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Celia Larkin: Marian's courage to portray her friend with flaws intact

THE raw reality of human emotion -- confusion, insecurity, cruelty, pride, selfishness, love and compassion -- was laid bare in last week's RTE documentary on Nuala O Faolain, Nuala: A Life and Death.

My first reaction was one of anguish and anxiety for Nell McCafferty. And I use those words carefully. I wouldn't be so patronising as to use the word sympathy. Which one of us can afford to be patronising or assume the right to be sympathetic? My thoughts were with Nell, a person I have never met nor particularly admired. I've never disliked her. Just been neutral.

A power game is so often played out between two people who are intimate. The destructive yet addictive nature of relationships that are detrimental to our well-being was evident in the unfilled cavities in documenting the entire emotional entanglement of Nuala's life evident by Nell's absence from those around her death bed.

How cruel we can be to those we purport to love, how subservient are those we imagine to be strong, when the heart is choked in the vice grip of unfathomable love.

It would be so easy to write Nuala off as "not a nice person". The documentary showed her to be cruel, jealous, self-centred and egotistical.

I am sure it was not the intention of Marian Finucane to portray such an image of her much-loved friend. The friend who helped her through the worst of times -- and I'm sure was there through the best of times.

But the stark honesty of the documentary exposed the dark underbelly of human nature, the side we choose to ignore or balance out with the "ah but she's loving and kind, empathic and thoughtful too" excuse.

Except that this documentary chose to tell it like it was rather than dress it up in veiled references or sugarcoat it with sentimentality.

Real life is so different from the image we portray to the world. The image the world wishes to see is based on simplicity: good versus bad, kind versus cruel, hard versus soft.

This documentary ripped that simplicity asunder, smashed the fictional imagery of a delusional world -- a world we are all complicit in constructing. A world where people are flattened into carbon-copy versions of fairy-tale characters divided into good and evil.

In just one documentary the illusion was blown apart by two people, Nell and Nuala, both absent -- one through death, the other, by choice.

There is no bad versus good, cruel versus kind, soft versus tough. There is good and bad, cruel and kind, soft and hard.

The world is three-dimensional, people are three-dimensional. Why are we so afraid to acknowledge the very presence of dark and light that exists in us all? So quick to pigeonhole others into either one?

The courage of this documentary is that it endeavoured to embrace both, and in so doing has shocked us.

In her final interview, O Faolain had sucked us all into the image of a woman for whom we could feel compassion, empathy, sympathy. We were primed to laud her for her courage. Admire her for her honesty.

But the documentary challenged our conceptions, our stereotyping as a victim this extraordinary woman and the tangled web that was her life.

It laid bare her jealousy, exposed in all its emerald glory in her competition with her partner's young daughter for the attentions of her lover.

It showed her being shocked into respectful behaviour by his taking of a lover and the unexpected willingness to work at the relationship rather than run away. Her friend and sometime colleague Marian Finucane somehow managed to expose the complexities and unpredictability of human reactions even from those we think we know so well.

We witnessed the compassion and caring attentiveness administered to the mother of her god child plucked from life at too young an age. A comfort and understanding only the closest of friends can provide for each other. An attentiveness, the memory of which time will never fade.

Her reinvention in New York at the age of 60 gave hope to those who had resigned themselves to the mundane. Conjured up dreams, long dormant, of a life yet to be lived regardless of age.

Her pain of rejection and constant quest for acceptance and love is echoed by many a soul. Her all-or-nothing approach to life and death. But most of all her brutal honesty in the expression of her feelings. She was unique.

Yes, Nuala: A Life and Death challenged us in many ways. Not just for its acceptance of human nature. But for the reality that it forces us all to face.

Sunday Independent