Magda Szubanski is holding court in a Tumbarumba cafe. This is not where you’d expect the A-list comedian, actor and writer to hang out. Sure enough, the locals are asking her for selfies and autographs, grateful for the distraction stardust brings.
It’s been 10 months since the cataclysmic fires of January 2020 tore through more than 4,000 square kilometres of forests, orchards and farmland in the Snowy Valleys area of New South Wales. It was one of the worst-hit parts of the state. And that’s exactly why Magda is here.
She’s on a road trip with the most unlikely of travel buddies — 19-year-old Will Connolly, aka Egg Boy, and describes herself as the teen’s “second nagging mother”.
They’ve raised almost $190,000 to help with the long-term trauma that bushfire survivors often experience. And they’re using that money to fund an arts program that’s been road tested on soldiers.
But first they want to understand what locals have been through so the program targets community needs.
Over the roar of the milk frother, the hot tip is: “You’ve got to talk to Macca. He’s a wacka.”
Paul McPherson, better known as Macca, is an old cocky with a quick wit and a broken heart.
So the odd couple head out of town in search of this legend. Having grown up in the area, he might well be able to help get the word out about creative workshops they want to start, and get some healing in the process.
Macca hasn’t heard of Will, but he’s had a lot of laughs watching Sharon Strezlecki in the television comedy series Kath and Kim. Yet when the woman who plays the hapless netballer walks up the driveway, he starts tearing up.
The towering grey-haired 72-year-old doesn’t need to explain how the fire had torched the Poll Hereford stud bulls he’d raised since they were calves. Or the guilt he feels at abandoning them. Or why he insisted on returning to his farm with the vet to put down any survivors so they didn’t die alone.
Macca just hugs Magda like there’s no tomorrow. And she reads every muscle flinch.
“It’s grief and loss,” Magda says. “It’s that deep need to connect. It’s that moment when all human pretence just drops away and you’re just of a couple of people, one who’s been through something really hard, and another who hopes they can do something to help.”
By the time they leave the cattle yard, Macca’s on board.
“This is the generation we’ve got to look after,” he says as he squeezes Will’s shoulder. “We’ve got to leave the country in a workable situation so you people can carry on.”
Using the ‘Egg Boy’ name for good
Magda remembers seeing Will Connolly on the news, long before she met him.
It was March 16, 2019, the day after an Australian killed 51 worshippers in two New Zealand mosques.
“It was like a scream of rage,” Magda said. “He was just incensed, and I got that.”
The video of Will went viral. The young man became a hashtag and a meme that spread worldwide. Will went from having a few mates on his Instagram account to 40,000 followers in a couple of hours. He was being offered a lifetime of free drinks, holidays and concert tickets.
Someone even set up a fundraiser to cover any legal fees Will might incur if the senator pressed charges against him. Ultimately none were forthcoming.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to be a rich 17-year-old,'” Will said. “I honestly wanted to keep like a third and donate two-thirds.”
But Will could see his family crumbling under the public spotlight. So he agreed to donate the full $100,000 to the families of those murdered in Christchurch.
And ultimately that led to him meeting Magda Szubanski.
In May 2019 Will was invited to Byron Bay to attend a convention that brought together people with unusual takes on how to make the world a better place. He was awestruck.
“I met this lady who’s going to Mars,” he said. “I met some shamans, I met really switched on, high-up people in techno-making!”
Will shook with nerves as he took to the stage.
Magda was in the audience and his vulnerability struck a chord with her. When he finished, she tapped him on the shoulder. He looked at her blankly.
“She was like, ‘We’re going to be friends,'” Will said. “And I was just like, ‘Oh, OK, thanks. I don’t really know who you are.’
“And everyone’s looking around like, ‘Oh my God, he doesn’t know he’s speaking to.'”
Magda said, “What evs,” and told him to call her if he ever needed help.
‘I never saw it coming’: The partnership begins
Seven months later, bushfires swept down the east coast of Australia. Will desperately wanted to help. So he messaged Magda asking if she’d set up a GoFundMe with him to raise money for survivors.
She messaged back “yes” and Will and his mother went to Magda’s home a couple of days later.
When Kim Parrington introduced herself as Will’s mother, Magda went into her Kath and Kim routine. The woman riffed off each other with some of the comedy series’ famous quips, “Kimmie” and “Look at me”, and forged an instant bond with each other.
“I’ve been surrounded by Kims my whole life!” Magda told her.
But then the gravity of what they were planning to do hit home.
“Suddenly I realised that I was in this sort of financial legal venture with a 19-year-old boy, who I really knew nothing about, and his mum,” Magda said. “It just was not what I saw coming at all.”
Will thought something eye-catching like infrastructure and animal welfare might raise more money.
But Magda disagreed.
Right from the start, she wanted it to help long-term mental health problems associated with trauma.
As a university student she had worked at a women’s refuge and seen how family violence affected survivors. She also spent time with survivors of the 2019 Black Saturday fires in Victoria.
Trauma is something Magda knows only too well.
‘My dad was an assassin’
Magda spent years in therapy trying to understand what might have led to the anxiety she has suffered much of her life.
“I grew up around people who had experienced hell on Earth, genuine hell on Earth,” she told Australian Story. “And they either were in denial about it, or nervous wrecks, or drank themselves to death.
“I think my whole life I’ve been a bit obsessed with the idea of what do you do when the worst thing that you can imagine happens and your world as you know it ceases to exist. How do you find your way through that?”
Magda’s father, Peter Szubanski, was 15 in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, where he grew up. The Szubanskis were well-to-do Roman Catholics and hid Jews from the Gestapo. At 19 Peter, joined the secretive underground movement. His job was to kill collaborators. Ultimately, he was forced to flee Poland and he never saw his parents again.
“My father sort of coped with it by just stoically shutting it off,” Magda said. “But it’s there, and certainly as the second generation you pick up on it.”
“We never talked about trauma,” long-standing family friend Teresa Adamski told Australian Story. “And no-one ever suggested that we should have some help.”
Teresa’s husband George Adamski fought alongside Peter Szubanski in Unit 993W. As a 10-year-old she spent five months in Auschwitz, where her mother died.
“But unlike other Poles I grew up with, Teresa somehow always stayed hopeful,” Magda said. “And I loved her for that.”
Talking with her over the years has helped Magda deal with the impact of her father’s trauma on her family.
So, when she and Will started searching for a project they could bankroll, Magda was keen to tap into Teresa’s life-affirming positivity.
Healing through creative arts
Magda heard about a small team from the University of Canberra that was having success with an intensive arts program involving Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel who’d experienced trauma.
“Some of the military people who come on the Defence arts program are really very, very ill indeed,” creative arts and wellbeing researcher Jordan Williams said.
“Time and again we see people just bloom and develop some sense of hope and some kind of belief in their ability to have a life.”
Researchers in South Australia were finding a similar result with emergency workers.
“Creative arts activity can help you access the emotional memories part of your brain that trauma can make it hard to access,” Military and Emergency Services Health Australia’s Holly Bowen-Salter said.
“And if you can get something that’s inside your brain out in a painting, a poem or a piece of music, you can stand back from it and work with it to understand what you’ve been through.”
Magda and Will were intrigued. And when the Canberra team suggested a novel adaptation of the ADF program for bushfire survivors, they were convinced.
The first rollout is underway in the Snowy Valley Area townships of Tumbarumba, Tumut, Batlow and Adelong.
Instead of bringing people in for intensive arts workshops, trauma specialists from Phoenix Australia are helping the team train local art teachers in how to recognise the signs of trauma and to deal with it so they can run therapeutic art classes close to home.
Fran Geale is one of the first to take part. She’s been running pottery workshops for 10 years. Like many of her students, she was lucky to survive the fire that stormed through the area on New Year’s Day 2020.
“We are all bit bent and broken,” she said. “And we all need help. Even though a lot of us say that we don’t.
“Right after my place was burnt, I needed to make pots for me to recover, and then when I got classes going again, I was swamped.”
Tumbarumba year 12 student Jacqueline Pearce had grown cynical about celebrities coming through town in the weeks after the fires, saying how much they cared and then disappearing. So when she heard that Magda and Will were going to give a talk at her high school, she didn’t get her hopes up.
But Will’s youthful passion for the arts project struck a chord.
“It felt like they actually were going to do something like to help the community and our school,” Jacqueline said.
Some students are keen to train as teachers and others just want to take part in the graffiti and craft workshops already underway.
Although still in its infancy, the Regeneration team hopes to roll the project out on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island and in Victoria’s alpine region. If they can raise more money, they’ll take it further.
Magda knows the healing power of comedy. When the Tumbarumba Fliers come into the pub after winning the senior netball comp, Magda gets her Sharon Strezlecki outfit from the car, and brings the house down as she joins in the celebration.
But she’s also an attentive listener. Will sits quietly observing her wisdom.
“I”m watching Magda communicate with all these people,” he said. “What is apparent is how wise and wisely soft she approaches them.”
And she’s taken on the role of mentor as well as friend.
“He’s young and he’s idealistic and he wants to do something to try and make the world a better place,” she said.
“I’m very happy for him to learn from me, to help that despair be channelled into a really constructive activity rather than just, you know, smash an egg.”
Magda believes that getting people “trauma literate” is critical for the smooth running of civil society. And she’s in it for the long haul.
“Fire brain is a real thing,” she said. “It’s decision fatigue, it’s cognitive fatigue, it’s the inability to make a plan — but it’s also a sense of overwhelm.
“When you’re making decisions and being part of a community, it’s much easier to do that when you know, oh, this is what’s making me feel like this. This is why I’m doing this. This is why I’m irritable. This is why I fly off the handle at nothing.
“We’re only going to see more traumatic situations in the future so we need to get real about how we deal with it.”
As far as Macca’s concerned, Magda and Will are already having an impact on his town just by being there.
“Unless we have people that are prepared to put themselves on the line and have a look,” he said. “We’re going to be behind the eight ball all the time.”
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