Author Tags: Health, Journalism, War
During her writing career spanning seven decades, Lisa Hobbs Birnie, a ground-breaking journalist, has published ten books, most notably Uncommon Will: The Death and Life of Sue Rodriguez, to investigate the societal stigma of suicide and the need for right-to-die legislation in Canada. She has also taken on subjects that include the Canadian penal system, China, the Holocaust, feminism and murder. In Such a Good Boy, she wrote about how 18-year-old Darren Huenemann convinced two friends to kill his mother and grandmother in 1990 in order that he might sooner inherit their estate, while avoiding pat conclusions and sensationalism in the process. Some of Hobbs Birnie’s earlier books arise from her years as a foreign correspondent, such as India India (McGraw-Hill 1963) and I Saw Red China (McGraw-Hill 1966). Two autobiographical works pertaining to the emergence of feminism in the Seventies, Love and Liberation: Up Front with the Feminists (McGraw-Hill 1972) and Running Towards Life (McGraw-Hill 1973, describe how and why she left San Francisco to live in a remote cabin near the Alberni Canal in B.C.
After breaking into the newspaper business in her native Australia, Hobbs Birnie was a delegate to the first American/Canadian Newspaper Guild National Conference on Women’s Rights, in Chicago, in 1970. Having worked for ten years in San Francisco as a reporter, she wrote for the Vancouver Sun for eight years as a reporter and columnist. She became the first woman associate editor of The Sun in 1976.
A former Contributing Editor to Saturday Night Magazine, Hobbs Birnie then worked as full-time member of National Parole Board for nine years, giving rise to Inside the Parole Board: The Truth About Canada's Criminal Justice System (Macmillan 1990).
In 1994, Sue Rodriguez of Victoria was diagnosed as having Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, an increasingly degenerative disease of the nerves and muscles. She died in February of 1994. Lisa Hobbs Birnie’s Uncommon Will: The Death and Life of Sue Rodriguez (Macmillan 1994) serves as a landmark volume in the ongoing struggles to establish the legal right to assisted suicide in North America, to enable loved ones to die with dignity.
Uncommon Will was followed by Western Lights: Fourteen Distinctive British Columbians (Raincoast, 1996), including profiles of Sven Robinson, L.R. Wright, Vicki Gabereau, Joy Kogawa and Nicola Cavendish.
At age 82, Hobbs Birnie published her investigation of a remarkable Holocaust relationship, In Mania’s Memory (Read Leaf 2010), about a Polish Jew named Mania Fishel Kroll and a German Christian named Johanne Clausen Muller. After Mania was imprisoned in Auschwitz at age seven, she was protected, at age twelve, by her Nazi guard, Johanne, who gave her special food, enabling her to survive in a work camp called Reichenbach. More than thirty years later, Mania was living in Toronto in 1976 when she hired a cleaning woman who struck her as strangely familiar. Mania became convinced her cleaning lady was Johanne, the once beautiful, young German woman who had been passionately in love with an officer of the Third Reich. But this cleaning lady steadfastly denies she is Johanne. Are memories reliable? Birnie accompanied both women on a journey back to Auschwitz to unravel the truth.
Lisa Hobbs Birnie is a recipient of a Professional Journalism Fellowship to Stanford University, a gold medal from the National Magazine Foundation (1992), the Hubert Evans Award for B.C. Non-Fiction, and she has served as a writer-in-residence at Monash University, Melbourne (1998). Her book on China received the Kajima Institute for Peace Award in Tokyo, in 1968, and she organized one of the first Christian-Buddhist Conferences in Canada, in Surrey, in 1998.
Along the way she has interviewed the likes of Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Woody Allen, Clare Boothe Luce, William Shatner, Joan Crawford, Burt Lancaster and Timothy Leary. She has met the likes of Mme. Kang Kai Check, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain, Hedda Hopper, Gregory Peck and Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia.
Near the outset of the 21st century, she married the artist John Koerner. Hobbs Birnie edited his memoirs for A Brush with Life (Ronsdale 2005). “There's no such thing as retirement in writing or publishing,” she has said. Lisa Hobbs Birnie lived with her husband in their Kerrisdale apartment until his death in 2014, whereupon she decided to move to the United States to be closer to her relatives. Her papers are housed at Simon Fraser University Special Collections.
[BCBW 2014] Alan Twigg
from Speech (2010)
In 2010, Lisa Hobbs Birnie was invited to the Jewish Literary Festival, at the Jewish Community Centre, as the author of In Mania’s Memory. Here is an abridged and appended version of her remarks.
“When I accepted the offer to speak here I was given some gentle direction that was welcome but challenging. “Be personal. Tell about your life—the more personal the better.” I was thrilled to be asked to talk about myself—I often do—but no on had ever asked me before and had thought I’d be a goner before someone asked me to. The request was also challenging because there’s also the danger of sounding like a tiresome egomaniac.
IN THE BEGINNING
“I’ll say right at the beginning I’ve had a wonderful life, whether connected or not, who knows, but I have always regarded it as a spiritual journey. I was not a brainy kid, nor was my family wealthier or less dysfunctional than any other family.
“I got my first job in Melbourne, Australia, where I was born. Did I dream of being a writer, and pursue studies that follow a clear path into literary glory? Did I make my parents happy by saying, “I know exactly what I want to do with my life?” Not at all. I didn’t have a clue.
“At 19 years of age, I was still mooning about the house, thinking perhaps I should be an opera singer, although I couldn’t carry a tune. One day, my darling, fed-up father informed me we were going to Warrnambool, in the Western District, where I had a job interview. I found that amazing as I hadn’t applied for any job, but he had and signed my name. I got the job and at 19 entered the world of journalism.
“I stayed for 35 years. They were the glory days of journalism. It was like entering a lunatic asylum; journalism provided a rich education in life. Young reporters were trained in every field that journalism reflected—covering criminal trials, weddings, horse races, union meetings, chasing fires and attending tea parties. For a while it was, incidentally, almost an “equal opportunity job.” I really didn’t know what I was doing, but liked it.
“My second job, with the Melbourne Angus, was a roaring success. When King George the Sixth died and Elizabeth became Queen, I was sent by the Angus to London to cover the Coronation, and was designated the paper’s official correspondent at Buckingham Palace. This required presenting myself and credentials to Commander Richard Colville, the Queen’s communication secretary, at Buckingham Palace.
“This assignment provided me with a valuable lesson—never take news of the British royal family—or really of the British—too seriously.
“On the assigned day I went to Buckingham Palace—known as Buck House—to meet Commander Colville. He was ensconced in a rather small, dark room at the end of miles of narrow, red-walled, red-carpeted corridors. He was appropriately cheerful and chipper, asked me my name several times, and that of my paper.
“Lisa, Lisa Allan, Melbourne Angus.”
“Yes, yes. Wonderful to have the colonies here for the Coronation. Wonderful. What WAS that name again?”
“As I left he assured me he would provide all the help he could. It so happened that Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband, had a birthday a week or so later. So I rang Commander Colville, mentioned my name and paper, and asked if he could tell me what the Queen had given Philip for his birthday.
“WHAT?” He roared. “Who is this?”
“Never heard of you,” he roared.
“The phone clicked.
“So my London editor taught me the ropes.
“Question: What gift is dull, and unimaginative?
Answer: A paperweight.
Q: What would make it valuable?
A: If it was in solid sliver.
“Mes amis! The light went on, and my story went out. The next day my paper came out with a by-lined exclusive story: “Queen gives Philip silver paper weight in the shape of...”
“As everyone by now was entranced by the pretty, slim young queen and her coming Coronation, I enjoyed one of the most creative years of my life— the royal family did not care what was written as long as it was non-offensive—and I returned to Australia a hero.
MARRIAGE & TRAVEL
“Awhile later I married an American and went to live in San Francisco. In San Francisco I had another lucky break. I’d wanted to get into China for many years but China would not grant a visa to any Western journalists. However, my father saw that the Chinese had offered 20 visas to the Australia-China Friendship Association. He obtained an application, sent it to me in San Francisco, and I filled it out saying Aussie housewife and gave my parents’ address in Sydney.
“It was a dangerous thing to do, but I got into China and became the first staff reporter from a U.S. paper to get into China in ten years. The book I wrote, published by McGraw-Hill in New York, made the New York Times bestseller list. Barbara Walters interviewed me twice, and I was also interviewed by Mike Wallace—it was quite a coup.
“Next came Cambodia and Vietnam. The war was on, and for me this era was one of great personal confusion. My husband believed the war was a necessary involvement; I was totally against it. Caught in the turmoil of the war, my own feelings, my husband’s viewpoint and the atrocities on both sides, I felt a kind of writer’s paralysis.
“We changed our life completely and moved to Canada, choosing an isolated cabin off the Alberni Canal. Our only neighbours were the Uchucklesit Band of the Nootka Tribe. Many of he elders did not speak English. Our groceries came in once a week on the costal ship Lady Rose. Physically it was paradise. The brutal world seemed on another planet. I wrote a book called Love and Liberation, published by McGraw-Hill, and another called Running Toward Life.
“But the life I was running towards was not my life, it was the life my spouse wanted. Finally—at last—I was, through considerable pain and self-knowledge, becoming profoundly self-aware. I moved into Vancouver and joined the Vancouver Sun.
“At the November 20-22, 1970, conference of the American Newspaper Guild in Chicago, 5 women delegates represented Canada—Sheila McCook, Eleanor Dunn, Jan Hunt, Simma Holt and myself. At 2 a.m. Simma and I received a call from ANG president Chuck Perlick that the other 3 women on the drafting committee planned to release a press statement declaring the ANG executive as ‘the true oppressors of women in the newspaper business.’ I immediately drafted a conference report with more than 60 recommendations that not only addressed every aspect of sex discrimination in the industry, but also proposed specific steps to eliminate them. The recommendations also provided for the creation of a process for legal action to be taken where any discriminatory practice existed. While our concern included the editorial staff, our primary concern involved the areas of hiring and opportunities for women in advertising and clerical positions where discriminatory practices were rampant.
“All these recommendations were passed and placed into practice. This was my only foray into union politics but it was of enduring importance.
"My only other incursion into anything remotely political was in October, 1987, when I went with the USSR-USA Citizens for Peace Friendship Association. The Association's belief was that governments could not be trusted to ensure peace, but that a massive exchange of students and basic knowledge of, and friendship with, citizens in other countries could make a critical difference in the spirit in which political policy was developed. So I travelled to many cities with this group of about 18 Americans - I being the only Canadian - meeting refusniks (people who wished to leave the USSR but couldn't) and standing on street corners handing out cards written in Russian to bewildered passers-by who, after reading the first line, scurried away. The cards said something like 'I am an American citizen and am concerned about the future for your children as much as for mine. We must work together to ban the bomb.' When I got onto a bus and worked my way down handing out these pamphlets I was always astounded when everyone leapt off at the next stop.
“Eight years after I joined the Sun I was on the editorial board doing many of the editorials on the criminal justice system. I was then invited to become a commissioner on the National Parole Board. I spent the next nine years in prison and was opened to the intense suffering of the human heart. The years at Bucky Palace, of fashion, of movie stardom, glamour and excitement, fell away. You didn’t meet the rich or successful in prison. You meet illiteracy, hopelessness, despair—you realize that prisons are, by and large, for the poor, for those who don’t fit in, for those who have never known or had access to the variables that create a decent citizen.
“I quit the appointment after nine years and wrote a book about the legal processes of parole and the stories behind the women and men who were seeking it. I had learned that some men should never be let out—that for a few “life” should mean exactly that—but that most prisons mostly were warehouses for locking people whom society had completely failed when they were children.
“Soon after this Sue Rodriguez, who was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and who was urging the government to allow physicians assisted suicide, asked me to write her story. This resulted in the Death and Life of Sue Rodriguez. And, in another serendipitous turn in my life, this book caught the eye of an Australian palliative specialist. He wanted me to become writer-in-residence at Monash University studying palliative care. There I learned all the things that can be done to live life comfortably and fully to the end. Another book resulted from this, A Good Day to Die, but it is available only in Australia.
”What a contrast to what I was to write—for In Mania’s Memory was waiting. I’m not saying that great forces were at work to bring us together, but as I said earlier, I believe life is a spiritual journey.
“I had learnt in my journalistic and writer’s career how we build myths around our family’s history, how much of what we read as truth is fiction, how injustice can flourish unhidden even in civilized societies. I had learned to listen and discriminate. I was ready for Mania. I’d sailed through life like a tourist and now unknown currents had pulled me into new territory.
“At first Mania’s story seemed too strange to be true. Were they fragments of a terrorized child’s imagination? How often did this happen in the world that former prisoners met their tormenters years later? How many secrets are there in peoples’ lives? And if this German housekeeper was the guard who saved Mania, why would she not admit it? What secret was she hiding?
“There was one other element that drew me close to Mania’s life. I am and had been raised as a Christian. Much of Europe was Christian. In the face of extreme silence as children, families were terrorized and murdered—I felt outrage and shame. The Vatican knew. Yet no voice was raised. Now the present Pope wishes to take the first steps towards declaring Pope Pius a saint. I find this, as a Catholic, an unspeakable outrage.
“Writing Mania’s story allowed me a chance to create a picture of an ordinary woman who lost everything but still was full of love and forgiveness. She had one legacy from her mother. That legacy was just a handful of words. Bewildered, terrified in Auschwitz, Mania, nine years old, begged her mother to go on the wire [to electrocute themselves].
“Take my hand, Mama. We’ll run onto it together. It’ll only take a minute.”
“Mania’s mother said, “Listen, my child. As long as we breathe, we have life. As long as we have life, we have love.”
“That was Mania’s treasured legacy; I know she would like you all to share its promise, its truth and its joy.
Quotes from interviews
Remarks made to Lisa Hobbs Birnie include:
“I’ve heard about Christianity but have never seen it in practice.” James Baldwin (May 8, 1963)
“I don’t like dirt—mental intellectual or spiritual.” Ansel Adams (Oct. 27, 1963)
“How could I ever have married when I had a man as great as my father (Leo).” Countess Alexandra Tolstoy (undated)
“The Catholic hierarchy in the South goes along hand in hand with the white supremacists.” John Howard Griffin (Nov. 7, 1963)
“My life? If I did everything I wanted to do I’d live to be a thousand.” Joan Crawford (April 18, 1963)
On how dancing with Rudolf Nureyev affected her: “I have been accused by the press for being icy. If I was then, I'm not now.” Dame Margot Fonteyn (Jan. 1, 1964)
“Everybody in the world feels a great void. If you are human you are incomplete.” Woody Allen (1968)
“I never bother to describe my heroes. This way the reader knows (the hero) is himself. A hero has to be something special. A killer can be anybody.” Mickey Spillane (Feb. 29, 1968)
“The strongest thing going for me is my total commitment to the building of a socialist society in Canada.” Rosemary Brown (Chatelaine July, 1975)