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Body language: ‘The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen’

By Amy Walters
Echoing folktales and fables, Krissy Kneen’s memoir contemplates the body’s visceral knowledge of inherited trauma

In her 2009 memoir Affection, Krissy Kneen recounted her cloistered upbringing, first in Blacktown, New South Wales, then in Bororen, Queensland, where her family ran a tourist attraction called Dragonhall. As a child, she experienced a deeply sensuous inner life marked by an intense sexual precocity. As an adult, she retains a predilection for crushes on strangers: there is her bookshop colleague Christopher and then his friend, Paul. When Kneen unexpectedly spends an evening exchanging messages with Paul via Facebook, she knows what is coming: “[a]lready, right up front, he feels like family to me.”

Kneen’s second memoir, The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen, traces the lineage of this desire for kinship and belonging. “I know I am compensating”, she writes, “for the emptiness I feel when I am with my own maternal family.” Rather than imparting a firm sense of identity, the extreme closeness of the household in which Kneen was raised – she lived with her mother, aunt, sister and grandparents – has engendered a sense of amputation. Dominating all their lives is her formidable grandmother, who “ensured we had no friends, no community, no other family. All we had was her.” She is known to them as Lotty but was born as Dragica in territory now belonging to Slovenia.

After Lotty passes away, Kneen finally feels at liberty to examine the questions that have pulsed away in her mind for a lifetime. Contemplating her family tree at the outset of this journey, she is reminded that “all the tangling branches leading away from me are bare and fruitless and they stretch into a mysteriously empty past”. While attempting to bring her questions to a resolution, Kneen lays her grandmother’s ashes to rest. The first of the titular burials takes place at her family’s home in Bororen; the second in the Slovenian town of Miren; and the third in Alexandria, Egypt, where Lotty lived among the Aleksandrinke, a community centring on generations of Slovenian women from the Goriška region who, from the 1860s to the 1950s, found employment as nannies and domestic workers to wealthy Europeans in Egypt.

Most families tell myths about themselves, but for Kneen the sense of the fabular in her ancestry is particularly acute. To her child’s eye, her family home resembled Baba Yaga’s house: “[a] house with chicken’s feet surrounded by impenetrable woods”. Thanks to her grandmother, her imagination is populated by figures from Central European folklore, including the Krivopete, with their backward-facing feet and their habit of telling secrets minus the crucial facts. Kneen weaves these elemental creatures into her narrative, and this touch of magic renders her own journey as a kind of fable.

While Kneen catches glimpses of traumas experienced by her grandmother and great-grandmother, she has ultimately been left with only the barest of reference points. “I know there must have been horrors in my grandmother’s history to make her so aggressively frightened of the world”, she acknowledges, “but she never told us the true stories.” Like the Krivopete, Lotty’s telling of fairytales was punctuated by deep, echoing silences, which perpetuated lingering mysteries. Kneen ponders her grandfather’s olive skin, which belies his possession of a British passport. And what of her grandmother’s insistence that the witchcraft that runs through the family skips a generation, or her memories of Lotty attempting to draw away the pain of her migraines in childhood?

Kneen’s journey is filled with the kinds of serendipitous meetings and unlikely coincidences that often prevail in family history research, and she displays an uncanny ability to sniff out kin. After befriending her colleague James in Brisbane, Kneen is swiftly adopted by his family. As her embeddedness in their lives continues, she slowly realises that they are, in all likelihood, blood relatives; James’s family is from a town close to where her grandmother was born. Further chance encounters unfurl as her research progresses: a long-lost cousin contacts her on Facebook, and an Australian literary critic who happens to be living in Egypt emails Kneen about one of her novels, which sparks a new friendship and spurs Kneen’s trip to Alexandria. 

Rubbing up against her research odyssey is modern science. But in Kneen’s account, science and magic are twinned, and she steers the narrative away from the reductive trap of biological determinism. While Kneen considers herself a deeply scientific person, she has the distinct feeling that her grandmother – and her grandmother’s traumatic experiences – live on in her own body. “My grandmother shifts in my gut. She feels large and muscular, coiled up and around herself … The moment she senses me flexing my own will, questioning things, bucking against the rhythm, she flexes her one long muscle and sinks her teeth into my intestines.”

Kneen understands that science is now attempting to account for this kind of visceral knowledge through the emerging field of epigenetics, and the potential of a concrete, biological explanation for some of her struggles is alluring. Reflecting on her decades-long battle with her weight, Kneen writes: “Perhaps if I had some scientific answer, an understanding of the genetic switch that flicked on in my body when I was still a dream inside a dream inside my grandmother’s starving body, then I would learn to accept the body I am now in.” Ultimately, however, this piece of the cosmic jigsaw remains elusive. Travelling to Slovenia does not alleviate her feeling of being a “square peg”, and a DNA test, which Kneen takes to see if she has Jewish heritage, raises more questions than answers. To her credit, Kneen never loses sight of the role stories play in shaping human consciousness; it is ultimately her grandmother’s telling of them, with their concomitant silences, that has made her who she is.

Traditionally, fairytales ended darkly, with their (mostly female) protagonists paying a price for having their wishes granted. Kneen is aware that investigating her family history may be a double-edged sword. She knows that the results of the DNA test will “chain me to a family that I would have to accept as my own”. But it is hard not to feel that Kneen has paid a price for most of her life, haunted as she is by a hollow feeling, which at times she attributes to a “creeping horror that fills the space left by secrets”. Kneen is able, however, to live with her family’s legacy of trauma by embracing the secrets of her body, its intuition and its pleasures. Following her grandmother’s recipes, she finds a satiation that exists in tension with her abiding sense of emptiness. She rediscovers the ful medames (an Egyptian dish based on fava beans) that her grandmother cooked for her during childhood. There is alchemy in cooking, in its ability to conjure the happier memories from childhood, and in families nourishing their members for generations; it allows Kneen to salvage what she can of her family’s past. It is fuel for her and her adopted family members, as she bravely treads “a fragile path towards who I really am”.

Amy Walters

Amy Walters is a Canberra-based writer and reviewer. She runs the blog The Armchair Critic, and her reviews have appeared in Right Now, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin.

@CouchCritic18

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