The question of whether one can truly know one's parents is both salient and cliched. It has preoccupied the mind of veteran television producer Anita Jacoby for the best part of a decade, since a lawyer she encountered by chance at a dinner party informed her that her father, who she held in high regard, had been involved in a well-publicised court case before she was born.
Intrigued and shocked, Jacoby subsequently discovered that the case centred on the messy circumstances surrounding her father's separation from his second wife in the era before no-fault divorce.
Secrets Beyond The Screen is the product of Jacoby's reckoning with the less savoury aspects of her father's character. At the time of her fateful encounter with the lawyer, Jacoby was still in thrall to her father, Phillip Jacoby, whose unconditional approval she had always enjoyed. Prior to her father's disastrous second marriage, he had left his first wife for a friend's wife, Emmy, who committed suicide a few months into their relationship.
Anita Jacoby is convinced that Emmy was the love of her father's life, and her loss was in part what caused him to throw himself into his ill-fated second marriage with Bonnie. Bonnie was married, and her soon-to-be ex-husband launched a court case against Jacoby's father for "loss of services of his wife". When Bonnie turned out to be a philandering alcoholic, Jacoby's father orchestrated a divorce raid, the details of which were splashed across various Sydney newspapers. It was not the first time her father's name had appeared in print; as a Jewish refugee who had fled Nazi Germany, he had been subject to xenophobic speculation about his loyalties and was interned during the war.
Reflecting on the dysfunctional details of her father's second marriage, Jacoby writes that "his behaviour and disposition feel like those of another man altogether. Even now it's unsettling, as though the portrait of my family has a hidden door behind it, opening onto another portrait I can't recognise". While she may ultimately be unable to reconcile her feelings, she nevertheless seems to attain a full appreciation of the complexities and contradictions of her father's character. She is very generous towards her half-sister Linda (the product of her father's third marriage; Jacoby's mother was his fourth wife), who did not enjoy the same warm relationship with their father.
Jacoby's investigation of family tragedies is balanced by her portrayal of her high-flying career in television, which she attributes in part to the confidence her father instilled in her throughout her upbringing. Given the gender discrimination she experienced in the media industry well into the 1990s (she enumerates many instances when she was overlooked for promotion in favour of less-qualified male candidates) she certainly needed to be able to back herself.
It would be ungenerous to characterise this memoir as self-aggrandising, but it is definitely a catalogue of greatest hits. Jacoby doesn't hesitate to settle scores, albeit largely without bitterness, and she also reveals surprising alliances, such as the constructive working relationship she enjoyed with John Laws.
While she doesn't go so far as to call herself a trailblazer, it is clear Jacoby views herself as a bundle of corporate feminist energy. This ideology can veer into unrealistic territory, running the risk of implying that obstacles can be cleared simply through determination and persistence. For those of us not born into privilege, or who lack a large personality or a parent's unconditional support, career opportunities are more dependent on luck and the largesse of management, of which Jacoby also had her fair share.
While Jacoby is attentive to the political upheavals that brought her European émigré parents together in Australia (her mother, a white Russian born in Harbin, had to flee the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931), she demonstrates a less reflective appreciation of her own place in history, with the book devolving into a roll-call of celebrity encounters and iconic interviews with diverse subjects including Charles Spencer, Prince Edward and Chopper Read.
She is proud of being privy to a lot of salacious information before it entered the public domain. This is the central irony of the book: although she knew a lot about other people's lives, her own family history eluded her.
Secrets Beyond The Screen is written in a very straightforward fashion devoid of literary pretension. It is evident that Jacoby's talents lie in the visual medium of television; the prose is often clunky and she frequently resorts to cliché, with the phrases "strong, silent type", "the good, the bad and the ugly", "warts-and-all" and "manna from heaven" all making an appearance. Nevertheless, she offers illuminating personal insight into the social history of 20th-century Australia.
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