Toni Street may have travelled a hard road, but that doesn’t weigh down her new memoir. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Toni Street may have travelled a hard road, but that doesn’t weigh down her new memoir. (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksSeptember 27, 2021

Toni Street cracks open her past to share a life marked by grief

Toni Street may have travelled a hard road, but that doesn’t weigh down her new memoir. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Toni Street may have travelled a hard road, but that doesn’t weigh down her new memoir. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Lost and Found is a profound and brave addition to the celebrity memoir canon, writes Sam Brooks.

Simply put: Toni Street, who has had a national audience of one kind or another for 15 years, has gone through a lot. It shouldn’t be a surprise. She’s written a memoir, and people who haven’t lived all four letters of a life rarely go on to write those. (When they do, they don’t go well.)

It’s not a hard task to dismiss a celebrity memoir. You see them lining the shelves of bookstores and airport mini-marts. Rows and rows full of recognisable people holding expressions that align with their brand images. Evocative titles printed in a font you can read at 50 paces. 

Half the work these books have to do is done before you even open the cover. So long as the book fulfils the basic promise – to give you a peek behind one specific curtain – then it gets a pass and a solid endorsement. Good writing helps, but it’s hardly essential. They’re easy reads, and even easier gifts.

There are those that really stand out, though. The gossipy ones, skimmed by journos vivisecting for headlines, come to mind, as do those that end up being image rehabilitation for a politician who would perhaps not like to be a politician any more (ahem). But then there are the ones that end up being profound beyond their subject. Just last year, Stan Walker’s excellent memoir, written with Margie Thomson, ended up being less the heartbreaking story of one man and more an ode to what kindness can do. Lost and Found, Toni Street’s new memoir written with Sophie Neville, fits into this latter category.

Left: book cover, Toni looking very beautiful, tawny makeup, blonde hair; Right: Toni knackered, in pink PJs on the couch, cuddling a sleeping bub
What kindness can do: Toni with her third child, Lachie, born via surrogacy with her best friend Sophie (Photo: Supplied)

Throughout her memoir she details, with remarkable clarity, those hardships. Three of her siblings have died. As a mother of two she was diagnosed with Churg-Strauss syndrome, an auto-immune disease that, to be blunt, absolutely devastates your organs. This syndrome made it unfeasible for her to carry another pregnancy. She had a third child through a surrogate, her best friend.

That makes it sound like a tough read, but it isn’t at all. Street is a warm person – you don’t generally maintain a national audience for over a decade by being chilly – and that translates easily to the page. She has a way of cracking open her past, realising the fact that someone’s worst day might not even count among her top 10, and moving on. More crucially, Street also has the assuredness of someone who’s been through stuff, and stands comfortably on the other side of it. After all, you only know how long the tunnel is after you go through it.

She takes a big risk, one that I can imagine turning people off within a few pages, but this risk actually ends up being one of the book’s greatest assets: she puts her grief right at the top.

I’m not going to beat around the euphemism: I’ve lost a lot of the closest people in my life. I will, however, engage in a metaphor. When you lose someone close to you, that grief becomes your most well-worn piece of clothing. You find different ways to style it, to accessorise it, but it’s always there in some shape or form.

When you lose a lot of people, as Street has, it’s like putting invisible stones in your pockets. With every new person you bring into your life, you have to gauge when to have the conversation. This might be relatable – we all have at least one conversation that everybody else gets to have once but we have to have over and over again. Mine is the grief conversation, and it always goes the same, so much so that my response of “Oh no, she’s dead. No, it’s all good. It’s probably not your fault!” tends to work every time. (I’m well-practised at both having, and ending, this conversation.)

Despite how good it feels to have that conversation – it feels like a real opening of the gates, or at least a lowering of the drawbridge – it’s not a conversation you put up front. Death is scary, but grief is terrifying. Someone else’s grief is a reminder that the worst, whatever that might be, can happen and that people can get through it. In fact, they have to, and it could happen to you! That’s why Street’s decision to put that grief up front is one I found tremendously gratifying, to the point of envy.

Within the first few pages, she writes this beautiful passage:

“My brother’s death becomes a seismic marker in my life – there’s the time before he died, and the time after. Twenty years on and I still view my life in those two distinct parts.”

There are chronological reasons why her grief might be up front. Lance, her twin, died when they were 18 months old. A year on, baby Tracy died just a few hours after being born. Then came a long idyllic gap until Stephen died at 14, when Toni was 18. But going in on these losses also gives the book a strong foundation. She speaks about not just her grief, but the grief of her family, with such forthrightness that we trust her. If she got through that, and got through telling that, then she can get through anything. 

And she does.

Toni Street with executive producer Antony Stevens and co-host Rawdon Christie during her Breakfast days (Photo: Supplied)

Street’s keen sense, and sensitivity, of other people’s stories is a vital throughline of the memoir. She’s able to step outside her own perspective, and does so frequently. This shouldn’t be a surprise – Street is a journalist (as is Neville), and has told hundreds of stories that belong to and centre other people – but the memoir is a forgivably self-centred art form. Early on she spells it out: “This book is not my story, it’s ours. Writing about it is my way of honouring my parents and their experience.” 

This is most obvious in the book’s opening section, which details the loss of her siblings. Her description of her brother in the hospital as the blood trolley comes down the hallway is particularly vivid (“every child on the cancer ward would start crying because they knew what was coming”), as is her harrowing, detail-rich description of Stephen’s death, obviously told to her second-hand. She also captures, with both the eye of a journalist and the heart of a deeply invested child, the anger of her mother being ignored by her doctor during her pregnancy. “The doctor kept on telling her all was well, but deep down she had a horrible feeling that things were not right. How could they be when she was bleeding almost every day?”

It’s less obvious, but perhaps even more important, when she discusses her surrogacy; and the decision-making between Toni and her best friend. Throughout this section, she repeatedly mentions how difficult the surrogacy process is in New Zealand – again, really, really hard! – and how people had been in touch with her about their own struggles with it.

My main takeaway from Street’s story, other than the facts of it, is how astutely she understands her role as a public figure. This is, after all, a woman who has spent a significant part of her life being beamed straight into people’s homes and commutes. This is also someone who has shared her life, regularly and bravely, through both traditional media and social media. 

The value of that can’t really be underestimated. It’s not as simple as raising awareness, either. “People go through this and can survive” is nowhere near as effective as “I went through this, and I survived”. She’s clearly aware of the impact of sharing her stories – be they about her grief, her health or her surrogacy journey – and also probably aware this memoir is the best avenue through which to share them, for posterity. A 7pm broadcast is ephemeral, a social media post even more so, but a book lives on forever.

Lost and Found: My story of heartbreak and hope, by Toni Street with Sophie Neville (Allen & Unwin, $36.99), is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

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