Karina, left, aged 1 and her brother Peter, aged 2. Image supplied.
Karina, left, aged 1 and her brother Peter, aged 2. Image supplied.

BooksMarch 1, 2020

Two secret families: a writer’s true story of upheaval and healing

Karina, left, aged 1 and her brother Peter, aged 2. Image supplied.
Karina, left, aged 1 and her brother Peter, aged 2. Image supplied.

Karina Kilmore, author of new crime novel Where the Truth Lies, thought she had her own life story all figured out. Then six years ago she got an email …  

Families have always been living, breathing messed-up hot spots of dysfunction. Think about your last family get-together. Did that sister of yours cause trouble again? Why does someone always mention the unmentionable? And, honestly, did he really have to bring ‘her’ along? Not to mention all the relatives who weren’t invited or refused to come.

Sure, these can be called spats rather than dysfunction but spats often grow and last for years, generations, centuries, even. Some of the greatest wars in history have been caused by family rifts, some of the greatest love songs parse family heartbreak and pain, some of the worst crimes imaginable are those committed by one family member against another. 

Perhaps now we should only describe our families if they are not dysfunctional. 

Dysfunctional is the new normal. Divorce is common, divided families are common, step sisters, half brothers, you name it. The only situation that is no longer common is the nuclear family. 

So my shock at finding a secret family – well, to be accurate, two secret families – was not so much a product of dysfunction but a result of a very normal event: a breakdown when my parents split. And we all know what happens when you split the atom – all hell breaks loose.

Karina Kilmore and her crime novel, Where the Truth Lies

It was the 1960s. My mother was left with two children under two. My father left for Australia with a cute brunette.

That was pretty much the only thing we ever knew about my father. During my toddler years, when we were brought up by my grandmother, I didn’t know my father was missing. I’d never had him. Then when my mother re-partnered, my brother and I just assumed our stepfather was our father. We also got a new baby brother, so we were very happy about it all.

Then in a fit of spite, or perhaps just tiredness and poverty, during another stint of several years when my mother, freshly separated again, was ‘off somewhere’, my grandmother told us the story of our real father. He was not our loving funny father, our step-father unbeknown to us, the man who had just left us. Our real father was another man who had also left us. At age 10 and 11, it turned our worlds upside down. And, of course, as kids we thought everything was our fault.

As we got older we would overhear the odd conversation about our real father. We overheard that his name was Peter. We heard his mother was called Molly. We heard he was tall, dark and handsome – at this I remember my grandmother and her friends nodding wisely to each other.  He was only ever whispered about.

Life, as it does, went on. My brothers and I went our separate ways and made our own families, gloriously normal in their heartbreaking dysfunction. Distance keeps us together as we only see each other on extra special occasions and they are always happy.

Then out of the blue about six years ago I got an email from a young woman in Australia who said she was my sister. She was my father’s child. Not only was she my sister but we also had another sister and brother from my father but to a different mother. Sadly, I also learned our secret brother had died in his early 20s. 

But my sisters knew each other – and they had also known about us, me and my brother, all their lives. Unfortunately, as with many complicated normal family situations, they just tucked that knowledge away and didn’t think about it too much.

That was until, she wrote in that first email, about five years earlier when our father was dying. My sisters tried to find us, so we could see him or even talk to him before he was gone forever. The sisters advertised in newspapers and on the radio in New Zealand but to us they went unseen and unheard. Our names had been changed to match our stepfather and, unknown to them, we had long moved overseas. 

It was a fluke that they eventually found my brother, after he started using our family name again: Kilmore. One of them happened to notice it on a social media post and tracked him down and then traced me, Karina Kilmore-Barrymore. For simplicity I usually only used Barrymore.

I was overwhelmed with the love in that first email and those that followed. I didn’t know I had a hole in my life until these women filled it. We have still not met face to face and I think we are all still uncertain about taking that step. My mother still refuses to discuss my father or them.

One of the families my father created was with the cute brunette, a sore point for my mother who was just 21 when he left. Both of those secret families split while the children were young.

But from these new siblings I also found I had an aunt, my father’s sister. And after several years of emails and unanswered requests to my aunt, last year she finally gave me the information that I had only heard among the whispers. We are of Māori descent. For the past six months I have been finding my father’s family, my wider family, in New Zealand. And what a wonderful normal dysfunctional family it is too! With lots of lost relatives and plenty of glue. Glue that links us through our heritage. We are Ngāi Tahu. Descended from a high profile woman in the early 1800s, Piraurau, who in one of the first inter-racial weddings, performed by Catholic Bishop Pompallier, married a US whaling captain, Thomas White.

Of course, none of this relates to my debut crime novel, except, of course, that all of it does. My main character has traits from my life and those around me. She is a journalist working in Melbourne. I am a journalist living in Melbourne. I see the real world and now my fiction through these eyes formed by my childhood, my disrupted teenage years and now my more calm adult life. I know loss and love only through experiencing it myself. I know, 18 years ago, I named my only child after my grandmother who I never truly knew but always felt was with me. I know one day I will meet my secret sisters and their gorgeous children and we will both grieve and celebrate our lost time. It will be the day when we are ready to share the ‘missing’ that has been in all of our lives.  

And I know, now, a strong sense of belonging, of being grounded, no matter where I live or who is in my life. Families. Be they secret, dysfunctional, separated, step, half, adopted, disowned, weird, wonderful — are all the new normal. 

Where the Truth Lies by Karina Kilmore (Simon & Schuster, $35) will be available next week from Unity Books.

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