after police used truncheons to break up a protest by “unemployed outside the Courthouse”.  The following month “H.W.E.. Behrendt” stood for the local council but finished last in a crowded field, out-polled by the informals.

Those who put such a stock on heritage might see Larissa’s political activism as the bequest of her white granddad. Then again, probably not. For some reason it is only aptitudes attributed to race, discernible or not, that are to be acknowledged and endorsed.Remember those H.W.E.  initials, by the way. They will figure later in this post. Now back to Malcolm Knox’s profile.
''I never knew either of them. Lavinia died after giving birth to the ninth child, my Uncle Peter, and Dad and his siblings grew up in the Burnside Home for Children. The circumstances aren't known, which was one reason I fictionalised it in Home.''
After his institutionalised childhood, Paul lived on the streets in Sydney.
Two things about this seem odd. The first, that in other accounts of her father’s childhood, Larissa’s words kinda, sorta leave the impression that he, too, was stolen.  Here it is “the circumstances aren’t known.” Or it might be an impression gained by way of inadequate punctuation, as in “my Grandmother had been removed by the Removal Policy and then my father had been in a home since he was five.”  Or this to the ABC’s Michael Cathcart, “My grandmother was taken away when she was twelve … And my father and four of his siblings were institutionalised.”

The second oddity is that other versions from other sources are available, ones that appear to have grasped “the circumstances” very well indeed. Paul Behrendt’s Austlit biography, available to non-subscribers only in this thumbnail, puts it this way:
“…Behrendt's father was unable to support the children, and the children were sent to Burnside Home in Sydney. At the age of twelve Paul Behrendt returned to live with his father and stepmother. Behrendt returned to his ancestral lands and made contact with family members…”
A gulf is opening between Larissa’s version of her father’s life and those available from other sources, many of them official. Austlit says he went home and lived with Dad. She tells Knox, he  lived on the streets, then adds a heartbreaking vignette about a father-son encounter:
''He actually ran into his father, who said, 'I'll keep your shoes clean, son.' It still gives me chills to think of those meetings,'' Behrendt says.
The records would suggest that Larissa can dry those tears and feel just a little warmer and cosier toward the white world, the one that would seem on the strength of her “unknown circumstances” and narrative ambiguities to have cast her black pater aside like so much dusky jetsam. In fact, what they suggest – and strongly suggest – is that single parent H.W.E. Behrendt was doing his very best to reclaim the boys and build a better life for them all. They also suggest that Larissa’s version does the white granddad’s memory a gross injustice.

Start with the SMH of July 9, 1948, which announced the winners of a Housing Commission lottery to determine the “big families” that would get the 100 available homes with three or more bedrooms. The report notes that all entrants in the draw had been on the list for larger digs since 1944, the year Paul and his siblings were placed in that Parramatta orphanage. Amongst the lucky winners, “H.W.E. Behrendt”, who scored a place in Strathfield. That second document is Paul Bahrendt’s service record in the RAN, which Larissa says her father joined “to get three meals a day”. If so, the wages of an “assistant elevator mechanic” must have been very poor, because that is the civilian occupation stated on his service record (click the image tab on the right).

Aspiring seaman Paul Behrendt nominates his next of kin as good ol’ H.W.E. Behrendt, the white man whose memory “chills” Larissa, and the recruits’ civvy street address is listed as 59 Park Road, Burwood, which is on the current border with Strathfield, where H.W.E. won his big family home in the Housing Commission’s lucky dip.

Also of interest is the recruit’s physical description – 5-foot-6-and-a-bit, black hair and an “olive complexion”. No mention of Paul Behrendt being an Aborigine. It is just as well the dead cannot sue, because Judge Mordy might have have to settle another case of ruffled racial sensitivities.

So what do we have here with our competing versions?

By Larissa’s account, a black man who was abandoned by his white father, quite possibly even stolen with the uncaring dad’s consent. Next, a vagrant life, followed by a Navy enlistment inspired only by the need to get a regular feed.

Against this the official record: A hard-pressed widower forced to place his kids temporarily in an orphanage, a man who then began an immediate effort to obtain a large house, and a child who found employment as a junior lift mechanic until he was 18 and old enough to join the armed forces.

Oh, and there is one other document that redounds to the maligned H.W.E.’s credit, once again a report in the SMH, this one published on December 23, 1953, which lists Henry Behrendt as having passed his accountancy exams. In addition to reclaiming his kids and securing a decent home, he also worked and studied to provide a better life for all.

In her interviews, Larissa makes no bones about her novels being thinly fictionalised accounts of what she insists is her family history. She is good at it, too, according reviewer Anita Heiss, Larissa’s pal and fellow Bolt basher, who notes “an obvious talent for the creative form”. Quite a talent indeed!

What a pity Larissa did not view family’s history from another, more sanguine perspective: a racially enlighted mixed marriage, a politically active granddad, the Depression’s privations and heartbreak of a mother’s death, followed by the anguish of a dislocated family. After that, the triumph of the human spirit as the re-united clan found security in a post-war Australia brimming with opportunity and justice for all.

But who these days would want to read a book like that?


  1. Did Justice Bromberg even bother interrogate whether Professor Behrendt had expressed any hurt by Bolt's article? It seems not:

  2. The Bobbi Sykes connection is somewhat ironic! To wit:
    'Roberta Sykes was born in 1944 and grew up in Townsville, where she has powerful memories of the racism she experienced. Although not Indigenous, Sykes nonetheless strongly identified with the Aboriginal community as a black victim of racism.'

    I think the plaintiffs might live to regret the scrutiny they have brought down upon their heads.

    Let's ignore this urban elite and focus our attention (and resources) on those who live in poverty in the APY lands and elsewhere, with very poor life chances. Let them get royalties, jobs advancement without the latte sippers smear them as 'coconuts'.

  3. It should be noted that I posted similar analyses of Paul Behrendt to the Marr article and various ABC/Drum articles. None were published. Apparently they prefer their fiction to any facts, and they censor to ensure their readers are left none the wiser.

    One post I responded to (and it never appeared of course) made the bold claim that all mixed blood aboriginals are the product of sexual exploitation and rape by white men. Apparently this claim is ok for The ABC and Fairfax censors, but a response that points out that this was not the case, and would likely offend each of the individuals named in the Bolt case was too much for them.

    Fairfax and the ABC are a disgrace, I can avoid the Fairfax press by not buying them, but I have no redress for the ABC taking my tax dollars to use for their political agenda. Needless to say, neither of the cespits of journalism will be subject to any scrutiny by the Labor/Green media Inquisition.

  4. What is it with leftists and their licence with the truth and their historical revisionism?

  5. Just a question: Is Professor Behrendt in a tad of trouble for stating that 'The taunts will never hurt her', but then taking legal action claiming that they did?

    Actually, Bolt seems to have had fewer mistakes with his account then Professor Behrendt had with hers. As Prof Bunyip has shown, her account bears little resemblance to the documentary history. Bolt only got the generation wrong - which (ironically) decreased her racial claim to 25% (assuming her grandmother was 100%).

    It is clear, even from her account, that her father was not brought up with cultural knowledge, and added that only after the event. Can hardly claim to have been 'raised black'.

  6. Anonymous (above): If the policy was to "steal" only half-caste children, then Larissa's aboriginal genes represent 12.5%.

  7. "During the fifties, when "conformity" was discussed, dissected, and feared, white middle class Americans saw African-American identity as being uniquely "authentic." In the seventh chapter I focus on post-war blackface—not as a performance for the entertainment of an audience, but as something middle-class whites embarked upon as a full-time identity, or as a spiritual quest. I trace this new form of blackface from Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay "The White Negro" to John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1960) to Grace Halsell’s best-selling Soul Sister (1969) to the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose white members appeared in blackface and adopted Swahili names." Laura Browder.

    Surely the OZ-left is not trying to catch up with the US middle class of the 50's? Say it isn't so! I thought the cultural cringe had gone extinct.

    Perhaps Larissa B. during her Harvard years (while a member of the North American Indian Law Students Society-before her first job consulting with the South Slave Lake Metis (mixed race) Tribal Council in Canada's NWT- ran across Laura Browder from Virginia Commonwealth University and was impressed by her scholarly work on "Ethnic Imposters":

    Under Cover: Ethnic Imposture
    and the Construction of American Identities

    L.B. has said in interviews about her fiction that the "truth" can only be told in "stories", which echoes a long tradition in the US:

    In our living room, I told Elizabeth, "I think you shouldn’t publish that book! It isn’t true. It twists our family. It makes us what we are not."

    Elizabeth screamed, "I have to publish my book! It makes me what I want to be. It shows our family as I want people to see us."

    "Although my nerve was fading I said, "When I read your book, Mother, I forget who we are. I don’t like that. I want to remember myself, and our family."(186)

    "The past is another country; they do things differently there." Sorry.

  8. Don't get me wrong, Anonymous 2, I am all for accepting all as Australian, regardless of their origins, and for recognising and helping those who are culturally Aborigines. But where we are now is entrenching a dangerous, racist basis for discriminating positively.

    Do the urban elites really was us to start labelling people as being of a particular race simply because they have some fraction of Aboriginal 'blood'? That seems to me to be a highly retrograde step, that the rest of the World left behind with the end of Apartheid. Without a decent cultural 'test', what is the minimum percentage of 'blood' that should qualify? 25% is obviously OK, but what about 12.5%? 6.25%

  9. Indeed, Anonymous (8:55 PM). These days why can't any of us declare ourselves to be aboriginal if all it takes in "the vibe"? It would be hurtful and insulting for fellow dusky natives such as Miss Behrendt to argue otherwise.

  10. Transferring from Melbourne to the Far North in my work certainly gave me a different aspect from the romantic view from afar. I worked with, played sports with and even shared accommodation with aboriginals as team members. They were all people that I enjoyed the company of and respected.
    But, the fact is that there are advantages to claiming aboriginal heritage - until I went north I never realised that aboriginal children were paid to go to school, sitting next to white children who were not. I know of one (white) single mother who had been married to a Fijian sending her child through University as an Aboriginal, because she couldn't afford the fees that she would have to pay otherwise.
    There are numerous examples of Government largesse that could be quoted - but perhaps the most telling comment is the fact that Aborigines themselves call their Centrelink payments "sit down money" - the fact that this Government has excluded a leader such as Noel Pearson from having input into policy is criminal, as he has done a great deal to help aboriginal communities to restore their dignity by persuading them to work for this money in improving their own surroundings and conditions.
    I doubt that their would be few whites living in the north who haven't had to run the gauntlet of drunk Aborigines in the street, listening to themselves being called "White C....t" on a regular basis.
    I don't profess to know the answer to these problems, but I do know that throwing money at them hasn't worked, and that these Racial Vilification Laws don't help either if they limit free speech from people trying to circumvent the "professional" aborigines who get themselves positions of influence without any real accountability for either the money invested or the lack of results.
    These Laws are useful to those who want to hide behind them, the case of several Christian Priests being prosecuted for reading out quotations from the Khoran in Melbourne is another case in point. I would doubt that any average Australian would ever bring a case under these laws - it is only Political Activists who will ever use them - to stifle debate!

  11. How many finger tips does a bunyip have? So many intricate details all adding up to revealing posts in recent days. And, needless to say, carrying the torch in lieu of others, who have been brutally snuffed out.

  12. @1:25am: Fingers have nothing to do with it. It's been too wet to play golf, but wet or not I intend to go fishing for a few days, starting tomorrow.

  13. I can assure you all that most everyday nose-to-the-grindstone Blackfellas have never heard of Behrendt nor Bolt.

  14. "however, the confusing trails make even the simplest attempt at verification an energetic exercise"
    Surely you meant "vilification"?

  15. No 17 etc, he means verification.

  16. Mike Carlton as usual puts foot in mouth today:

    "In fact, Behrendt's father was a black Australian. She - and the other eight plaintiffs in the case - were raised from infancy in Aboriginal culture and society. Given that crashing blunder, the rest of his stuff falls in a heap, exposed for the racist garbage it was."

    Read more:

  17. Pity Bolt hadn't researched the subject like Prof B has. It's not as if he isn't paid handsomely to do that stuff.