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?