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Stan Walker aged 16, portrait, long curly hair
Walker aged 16, at the Ballina Idol singing competition, near Byron Bay (Photo: Supplied)

BooksOctober 8, 2020

The impossible kindness of Stan Walker

Stan Walker aged 16, portrait, long curly hair
Walker aged 16, at the Ballina Idol singing competition, near Byron Bay (Photo: Supplied)

It’s a popstar memoir. It’s also about one man’s immense compassion, writes Sam Brooks.

Content warning: contains details of rape, sexual abuse and violence.

On a whim, this past weekend I picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. The elegant epistolary novel, much lauded on its release 16 years ago, is set in mid 20th century America, and is a preacher’s account of his life for his young son. It conveys some of the more laudable elements of Christianity (or Calvinism, at least). More than that, it’s an ode to humanity’s capacity for kindness, and where that can fall short.

The novel was close to mind, and not just because I’d just finished it, as I read Stan Walker’s memoir, Impossible: My Story, written with Margie Thomson. The memoir is a very frank retelling of Walker’s life up until this point, from an abusive childhood to Idol success to his very public battle with cancer. As a chronicle of Walker’s life, it is gripping, but where the book achieves greatness – and I mean real, true greatness – is as a totem to humanity’s capacity for kindness. It’s an insight into the soul of a man whose capacity for forgiveness seems boundless.

The memoir, and Walker aged four, by which point hidings were already a terrifying fact of life (Walker family archive)

Let’s be blunt: Impossible is a heavy story. Walker is straightforward when talking about the abuse that he went through; physical at the hands of his parents, emotional by the same, and sexual, starting from when he was “a little kid”. Specifically, a 16 year-old raped Walker when he was eight, over a period of nine months. As an even younger child, he explains, “my older cousins were touching me. Then me and my other cousins would do it, and we would do it to each other and play around with each other. It was physically nice but secretive and dirty at the same time … Not full-on sex because we didn’t know how to do that, but everything else, oral, everything.”

Such passages, and those that discuss the shame around his abuse, nearly make you want to put the book down and take a few deep breaths; it’s the kind of writing that you want to be reserved for the realm of fiction, because at least then closing the book means that it never happened. There’s no relief from that in Impossible, and it’s a better story for it; it lets the reader understand the horror, especially of the rapes, and the slow, steady recovery of the aftermath. It takes the reader deep into the chasm of Walker’s childhood, and then leads us out of it, Orpheus and Eurydice style. We don’t need to look back because Walker already has.

His is a heavy story, held with strong hands. Where the references to Gilead feel apt is that this feels like someone looking back on their life with grace for nearly everybody they’ve come into contact with – although, hilariously, the two people that Walker withholds well wishes from are perhaps the most acceptable targets in New Zealand pop culture: Natalia Kills and Willy Moon. In response to the Joe Irvine incident, he says bluntly: “I just had to let that fool be a fool.” It lands so much harsher because not only is he right, it’s also a burn well-deployed, maybe the only one in the book.

Stan Walker's mother and father in the early 1990s, sitting side by side, happy, embracing.
Walker’s Māmā and Pāpā in the early 90s, Melbourne (Photo: Walker family archive)

The most compelling sections are those in which Walker discusses his relationship with his father, who had his own troubled life. At first it can seem jarring how open Walker is about his father’s actions, which include many beatings and verbal abuse. People tend to only be that open about those who have wronged them if they’re dead, or at least dead to the talker. But as you read, and Walker’s relationship with his father and indeed, his whole family, remains the spine of his whole story, you realise he’s only able to talk about this relationship because it’s one that he’s processed, and dealt with. This isn’t someone writing through their trauma, it’s someone whose trauma is a part of their tapestry, worn uncomfortably but not with shame. He writes: “I don’t judge my dad’s journey. And I separate the anger from the man, because the man has changed. Never forget that the person who deserves the most blame also, maybe, deserves the most compassion.”

Even beyond this, the book is wide-ranging, and touches on aspects of Walker’s life in a surprising amount of depth for a book of this length – it’s a fleet 334 pages, with a couple of sections of colour photos. Walker discusses his faith and relationship with God (there’s another Gilead touchpoint) in a light, conversational tone, as though God is a person with whom you can be by turns upset, annoyed at, and grateful for. It’s probably the most relatable depiction of faith I’ve read, even as an atheist-by-proxy; faith as part of the foundations that make up a person, rather than a catchall or a handwave for all of life’s problems.

Another key aspect of Walker’s story is, of course, his Māori heritage. While it might be obvious to readers in New Zealand, who claimed Walker the moment he won Idol, it might be less so to his Australian audience. The man is New Zealand born, but the popstar is Australian made. From the very start, it’s clear where he came from – Tamapahore marae in Tauranga – and where he whakapapas to. Family is the most important thing for Walker, as he says constantly, and that includes his heritage. He talks about the feeling of seeing the land he grew up on, his marae, being sold and his desire to buy it back: “Our tūpuna fought and died for this land, and look what we’ve done. We’re not going to see our land back in this lifetime.” Impossible is hardly a textbook, but it does the work to get people who might have a glancing knowledge of Māori culture up to speed, and it adds to the reader’s understanding of why Walker is where he is today.

Eight-year-old Stan Walker beams as he holds his new baby brother, Noah
Walker has just turned eight in this photo, and holds his new brother Noah (Photo: Walker family archive)

The closeness of his family, and his heritage, is what makes the section of the book that is about his illness so riveting. Though the subject is well-covered in his documentary, to read the scale of his fear and his grief, impossibly entwined when the disease is genetic, is a rare gift. He writes, “I couldn’t help but think back to the urupā at Tamapahore, all the graves, the whole history of everything that’s gone wrong in our family since this gene entered our DNA. And now it’s my turn.” The clarity and grace present in the book is especially welcome here. Some of our best philosophers can’t write about existential grief so succinctly – that Walker can express his own experience so clearly is a true, genuine marvel.

Credit has to be given to Thomson for capturing Walker’s voice so well. Reading celebrity memoirs can often feel like listening to someone at karaoke singing well out of their range. That’s not the case here. It often feels like Walker is talking to you – this would make an incredible, if harrowing audiobook – or writing you a letter. Word choices that might seem like crutches elsewhere (“fallas”, liberal use of “fully” and “as”) read as authentic, presumably because they are. Capturing a voice is no mean feat. To make it feel like the face on the cover is talking directly to you is a damn near miracle.

Walker calls his story impossible. Great marketing hook and title, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Walker’s story is tragically possible, and I imagine the darker moments of this story will resonate for too many readers. What is less possible, and all the more admirable, is the kindness and forgiveness that Walker displays to those around him – as well as, explicitly, himself. As Reverend John Ames (and Robinson, of course) writes in Gilead, “Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.”

Impossible: My Story, by Stan Walker with Margie Thomson (Harper Collins, $39.99) can be pre-ordered from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland, and should be available next week. 

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