Kristina Olsson's memoir Boy, Lost revealed to her the fault lines of certainty in family lives.

By Sandra Hogan.

Kristina Olsson: Lost and found

Kristina Olsson
Credit: Russell Shakespeare

Kristina Olsson stands in the drizzle outside the Feros Marquee at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. The tent is packed but, if she turns her good ear inwards, she can hear what is being said.

She has a soggy head cold and is insufficiently dressed in jeans and a thin zip-up jacket, after a surprise drop in temperature to 10 degrees. But she won’t have another chance to hear the English writer who is speaking now. Olsson rose at 6am for a bracing ocean swim in her ancient bathers, and a little rain is not going to deter her from hearing a respected writer talking about her craft.

It is Jeanette Winterson, talking about the relationship between craziness and creativity. She describes a devastating breakdown she had, triggered by the abrupt ending of a long-term relationship. The shock of the break-up had triggered bodily memories of the loss, through adoption, of her birth mother. Winterson says: “I was with my mother every minute of my life and then suddenly she was no longer there and I never saw her again.”

Olsson grimaces and walks away to recover, hands in pockets, head down into the rain. This is the story that comes up everywhere she goes – the story of lost children. She has entered imaginatively into this experience and has no defences against the pain of it.

In 1950, a baby boy named Peter was snatched from his mother’s arms in a railway carriage in Cairns. The dazed, pregnant and malnourished woman who travelled without her child on the long four-day journey from Cairns to Brisbane was Olsson’s mother, Mimi.

Mimi kept the secret of her lost child until the day Peter walked into her house in Annerley, an inner suburb of Brisbane, 34 years later. He had been looking for her, desperately, since the age of six, although his father – the man who had snatched him – told him she was dead.

In those missing years, Mimi had tried to recover him but the authorities of the time had advised her to “leave it alone”, suggesting his father could give him a better life than a poor mother. Peter, meanwhile, was suffering abuse, neglect and hunger at the hands of his father and various institutions, and had contracted the most severe form of polio as a toddler, which left him disabled and in pain for the rest of his life.

“Until Peter walked into my mother’s house in 1984, I didn’t know anything about him,” says Olsson, who was the first child of her mother’s second marriage, to a gentle Swede named Arne. “And yet, as soon as I saw him, I found I did know. It is so mysterious, the business of knowing and not knowing. No one had ever told me about Peter but there must have been things I heard as a child, slivers of uncertain knowledge, that lay dormant until that moment.”

Olsson was 27 when Peter arrived in her life and it took another 25 years before she began to write the memoir Boy, Lost, which tells the story of what happened to Peter and Mimi, from the moment of his kidnapping.

Boy, Lost has taken the Australian literary scene by storm since UQP published it in April last year. It has been on more shortlists for literary awards than any other Australian nonfiction book in the period. It won the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards, was joint winner of the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction in the 2014 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and won the national Kibble award in 2014. It was shortlisted this year for the Victorian Premier’s literary award and for the national Stella award, as well as for the West Australian Premier’s literary awards, which will be announced on September 22.

UQP publisher Madonna Duffy says it is unusual for a memoir to have such an impact. “It’s been up against big histories and political books and those are the kinds of books that usually win the major prizes,” says Duffy. “Memoirs – and I don’t agree with this – are usually seen as a ‘soft’ category. We can’t keep up with the awards stickers we put on the front of books for sale – it’s a good problem for a publisher to have.”

Literary judges are not the only people taking notice. Boy, Lost continues to sell steadily and is popular with book clubs. A woman who read the book at her book club told me it prompted her to talk to friends for the first time about her experience of being sent to a Catholic institution in Sydney to have her baby taken away for adoption. “We were kept in straitjackets in bed so we couldn’t get up to see our babies,” she says. “After all these years, it was a relief for me to read Boy, Lost and to talk about it.” It is easy to imagine many similar stories of release being told at book club meetings around the country, as well as stories from men and women talking about their experiences of being adopted.

Bev Fitzgerald, a Queensland social worker and writer, says the book moved her and friends she has shared it with because “we all understand about regret and loss – whether we’re two years old or 72. We know about loss and mess, and that not everything can be fixed. This book is so honest.”

A book that is deeply affecting to readers is likely to have had a powerful impact on its writer as well. Olsson says that the four years it took her to write Boy, Lost were turbulent. Although she had always been a home-loving person, she became a nomad, moving restlessly between houses and apartments. She experienced painful physical symptoms that she connects with the inner work she was doing. When the writing was done she had changed her political views, her way of parenting and her way of living with uncertainty.

Boy, Lost is the book I’ve been circling around all my life,” Olsson says. ‘The other books I wrote before it were my pathway to this one. Now that I’ve actually written it, I can let go of certain things about the way I am, and the way I’ve parented. I understand those things because the book gave up some of the secrets.”

Olsson began writing Boy, Lost at Peter’s request, thinking of it as a piece of extended journalism about Peter and their mother. Early in the research process, she discovered that it wasn’t as simple as that. She spoke to her aunts about their lives as children and discovered that their version of it was very different from her mother’s. Her mother had adored her father and never said anything negative about him, but the aunts revealed him as a cruel and distant man, openly adulterous.

“Listening to these stories, I really flipped into another reality,” she says. “I needed to believe everything my mother told me. I would never question her version of her childhood. I wanted so much to believe what she believed, and also to be what she wanted me to be. When I spoke to the aunts, I realised that my mother’s story wasn’t reliable.”

A year earlier, before she had begun the book’s writing process, Olsson would have dismissed the aunts’ version of the story. Now she took it as permission to do the unthinkable – to question her mother’s view of the world. It allowed her to do the work she needed to do to uncover the story, but it wasn’t a comfortable feeling. She talks about experiencing “the nausea of uncertainty”.

A little later, Olsson developed a painful injury in one shoulder, and then in the other. It was so severe that she needed help to dress herself and she had great difficulty sleeping. She went to several health workers to try to get relief. A physiotherapist said to her, “Hmmm. The family scribe is telling her family story and she can’t use her hands.”

“She startled me into thinking about the reason this story was so hard for me to write,” says Olsson. “I was thinking of it as my mother and Peter’s story, but it was mine, too. It affected all of us, even though we didn’t know about it. We all wore the marks of our mother’s grief. The story was imprinted on me at birth, in the way my mother held me, the way she carried me.”

As she continued her research, it became obvious that she had repeated her mother’s history to an uncanny degree. She, too, had made a risky marriage very young and had gone to live in North Queensland, without having the slightest idea she was following in her mother’s footsteps. Like her mother, she had children very young and hung on to them too tightly.

As a result of writing the book, Olsson was able to recognise things in the way she lived that needed to change, particularly in allowing her children freedom to make their own decisions.

“I realise now I was a very black and white person,” she says, warming her hands on her coffee and gazing out to sea, as we sit at one of Byron Bay’s beachside cafes. “I dealt in fact and certainty – always the journalist. Now uncertainty is where I’m happiest and I don’t like being with people who are too didactic and certain about life.”

Paradoxically, Olsson has also changed in recent years from being the “good girl” her mother wanted her to be into an outspoken political activist. She is a member of the board of Sisters Inside, which advocates for the rights of women in prison. She is acutely aware of injustice and is sometimes overcome by feelings of terrifying anger about the treatment of children, poor people and refugees.

“I used to go through the world with a screen in front of me, or a filter,” she explains. “It was partly my upbringing and partly the journalist in me. I needed that filter to stop it being an arrow in my heart every time I wrote a story about something painful.”

Since writing Boy, Lost the filter is gone. The big questions that arose for her during the writing were: “Why didn’t anyone help my mother get back her child? Why didn’t anyone help Peter when he was a 10-year-old boy with calipers on his legs, living under the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, eating scraps that old men gave him?”

She watched as one inquiry after another into stolen children appeared on the nightly news: Indigenous children stolen from their families by governments and churches; Catholic women forced to adopt out their babies; unbearable stories of abuse in orphanages, churches, boys’ homes and on Pacific Islands where suffering refugees were hidden from the public eye.

It became obvious to her that, during the period she was writing about, children were being taken wholesale around the country and Australians were silent about it, complicit in the tragedy.

“Even now, with our treatment of refugees and Indigenous Australians, we are stamping down our capacity for kindness and generosity,” says Olsson. “We’ve got previous on this, too, because in the 1930s we refused to take in Jewish children escaping from Nazi Germany.

“It comes from fear of where kindness might lead. It is a primal fear in the nation, which I recognise because I was afraid for so long to look at that child-sized hole in our lives, which was Peter. Knowing the truth has terrible potential for sadness, but it brings joy as well.”

For Olsson, the end of her project has brought some peace. She has formed a warm and lasting bond with her big brother Peter, who lives in Sydney and is now a grandfather. Sadly, her mother was not on good terms with Peter when she died, too young, of leukaemia in 2000. With a little help from her awards, Olsson has bought a cottage near Moreton Bay in Brisbane, with a vegie garden and a sunny verandah. She has a pleasant room in which to write her new novel, set around the building of the Sydney Opera House.

“I have been so restless, living in 20 different places,” she says. “I feel this is the home I have always been looking for.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "Lost and found".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Sandra Hogan is a Brisbane-based journalist and author.