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Unconditional refusal

A stark and uncompromising memoir
October 2022, no. 447

Childhood by Shannon Burns

Text Publishing, $34.99 pb, 257 pp

Unconditional refusal

A stark and uncompromising memoir
October 2022, no. 447

That the boy depicted in Shannon Burns’s nightmarish memoir survived to write it at the age of forty reflects no credit on society or on those around him. His persistence seems remarkable, given the world he entered.

The boy is always referred to thus. Page after page, we learn the extent of his grievous upbringing. His parents – mismatched and poorly educated – stay together for the first two years of his life, then he is alone with his erratic Greek mother, who drinks too much and becomes addicted to prescription pills. One of the boy’s earliest memories is of waking on a concrete floor, blood dripping from his nose, having been beaten by his mother. He is four or five years old. ‘I don’t resent the slaps or scratches. It’s ordinary, untroubling. It is what mothers do to their sons whom they love.’ Meanwhile, his Greek grandfather endures him ‘without too much distaste’ (everything is qualified in this world). No one in the boy’s family has a job. Most of them are on social security and live in public housing.

His mother often leaves him alone in the house overnight. He is told that his mother ‘sleeps with men for money’. ‘I’m jealous of those men, of the comfort she brings them.’ He is ‘unusually familiar’ with the sound of their fornication.

While she remains ‘a mother-in-waiting, a promise yet to be realised’, there is no doubting his love for her. Such is the livelong mystery of mothers.

Shannon Burns (photograph supplied)Shannon Burns (photograph supplied)

The boy is shunted from one disadvantaged north-western suburb in Adelaide to another, from his parents, his maternal grandparents and uncles, then back to his father and stepmother, an aunt, some Mormons, then foster parents, strangers even – then back again when people can’t bear it any more. At times we forget the boy’s chronology and think of him as thirty or forty.

The boy is always famished, especially when he lives with his father and stepmother. ‘Hunger is the foundation of his life, something that never goes away ...’

He often witnesses appalling scenes. After one fracas an aunt takes him and his mother in, only to send them on their way because of the mother’s lying and screaming and general hopelessness. ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know what to do,’ the aunt tells the boy. ‘You can’t stay here with me forever. You are your mother’s problem.’ After one terrible argument, his grandparents and uncles evict them both. Then the mother returns the boy to his father. Eventually, he distances himself from the whole idea of family. ‘I’ve discovered an important truth and it’s all I care about ... No one can be trusted.’

Never is the tone self-pitying or sentimental. The boy is too anxious, too contemptuous because of what is being done to him, or not being done. From the age of five the boy knows he is on his own. Yet somehow he does survive. ‘Nothing is unthinkable for us and everything is survivable. The stakes are always lower.’ The boy withdraws into silence. ‘He only speaks when he wants to. That is his skill: unconditional refusal.’

We marvel at the boy’s repeated exposure. Time and time again his plight should have been recognised. On a few occasions, when something grotesque happens or the boy flees, authorities of one kind or another (police, social workers, teachers) question him about his home life. ‘He knows that they don’t want to hear anything that would complicate matters for them, that no one ever really wants to hear the truth, even if they pretend to, because the truth would make demands of them that they are not prepared for.’

That no one does care – that no one intervenes – should disquiet the reader. The boy is surely but one of tens of thousands of infants and children living with brutes and sadists, deprived of food, clothing, books, affection, education. The suffering of children, outcasts, and refugees escaping not unrelated horrors or indecencies have long been accommodated by ‘middle Australia’, with its labile conscience. The toll is over there, across the river, in another part of the city. Seldom do the shaming reports reach us.

Violence is pathological in the boy’s world. Rape is not uncommon. One night, in a house full of drunks, a step-uncle bashes his wheelchair-bound wife in front of the boy and other children. When he lives with his stepmother, barely a day goes by without her hitting him. Occasionally she bites him.

There are many appalling scenes in this book, but one stands out. The stepmother – a heavy smoker herself, enraged by his refusal to smoke – accuses the boy of illicitly smoking and, when he denies it, forces him to smoke a whole packet, the very thing he is determined not to do, disgusted as he is by the smoking and drug-taking of his elders.

Yet the boy is stoic, philosophical. ‘As far I can tell, adults are compelled to do the most improbable and destructive things imaginable, and it’s their children’s job to come to terms with this however they can.’ His is the bleak blessing of endurance.

The boy, too, learns to be brutish. He knows how to menace the meek; he does so ruthlessly. One teacher he delights in humiliating, only to be introduced to Shakespeare by the same teacher, who notes the effect it has on the boy. ‘I saw it ... I saw you come alive.’ Later, the boy discovers Lawrence and Hardy, loves their characters’ ‘transgressive loves and tragic fates’. Dostoevsky changes his life. His beloved Russians will never abandon him. ‘Literature, and only literature, can be relied on. Literature, only literature, can be trusted.’

He dreams of becoming a poet, an activist, a Buddhist monk, a university lecturer (‘whatever that means’).

By then, though, school has become untenable. At fifteen the boy–man abandons his family and lives in an unfurnished flat in Semaphore without gas or electricity. There is just enough light from the nearby train station for him to read at night. By day he works in a recycling centre, sorting through broken glass and drink containers. Most of the other workers – older, morose – take drugs during and after work. ‘He is becoming white trash buried in trash, dreaming about trash, merging with it.’

Worse can’t be inflicted on him, but it is, serially.

The narrative is admirably cool. So much happens to the boy, so much is done to him, that he is wary, defensive: ‘[My] true talent is evasion, withdrawal, redirection, perhaps even misdirection – like any good trickster.’ The prose is blunt, diaristic. Any embellishment would be like, well, creative writing. There is humour, of a deadly kind (‘None of his sister’s friends are very bright, but neither is she’).

Just when we’re not sure we can take much more of this, there is an epilogue. Now forty, the author addresses us in the first person. He no longer sees his family, and he would never let his parents anywhere near his two children, of whom he is the primary carer. He has not seen his mother in thirty years. He holds no grudge against her but fears her ‘more than anyone, or anything’.

Reflecting on his undergraduate years at a sandstone university, the author admits to having felt a ‘murderous impulse’ on listening to his polished classmates. Later, tutoring them, he noted that the best of them were the children of judges, academics, and architects – ‘private-schooled and private-tutored’.

It would be impertinent to analyse or patronise the boy so compellingly memorialised in this uncompromising book. Any vindication or overcoming was all his own work. Perhaps, on squeamishly delving into such worlds, we should simply quote the children, the victims of our collective indifference:

What can we do with rage, disillusionment and desperation? Is it possible to hate, justly, without poisoning your own soul? How can we believe in a god, or a society, that permits a single child to suffer?

So the boy asks himself and his discomfited reader.

Peter Rose reviews 'Childhood' by Shannon Burns


by Shannon Burns

Text Publishing, $34.99 pb, 257 pp

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