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Music, Laughter and Trauma

March 17, 2014

Lola Bensky by Lily BrettLily Brett, Lola Bensky, 2012

Trauma affects not only those who experience it, but also those around them, including their children. Lola Bensky is a powerful portrayal of such secondary traumatic stress. Lola’s parents, like those of Lily Brett, survived the Holocaust, and their trauma plays out in every aspect of Lola’s life. “The space that most parents had available for the children’s current lives was taken up by the past.”

Yet Lola Bensky is not a grim book. While we are not spared the shocking images, they are interwoven with humour. Brett says: “Real people laugh and they cry, and you have to do both in life.” Bertolt Brecht believed that only through music and good humour can humanity’s worst horrors be confronted in retrospect.*

Lola Bensky is full of both music and laughter. In 1967, nineteen-year-old Lola is a journalist interviewing rock stars in London and New York for an Australian pop music magazine. (These interviews are based on Brett’s own experiences working for Go-Set.) Her unfettered access made me realise how much the nature of celebrity has changed in the past 50 years. Now interviews are strictly controlled with an approved list of questions and limited time in which to ask them. In 1967 Lola has a leisurely conversation with Mick Jagger in his apartment, with no minders present. He makes her a cup of tea, and invites her to come back later to meet Paul McCartney.

Lola is not interested in music – she wants to know about the people who make it. She asks Cat Stevens if he gets on well with his mother, and talks to Jimi Hendrix about religion. Her parents’ trauma often intrudes into these conversations, despite her not intending to bring them up. She is surprised to find herself telling Mick Jagger about the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz. Later in her life, these horrors intrude in more destructive ways, as agoraphobia, panic attacks, depression and suicidal thoughts.

All of Lola’s parents’ relatives have died in the Holocaust. She feels glued to the dead. “The aunts, uncles, cousins she was meant to have grown up among. The grandparents she had never met but missed. … Her past was always going to be full of murdered people.”

Lola inherits her mother’s overwhelming survivor guilt, but she eventually learns to manage her “ambivalence about surviving and her attraction to the dead”. She catalogues the lengthy list of sixties music stars who died young, but she finds relief to know that some – Mick Jagger, Cher – have survived. She also gains relief by writing novels about a detective agency run by an imperious woman called Pimp, who employs two Jewish detectives whose ineptitude always turn out to be advantageous. The descriptions of these novels are hilarious. When Lola becomes Pimp, she doesn’t have fear or doubt and she doesn’t examine her every move. She feels calm.

Brett writes in a beguiling style except for one habit – repetition. She often writes two or more sentences, one after another, saying the same thing in different words. But this is a minor quibble. What she does superbly is to bring home to us the reality of the Holocaust so that we feel its horrors without being overwhelmed by them.

For me, Lola Bensky is worth reading just for its depiction of the Monterey Pop Festival. I’ve always wished I could have been at Monterey, more than any other festival of that era, especially to experience Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain. Lily Brett takes me there. She recreates the atmosphere of the festival, the sense that a revolution is happening. And she puts us in the front rows when Joplin performs Ball and Chain:

Janis Joplin began the song very slowly, singing about sitting at her window just looking at the rain. A minute later, her soul was pouring out with every note. Shaking her head and  stamping one leg, she was half-singing, half-crying, with her eyes closed and her face twisted and contorted, she cried out, asking herself, the audience, God, anyone, why love had to be like a ball and chain. … Lola could see that Janis Joplin was lost. Lost in her wounds and injuries and aches. You could almost touch the lacerations and inflammations of her heart. Lola didn’t know how Janis Joplin was going to emerge from that immersion.

*The Bertolt Brecht quote comes from Evan Williams’ review of The Missing Picture, The Weekend Australian, 15/3/2014 (paywalled online).

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