the phone call that unlocked an extraordinary family story


Allen had always imagined herself “one of those people who shows up at the funeral with her arms crossed, standing in the back, it’s just a bit of a joke.” No attachment. »

Instead, the moment she gave her mother’s eulogy, she realized she had lost a best friend. “I’m so grateful to have learned who she was and what drove the behaviors that I didn’t like. She was a really damaged person, because you would be given that experience.

Sally McKenzie, left, and Jules Allen in Betty.

This experience. At the heart of Betty the piece is Betty the sister, who died when Allen’s mother was 11 years old. In the days following his death, Allen’s mother was sent from the family home in Thailand to a boarding school in Australia, deprived of connections in this strange new country. She had no way to process the tragedy that sent her into exile, and the resulting pain turned into generational trauma.

It didn’t help that when Allen’s mother finally reunited with her family, her daughter in tow, she was told the dead Betty had returned from the grave.

“Grandmother and (Aunt) Napah thought I was her reincarnation, they really did. They treated me like her. I don’t think I understood it well. I knew it was causing something in Mom that she didn’t like. I knew I was treated incredibly well by them, spoiled rotten. I felt like royalty.

This only deepened the rift between mother and daughter – Allen’s mother had endured a difficult childhood, only to see her family shower young Jules with the affection he had been denied. Throughout his travels, Allen has seen the same complex dynamic play out again and again, in which a mother’s love for her daughter is mixed with resentment, overly high expectations, and the guilt that comes with it. She calls it “the envious attack”.

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“I did it with my daughter, we talked about it and I apologized many times, but I did it too,” she says. “You love them, but I know my tolerance for my sons is incredibly different than my daughters. I try to discuss it openly as much as possible without causing harm, but I am very aware of it.

The self-reproach that follows these envious attacks illustrates the complexity of the process: Allen joked with his friends that “the placenta was just a bag of guilt. Because I didn’t feel guilt before I had kids, and I’ve only felt guilt since. I don’t think there’s a parent on the planet who wouldn’t say that. There is love, guilt, shame and generosity.

In the years following her mother’s death, Allen returned to Thailand to spend time with her family overseas, and while there – in an experience deserving of its own story – she saw the skeletal remains of her family, including Betty, being dug up from their graves. It was then that the enormity of the girl’s death hit Allen, and how much her mother must have suffered over the claim that her sister was living in her own daughter.

During the last year of her life, Allen’s mother revealed the whole story of Betty’s fate, repeating it over and over to her daughter, each time as if for the first time. She asked Allen to tell this story herself one day. Betty is not a play that wallows in its horrors, however. It’s too tender for that, too invested in compassion rather than shock. Betty might haunt the work, but it focuses on the living mother embodied by Rose, a rich portrayal of a parent facing the prospect of their own impending death but determined to fit in as much as possible with the remaining time.

It was this focus on Rose that proved key to Allen’s autobiographical work: although she lived a story-rich life, the piece is less about her and more about the fascinating enigma that was her mother. Abrasive, hurt, and bristling with a prickly spirit, Rose is a singular character in her situation but oddly relatable. After all, you won’t find a person on the planet who didn’t have a mother.

Betty is at the Theater Works from February 16. theatreworks.org.au/program/betty

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