Thursday 24 January 2019

When a five-year-old on acid is gold

Joan Didion... 'this was a woman who was clearly not that clued into her own truth'
Joan Didion... 'this was a woman who was clearly not that clued into her own truth'
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

It was hilarious at the time, but it stuck in my mind and niggled at me afterwards. I was watching The Centre Will Not Hold, a fabulous and revealing documentary about the writer Joan Didion. She was talking about Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her reportage essay about the dysfunctional underbelly of the hippie scene in Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. The documentarian, who is her nephew Griffin Dunne, asks her what it was like when she was in a room with a five-year-old child who was on acid, a famous vignette from the essay. "Well it was..." she says, and then pauses, waving her arms around, which is how she seems to communicate now, in her eighties. And you're waiting for her to say how appalling it was. "Let me tell you..." she says, pause, as she tries to find the words to describe the atrocity. And then: "It was gold! You live for moments like that if you're doing a piece."

And reader, I knew exactly what she meant. Because I'm no Joan Didion, but every one of us who dabbles in this thing knows exactly what she means. There is a sociopathic gene in us that gets excited at people's tears, at people being unable to continue to speak, at something awful or wonderful happening, at the unexpected moment of truth. No matter how much empathy or humanity we may be feeling at that moment. No matter how committed we are to telling that person's story or allowing them to tell it, when something happens like the child on acid, there is a little tiny voice in the back of our heads that goes "Yesssss!"

Let's be charitable here and say that the reason we say "Yesssss!" is not to do with ego or desperation. Let's say it is because we know that these moments of truth or insight or even horror, will make people watch or read or listen to the story. And that's good for everyone involved, right?

But there is no doubt a part of it that is sick, that becomes removed from the good intentions of what we are doing. Joan Didion certainly had that chip of ice. Watch the doc and you will see her say how surprised she was that her screwed-up daughter found her a bit detached. And you will see that for a woman who sought the truth and reported it relentlessly, this was a woman who was clearly not that clued into her own truth.

She was detached, because journalists, reporters, writers, broadcasters, are all a bit detached. If we are not careful, we can end up as mere unmoved observers of life.

Straight after that documentary I sat down with Didion's novel Play It As It Lays. I had read much of her non-fiction but that novel had been sitting there for a while waiting for me. And it's not great, and it's actually largely about detachment, but I felt unreasonably proud of myself for reading it. Because I reckon I haven't read a novel in full in 2017. My reading is largely newspapers, or magazines, or relentlessly going through news websites to be informed on the passing parade, to get material. The novel is only the start. In 2018 there will be many more novels, more involvement, less detachment, reading stuff that gives you empathy and puts you into other people's heads. Because I never want to high five myself when I see a five-year old on acid. And this job can do that to you.

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