Small Wrongs by Kate Rossmanith

When an author gets the balance between memoir and journalism* just right, it makes for brilliant reading. Kate Rossmanith has done it with Small Wrongs, a book that explores how we say ‘sorry’.

Rossmanith looks at what constitutes remorse from many angles – the ‘theatre’ of courtroom appearances; how judges make their decisions; prison, parole and rehabilitation and how these systems create opportunities for offenders to show remorse; and retribution for victims of crime.

In the justice system…the act of forgiveness was unrelated to the duty of punishment; it was not the role of the courts to forgive a person…only the victims can forgive.

Although the book is structured around remorse in a legal sense, Rossmanith adds threads of her own story, examining the parts of her life where the word ‘sorry’ would be significant – her shaky marriage; her ‘lost’ time as a parent while she battled post-natal depression; and most notably, her efforts to understand her father, whose childhood in Vienna during WWII had left scars.

When you grow up sensing pain in a parent, you don’t ask to see the wounds; you try to heal them. You believe you can save your father from what has already happened.

It was her father’s story and his remorse that I found the most fascinating part of this book.

Last night, I was at dinner with friends, and one asked why I had visited Germany so many times. I explained that I was fascinated by the emotional aftermath of WWII, how the Germans have not hidden their shame but instead laid it out for people to witness; how this national ‘remorse’ is part of their identity, and how it has its own language. Rossmanith makes reference to this, noting the differences between Germany and Austria –

Whereas Germany developed the practice of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the process of overcoming the past, Austria suppressed any examination of the subject.

and of Austria –

The country began performing a sort of amnesia. It made a point of celebrating its anti-German history…

Rossmanith considers how her father performed a personal ‘amnesia’, albeit unsuccessfully – her childhood memories are dominated by her father being emotionally distant and unaffectionate –

As my father brooded and raged about ghosts, he was crippling the possibility of being close to his children, because children never forget.

Rossmanith manages to pull the separate parts of her thesis and personal story together by asking how we reconcile and forgive both violent crimes and the horrors of war. She doesn’t come to hard conclusions (I guess the memoir-element gives her some wiggle-room?) but she does pose some tough questions –

The moral question was not what I would do if someone I loved fell victim to a horrible crime. The moral question was what I’d do if they committed one.

Rossmanith’s procedural examination of remorse is accompanied by fine and perceptive writing – ‘…our lives unfold in the mysterious space between ourselves and other people….‘ and ‘…outside to the loitering news crews. A bouquet of microphones was held out towards them’.  Alongside straightforward descriptions of the parole system and victim impact statements, she gives ample attention to the emotional aspects of her topic –

I wondered if this was an effect of grief’s uselessness. You can do nothing with grief but wait it out, let it do its slow work. If, on the other hand, you convince yourself you are feeling ‘remorse’ not ‘grief’, you claw back agency.

These things added to the pleasure of this book and, by the time I had finished, I had dozens of thought-provoking passages marked.

I read this book around the same time as I read The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper and In the Garden of the Fugitives by Ceridwen Dovey – it’s a bit cheeky to suggest you read all three books together but the parallels – reconciling past events, and the social expectation for remorse and how that looks – leave a strong message.

4/5 One that I’ll be going back to.

Rossmanith recalls a German folk song her father would sing when she was little –

 The song sounded completely made-up, with its silly language and oom-pah beat, but it wasn’t. Viennese children had sung it after the war, and this was Dad’s mishmashed recollection of it. Marmalade. Polar bear schnitzel. Cauliflower salad. Sour gherkin. Cocoa made with water.

*similar examples include Wasted by Elspeth Muir, Avalanche by Julia Leigh and Woman of Substances by Jenny Valentish

20 responses

  1. This sounds such a rewarding read, and the comparison between Germany and Austria is spot on. I remember being shocked at Vienna’s Simon Wiesenthal Centre where I watched a video of obviously intelligent young people being interviewed who had no idea of who Wiesenthal was. How we say sorry is so important. So often public apologies are counched in terms of being ‘sorry for any offence caused’ which is not an expression of remorse in any shape or form.

    • I was last in Austria a long time ago and have no memory of that aspect of their culture (I need another trip!) but it is fascinating how these things become embedded.

      How we say sorry is important and Australians, in relation to Indigenous Australians, have a very poor record.

  2. This sounds really interesting. I appreciated that aspect of In the Garden of Fugitives, so I may seek this one out. I have The Arsonist still waiting to be read so I could partially follow in your lead and read two of the three at the same time.

    • Even if you space the books apart, I think you will appreciate the parallels . In fact, I have been thinking about this book in relation to many other stories since reading it. I had borrowed it from the library but then bought my own copy – it’s one I’ll be referring back to!

  3. Germany’s acceptance of responsibility for the Holcaust is in direct contrast to Australians’ failure to even acknowledge Aboriginal massacres. Yes Rudd said ‘Sorry’ and that was significant, but there is no sign that the Apology was internalized in Canberra or in the population in general.

    I think my father was sorry for his behaviour, his distance, as a parent and a husband but I never gave him any credit for it, nor give myself much for all the times I’ve been sorry.

    Obviously, this is a book I should read.

    • I’m glad you mentioned the Australian situation Bill, as the author makes reference to that (and I couldn’t fit it all in my review!). She says –

      “My own country had yet to find an adequate means to talk about its history; we had no collective way to properly remember – re-remember – the place and its inhabitants, what has happened on this continent to its peoples with the oldest living cultures in the world.”

      The dinner party conversation I referred to also focused on this issue (actually, I may have got a little testy) – something along the lines of “Yes, ‘we’ feel guilty, but guilt is easy. It’s shame that drives a real change.” I wish you had been at the dinner party!

      This book is well worth seeking out. I finished it a few weeks ago but still thinking it over. It obviously has personal application (as you mentioned, reflecting on our own apologies) but it comes to mind in relation to other books I’ve read or reading (eg. directly relevant to my current read, The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo which tells the story of a young girl who kills her friend in a drink-driving accident).

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