The Lost Son of Philomena Lee

philomena_xlgThe story of Irish woman Philomena Lee’s search to find the long lost son she was forced to give up for American adoption in the 1950s was made into a moving 2013 Oscar-nominated movie starring Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as the journalist, Martin Sixsmith.

I loved the movie (it made me cry) and was intrigued to read Sixsmith’s 2009 book upon which it was based, which I just happened to find on display at our local library one Saturday morning.

I was not disappointed. It is a great piece of journalism and imagination, with Sixsmith piecing the sad story together and retelling it through his conversations with Philomena and all those in America who knew her son, Anthony.

Another good reason to read it, even if you have seen the film, is that it has an entirely different focus.

The movie told the story of Philomena’s search for her lost son. The book, which was orignally called “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” is devoted to telling the story of the life of Philomena’s son, Anthony Lee, or as he became known in the US, Michael Hess.

His story begins, when aged just three he gets on a plane bound for Chicago and then St Louis with his ‘sister’ Mary (a young girl in the convent the Hess family adopted at the same time) for a new life in America.

He leaves behind a heartbroken Philomena, whose story Sixsmith (somewhat frustratingly) does not return to until the last 30 pages of the book. By that time almost 50 years have passed since she watched Anthony be driven away from the unwed mothers and babies home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea near Dublin.

Philomena yelled ‘Antony! Look up here! and Margaret (Mary’s mum) banged on the window. But the noise of the engine seemed to blot out their voices and neither child responded. As the car pulled away, Philomena wailed, ‘No! No! Not my baby. Don’t let them take my baby. And at that precise moment Anthony twisted in his seat and climbed up to peer through the rear windscreen.

That was in 1955.

The book begins in 2004 when Martin Sixsmith meets Philomena Lee through a mutual friend. The previous Christmas she had broken down and finally told her grown-up children they had a brother living in America.

Having agreed to help her find her son, Sixsmith plunges the reader back into repressive Ireland of the 1950s and the silence and servitude of Sean Ross Abbey, where Philomena gives birth miracously to Anthony, who is a breech baby.

Michael_hess_lawyer

Michael Hess, chief counsel to the Republican National Committee

We spend nearly four years with Philomena in the cold-hearted confines of the abbey, where she is forced by the nuns to sign away her motherly rights to her son, and where she must work long hours in the intense heat of the laundry awaiting the day when he will be ripped from her, without notice.

In a cruel twist of fate, the Hess family (whose story Sixsmith also tells in great detail) had only planned to adopt Mary, but because Anthony is her protector and because he is such an affectionate child, they decide to adopt him as well.

Sixsmith goes into great detail describing the cruel forced adoption system that existed in Ireland in the 1950s, where the government, under the complete control of the Catholic Church, allowed up to 60,000 illegitimate children to be ripped from their young mothers against their will, and given to American familes in exchange for hefty donations.

Then over the next 300-odd pages Sixsmith combines his talent as an investigative journalist with the imagination of a master novelist to tell the story of how Irish adoptee Anthony Lee became handsome Washington lawyer and powerbroker Michael Anthony Hess, who by his mid-thirties had risen to be chief counsel of the Republican National Committee, one of the most powerful legal positions in the country, who hobnobbed with the political elite including the Reagans and the Bushes (Look him up, he has his own Wikipedia page).

Through Sixsmith’s book, we learn that Michael Hess, despite his professional success, could never come to terms with the idea that he had been abandoned by his mother (the truth, that she was forced to give him up against her will was kept from him by his adopted family and by the nuns of Sean Ross Abbey).

Despite years of counselling, he suffered what I imagine is the classic abandoned child’s dilemma of believing he never deserved the success, love and happiness that came his way because even his own mother had not wanted to keep him.

Amid the trials and tribulations of his young adult life, Michael Hess decides to visit Ireland in 1977 in the hope of finding out who his mother was and possibly even meeting her. But after what turned out to be a fruitless and frustrating visit, Sixsmith writes that Michael Hess turned to “hopelessness and self-loathing”.

Now all the setbacks and rebuffs seemed to him the result of his own inadequacy: the orphan’s rootless insecurity, his sense of not belonging, left him feeling adrift, helplessly tossed by life’s tempests.

The story of Michael Hess – as told by Sixsmith – is of epic highs and sinking lows. Sixsmith paints a picture of a man who was both brilliant, funny, charming, warm and tender, but who could come spectacularly off the rails and descend into heavy drinking and promiscuity. By day he was involved in shaping the crucial redistricting laws that would change the course of political power in the future, but by night he often cruising gay bars for casual sex.

Sadly for Michael Hess, his bouts of wild sex with strange men would prove his downfall; coinciding with emergence of the AIDS epidemic in America and the reluctance of the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan to do anything to address what was then considered a gay man’s disease.

In another ironic twist, Michael Hess’s quest for acceptance and success in America led him to serve a political party, which, delayed the start of medical research, which might have saved his life.

While the book proved controversial (aspects of it have been discounted by those close to Michael Hess) if you take it at face value its a wonderful retelling and re-imagining of Michael Hess’s life by Martin Sixsmith, and a fitting tribute to the son that Philomena Lee so tragically never got to see again.

Philomena-Lee

Philomena Lee

However, it seems an injustice that so few pages of the book were devoted to Philomena’s story, a formidable and brave woman.

I suspect this is partly due to the fact that she lived a mostly unremarkable life after she left the abbey – marriage, children, domesticity – especially in comparison to the amazing life her son Anthony lived in America.

In that sense it is pleasing to think that a Hollywood movie has shined the spotlight so brightly on her again, and it seems, turned her into an important figurehead for all the women in Ireland, who had their children ripped from them so cruelly.

And while Philomena Lee was horribly robbed of the chance to know her son as the brilliant man he became because of a merciless system, there must be some comfort for her in his life coming alive so vividly in the pages of Sixsmith’s enthralling book.

 

 

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The sad path tread by the anti-Muslim brigade

riding a camel

Me, riding a camel in the Sahara (Morocco, 2010)

Here’s a random scene from the life of Larry, a 43-year-old liberal-minded agnostic, Jewish South African/Australian:

A little while ago, upon alighting the train at Southern Cross Station, in the centre of Melbourne one busy weekday morning, I was asked by a young, traditionally dressed Muslim woman if I knew where the place was where you registered births. As I had been to the exact building before, I happily pointed out where she needed to go and walked with her part of the way through the busy station. She was shy, but sweet and thanked me as she headed out of the station and across the busy intersection of Collins and Spencer Streets towards her destination.

Here’s another in my illustrious life…

A few weeks ago, needing a haircut before a wedding,  I drove to our local shopping strip, parked my car, withdrew money from the ATM and went in search of someone who could cut my hair. Soon I found a funky-looking barbershop that had opened recently (it used to be a frozen yoghurt shop) and took a seat. A little while later, a young Middle Eastern-looking man with an accent like Turkish Delight showed me to a seat, asked me what kind of haircut I wanted, and then proceeded to cut my hair. We had one of those rambling, but friendly conversions you have when someone cuts your hair – I asked him how long the shop had been open and how it was doing and he asked me what my plans were for the weekend and about my family. 15 minutes later my head was neatly trimmed. I thanked him, paid and left.

And here’s one more…

A month ago my infant son was sick and we were in the Royal Children’s Hospital. A young trainee doctor with a Muslim name came in to check on us. He was a bit nervous, but politely asked a few questions about why we were in the hospital, what had happened and how things were now. He listened to my son’s chest, asked a few more questions, and then said goodbye and moved on.

These three random and unremarkable moments keep popping into my head like flashing lightbulbs whenever I encounter the opinions of Australia’s vocal Anti-Muslim brigade led by Pauline Hanson, the leader of far right political party One Nation, who believes all Australian Muslims should be treated with suspicion “You can’t tell a good one from a bad one” she said recently.

Others like cartoonist Larry Pickering told a dinner hosted by the Anti-Islam Q Society: “I can’t stand Muslims” while conspiracy theorist and aspiring politician Kirralie Smith from the paradoxically named Australian Liberty Alliance believes Halal-certified food is funding Islamic terrorism and should be banned.

I keep wondering how these three people live there daily lives in one of the world’s most multicultural societies, where you only have to step onto a train, bus or tram to encounter 10 different nationalities, three or four ethnicities and half a dozen different languages

How do they react when a Middle Eastern man dispenses their medicine in the pharmacy, swipes their items in the supermarket, delivers their new television or asks them directions to the shopping mall? Do they yell abuse, ignore them or cross to the other side of the street?

Do they avoid the local grocery store because its own by Lebanese people, or move to new seats in the cinema if they find themselves seated next to a Muslim family? Do they carefully read every food label before purchasing in case it happens to have Halal certification?

And what about when they travel overseas for work or holidays? Do they deliberately avoid flying Arabic carriers like Etihad or Emirates Airlines even if they happen to have the cheapest fares or the best reputation for food and service? What do they do if their flight to Paris or London refuels in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur?

in Putrajaya

Me, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, 2010

What about sport, that great Australian tradition? How do they feel when Australia plays cricket against Pakistan or Bangladesh or a soccer match against Iran, Iraq or the United Arab Emirates? Will they watch Australia at the next FIFA World Cup in Kuwait? How do they feel when cricketer Usman Khawaja, the first Muslim cricketer to play for Australia, scores a brilliant test hundred or when Richmond midfielder Bachar Houli, a devout Muslim, scores a goal at the MCG and the stadium erupts?

How do those people who worship at the altar of anti-Islam navigate their daily lives? Do they constantly have to remind themselves to hate and despise fellow citizens based on their ideological position or does the mask slip from time to time?

Do they ever question any of their beliefs? Are their views malleable or fused into some solid form of rage that is impenetrable? Do they doubt anything they believe? Is there any chink in their armoury?

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Me, in Cairo, 2010

Thankfully, I don’t have to navigate any of those daily challenges. I take everyone at face value and like to think I make no pre-judgements of anyone.

Also, I have been lucky enough to have travelled to many Muslim countries in my life – Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia to name a few.

Most of my experiences in these countries have been extremely positive – nowhere is perfect – and enlightening. I have learnt about fascinating and ancient cultures, seen beautiful architecture and art, sampled new delectable cuisines and shared stories with  warm and charming people.

I say this not to boast of my travel exploits, but to make the point that I think you can only be anti-Muslim from a position of ignorance.

Indeed, a recent poll by Pew Research asking people to estimate the proportion of their country’s population that is Muslim shows just how uninformed we are.

In France the estimate among respondents was that 31 per cent of the population was Muslim when the real figure was 7.5 per cent, in the US the perception was that one in six Americans were Muslim, whereas the actual figure is one in 100.

Australians thought Muslims made up 12.5 per cent of the population when the true figure was only 2.4 per cent.

None of this should detract from the heinous actions of Islamic extremists, who make up a tiny proportion of the 1.6 billion Muslims whom we share the planet with.

Indeed Muslims themselves are the targets of many of these brutal acts, as the recent horrific chemical attacks orchestrated by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against his own people have shown to the world.

And let’s not forget the role the anti-Muslim movement plays in creating the next generation of extremists.

“…trying to demonise all Muslims is only confirming the lying, dangerous message of the terrorists,” said Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull in a recent rebuttal to the bigotry of Pauline Hanson.

Avoiding PR fails: How to win friends and influence journalists

human-652827_960_720I recently sat down over an informal lunch with a large real estate group in their high-rise office.

It was an opportunity to meet some of their new team members at the start of the new year and make new contacts.

But it was also an opportunity for them to ask me questions about the how the newspaper business works and essentially explain how stories  – perhaps their own property deals – might end up in the paper I write for, the Australian Financial Review.

As we chatted over sandwiches, it occurred to me that I was answering many of the same questions I’d answered a number of times before at similar “meet the press’ type meetings and that it might be useful to others to summarise some of the things we discussed.

So here it goes, from the horse’s mouth: A journalist’s top tips for dealing with…journalists:

1. A short email or phone call is often better than sending a press release.

Every journalist is bombarded with media releases. Dozens appear in our email inboxes everyday and throughout the day. It’s impossible to carefully read every one and find the time to work on stories at the same time. A much better option is a short email outlining the story idea in a few dot points and a contact number for the journalist to ring to get more information.  If you are going to send a press release, keep it short and to the point. No journalist has the time to read an 8 page press release. Alternatively, pick up the phone and call, but not before you have read point 2 below.

2. Don’t ring a journalist when they are on deadline.

It’s incredible how many experienced PR consultants still ring journalists at my newspaper at 4 or 5 pm in the afternoon as we are frantically filing stories for the next day’s paper to pitch ideas or just to “chat”. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a conversion, even if for a few minutes about something that’s either irrelevant or can wait while you are trying to finish a story. Incredibly some people go on pitching stories even after you say you are on deadline .If you’re going to ring a journalist find out when the best time to call is. For those writing for newspapers, the morning is usually the best time to ring.  If you are going to ring on deadline, make sure it’s a REALLY, REALLY BIG story.

3. Think before you speak

Once you tell a journalist something, it cannot be untold or unremembered. (Think of us as bottomless receptacles of information rather than sieves). Before you call, think about what you are going to say and write down some key points. It’s amazing how many people ring journalists, provide all kinds of great insider information, slag off their competitors and then are amazed when these quotes appear in the newspaper the next day. The same goes for facts. If they are true and you tell us them, we will report them. (Of course journalists also love salacious people like this and…there are equally some people who love dishing it out, but just be prepared to see it in print the next day as a direct quote).

4. Exclusives are what we want

Exclusives are the life blood of journalists and newspapers. If you can offer a journalist an exclusive and it’s a worthy story, you are almost assured of getting a good run in the paper. However, there is nothing more annoying for a journalist to read the exact same story they have been pitched and are writing appear in another publication. Of course you are perfectly entitled to pitch your story at multiple publications but you should be upfront about that and let the journalist know that they don’t have the story to themselves.

5. Be patient

Even a good story may take a few days, even a few weeks to get a run. This may be because of space (in the case of a print publication) or resources (journalists are generally working on a number of stories and have to prioritize based on what their editor wants) or the type of story: for example rural stories may run on a certain day of the week.  A good story will always get a run. By all means follow-up on the story – NOT ON DEADLINE! – but don’t bombard journalists with multiple daily emails. If the story needs to run by a certain date, then let the journalist know. If they can’t meet that date, then you are perfectly entitled to take the story elsewhere, but tell them first if you want to keep a good relationship.

6. Expect journos to quote you accurately but don’t expect a certain type of story

Journalists that deliberately misquote or take remarks out of context are to be avoided. Mistakes do happen. However, good writers don’t simply regurgitate press releases verbatim. Remember we are story tellers and are writing for our readers – not for you or your clients. Often those two audiences will overlap, but not always. Sometimes a passing comment or a small point may have greater and wider resonance – in the eyes of the journalist or their editor – then the main subject of a press release or briefing. Have an open mind about what you might read in the paper or online.

7. Don’t pester a journalist’s colleagues with the same story

Most journalists work in a team, whether it’s a specific beat like politics or property or the arts. We often sit together and discuss story ideas. It’s amazing how often a PR firm will contact a journalist with a story idea that doesn’t get traction and then ring all their colleagues with the same idea. This is not a great strategy. It smacks of desperation. If you really think a journalist is missing a good story my suggestion is to ring them and ask them why they won’t cover it. If you still think it has legs tell them you will contact their editor to pitch the story or a colleague, but don’t just send it out – scatter-gun style – to all and sundry.

8. Don’t give misleading information

This may seem an obvious one, but it’s quite common for someone to embellish a story idea or even a formal press release with inaccurate information, half-truths or outdated information to generate interest. Good journalists will verify facts, but we expect to be given accurate information in the first instance especially if its in a formal media release. If you are not sure, then say so. Being deliberately misleading is the quickest way to get you on a journalist’s blacklist.

9. Share market intelligence to build rapport

A great way to build a relationship with a journalist is to share information you have about the market and what your competitors are doing “off-the record” (see point 10). This may not get your name in the paper, but will help when you pitch your own story idea. Journalists treasure market tip-offs as much as they do exclusives.

10. Understand what “off-the-record” means

A lot of people I think have misconceptions about what it means when you tell a journalist: “This is off-the-record”. This does not mean that a fact or tidbit won’t be reported. All it means that if it is reported, it will not be attributed to you. Either it will be stated as a fact or something along the lines of “market sources said” or “people close to the deal said”. One thing I would stress is be wary of sharing information off-the-record that could only conceivably come from you. (See point 3 again). That always ends badly – for you, not the journalist.

11. Don’t pick fights with journalists

Of all the idiotic things President Donald Trump has done, one of the silliest has been to pick fights with the main stream media. It’s incredible that he has gone to war with some of the most respected global publications like The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN which have huge audiences. Pick up the phone if you are unhappy with a story, don’t send a ranting email or abusive text message – we have thick skins and long memories.

Suburban secrets: why men should read Liane Moriarty too

big-lies-little-liesI suppose I consider myself something of a pioneer for reading two novels – Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret – by the best-selling Australian writer Liane Moriarty.

Expecting chic-lit drivel, I found them surprisingly engrossing, entertaining and thought-provoking as they delved into dark secrets and lies in modern-day Australian suburbia.

The nearest book I could think by way of comparison was Chris Tsiolkas’s celebrated novel The Slap, with a central plot revolving around a suburban Sydney barbecue where someone slaps another person’s misbehaving child and the ramifications and ripples that flow out as a result.

Moriarty delves into similar territory, but is in my mind the better of the two writers. She’s a more expert crafter of believable characters and more revealing of the psychological landscape of  life in the suburbs.

Both of Liane Moriarty’s books were passed on to me by my wife with recommendations from my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. All three raved about them and encouraged me to broaden my reading habits beyond the  serious-minded Booker Prize winning stuff I tend to get lost in.

Also spurring me on was Liane Moriarty’s inclusion in the Australian Financial Review‘s (the newspaper I write for) Cultural Power List alongside the more well-known provocateurs like broadcaster and journalist Waleed Aly and football great and aboriginal activist Adam Goodes.

The Power List judges noted that Moriarty has sold a staggering six million books and has become a Hollywood player with HBO turning Big Little Lies into a mini-series starring Reece Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.

Big Little Lies begins with a murder at a High School parents social night at Pirriwee Primary, a fictional coastal town near Sydney.

We don’t know who has died or who the killer is. We only know the suspects  – a motley crew of kindergarten parents – which Moriarty introduces us to as she traces the events over the proceeding months that led up to the fateful night.

Here we meet inspiring women like Jane, a battling  24-year-old single mother, who must defend her son Ziggy from accusations he is a kindergarten bully. There’s also the gorgeous trophy wife Celeste, sickenly abused by her ultra-wealthy husband and Madeline, the do-good mother on her second marriage, struggling to maintain a relationship with her strong-willed, idealistic daughter.

husbands-secretThe Husband’s Secret  is a modern-day take on the fable of Pandora and her box. A much darker book, it explores how the lives of three young woman are impacted by the murder a young girl that happened 30 years ago and a letter – found by accident – that reveals a terrible truth.

Here we find Cecilia, the Tupperware selling super-mom whose idyllic suburban life (a bevy of bright and healthy kids, nice house and loving husband) is about to crumble; Rachel Crowley, the still-grieving mother of the murder victim, her daughter Janie, who becomes convinced she has identified her daughter’s killer; and advertising exec Tess, whose husband has just confessed to being in love with her cousin and best friend.

Moriarty creates these intricate little suburban universes set against the familiar backdrop of school playgrounds, teacher-parent meetings and breakfasts in sunlit kitchens populated by characters straight out of our own everyday lives, who must, with great bravery, deal with unexpected events that threaten to destroy their domestic idyll.

As Nicola Wakefield Evans, one of the Power List judges put it: “[Liane Moriarty] talks about everyday life and marries it to a theme that we’re all grappling with – same-sex marriage, multiple-parented children, domestic violence. And she’s a beautiful writer.”

As a man, I think reading these books can only add to the often blinkered macho Australian male view of the world, which still casts women in the role of submissive or victim or emotional weakling. It’s also offers great insights into how women see men.

For women dealing with similar difficult situations as characters in the book, be they single parents, abused partners or just someone who does not understand their husband or their kids, I imagine these books provide a great deal of comfort and validation, perhaps even ways to cope and move forward.

In an interview she gave the Guardian in 2014, Moriarty (who recently turned 50 and has two kids) explained how she drew inspiration from real life stories told to her from other writers and friends. She also revealed herself as someone who has thought deeply about the issues in her books:

“Often I think bullying –especially in its adult, verbal forms – is the sort of thing you don’t realize till the end of the day, and it’s a horrible feeling to realize something wasn’t just a bland statement, but was actually cruel. But then we’re all capable of things that are breathtakingly cruel,” she told the website.

In her fiction, Moriarty has tapped right into the psychology of suburban life: how men and women view each other, how we bury big and small secrets from each other, how we think about our children and other people’s children, how we cling to the past or try to shake it off and how we can sometimes find ways to make peace and move on.

A messy world: inside the zany comic mind of Tom Ballard (@TomCBallard)

tom-ballard-1-copy-e1403330225340The joke that sticks doggedly in my mind from stand-up comic Tom Ballard’s Saturday Night gig, ‘The World Keeps Happening’ is the one he made about 9/11.

Ballard, young, blonde, dressed in a t-shirt and black jeans asks: “Would 9/11 have been so bad… if they’d flown into the Trump Towers instead?”

(Queue: a low rumble of shock across the packed old theatre).

He qualifies this by saying the planes would be empty and so would be the Manhattan tower, except for Donald Trump, now president-elect Trump “alone, on the toilet, masturbating over a picture of his daughter.”

(Queue even more shock. But Ballard loves it). “Ooh a few Trump fans in tonight,” he muses.

Later, as his high-octane 90 minute set, which left no taboo unturned, drew to its close, he asked cheekily of his audience: ‘Have I managed to lose you all of you tonight?’

He hadn’t of course: almost everyone cheered loudly at the end including me. Perhaps they would have lynched him in Queensland or Ohio.

A night with Tom Ballard, as I found out, is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended. Certainly his stand-up material would set the right-wing old fogges in Western Sydney into a frenzy were he to perform it on the ABC, where he first cut his teeth as a Radio host on Triple J.

Ballard’s act swerves from embarrasing personal experiences mostly of a sexual nature (like the time an ex-lover texted him to say he had “gonorrhoea of the mouth and anus” and he replied to say he was all fine now after getting treatment, instead he replied to a youth worker with the same name, instead) to discussing how technology is ruining our lives (“I’m addicted to my iPhone, I even auto-correct myself when I speak”) to ticking off on racism, sexism and homophobia. (Ballard has hosted two episodes of popular ABC political talk show Q&A).

“No one assassinates politicians in Australia,” he says. “I’m not saying we should be doing that, but a bit of passion would be nice.”

He goes on to relate the disappearance of Harold Holt, the only Australian leader to die in office who disappeared while out for an ocean swim.

“We looked for him a bit and then said, uh, he’s gone. And that was that,” Ballard says with a playful shrug.

Back to the cringeworthy, Ballard related the story of a friend, who for some unknown, unfathomable reason thought it a good idea to eat two 24-slice packets of cheese in one sitting. The result: “He felt a bit unwell and had to go to the doctor”.

Here his friend was told that all the cheese had congealed into a solid mass – “He had a cheese baby” Ballard declares with unbridled joy at the audience’s revulsion,  “and he would have it removed by caesarian.”

I confess I knew very little about Tom Ballard before the show though I recognised the face and name. (We – my wife and I – were lucky to pick up two complimentary tickets).

I quick read of his Wikipedia profile reveals that he grew up in Warnambool in country Victoria, is extremely smart (named Dux of the South West Region) and is passionate about a number of issues: vegetarianism, homophobia and cyber-bulling. He also once dated another of the country’s top comics, Josh Thomas the star of sitcom Please Like Me.

As with all really good stand-up comics he both mines his own personal experiences for comic material and uses comedy to make a point about the issues he cares about. (Not just that, he organised for volunteers from Refugee Legal to stand outside after the show with buckets to collect donations to support the work the centre does for refugees).

On inequality, he tells the story about a visit to Grill’d, the burger joint which allows customers to donate money to local charities through tokens they receive after ordering meals.

In this instance, he was in Warringah, on Sydney’s upper crust Northern Beaches where onion eating ex-PM Tony Abbott is the local federal member.

One of the ridiculous charity choices was to donate to the local school’s rowing club so that they could buy new kit.

“Sorry starving people of Africa…” Ballard bursts out with indignation, “the rowing club needs a hand” followed by an impersonation of spoilt, rich parents and their “desperate” kids.

“People rowing boats, these are the boats we should be turning back!” Ballard retorts with maniacal glee, delivering a scathing rebuke of the government’s tough approach to asylum seekers who come by boat.

His other suggestion, which I really liked was that we should ban all drugs, except for one day every four years – preferably on election day – when it should be a free-for-all.

“When I am on ecstacy, I just want to hug everyone,” he says.

His point being of course that we’re making some pretty bad choices sober, so why not try the other way.

Not a bad idea.

(A quick note: the show was recorded and will appear on streaming video service Stan at some point as part of its “One Stan Series”. So look out for it.)

 

 

Publicly shaming: how Jon Ronson changed my mind about Justine Sacco

jon-ronsonI remember when the whole universe seemingly exploded over Justine Sacco, the PR executive who Tweeted:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!!”

I was quick to jump on the worldwide bandwagon to publicly shame someone I did not know. “She got what she deserved” I remember telling myself as the young lady got off a flight in Cape Town to find her life in ruins: her job in New York gone, her reputation destroyed, her prospects in life shattered all because she’d made a silly joke.

At the time I joined the millions of people who shared in the pleasure of Justine Sacco’s public evisceration by everyone and their dog. I retweeted. I told my friends. I shamed her.

And yet, as British journalist Jon Ronson points out in his highly entertaining and thought-provoking book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed the only real victim in this fiasco was Justine Sacco herself.

Apart from being offended by her Tweet, which via some quirk of fate, became a world-wide infamous sensation, no one at all was hurt or damaged by it.

Instead,  Justine Sacco suffered humiliation, depression and anxiety that went on for months and months. And worse, her tiny “moment of madness” lives on online. Just type in her name into Google and see for yourself.

Ronson’s entertaining and engrossing book (which reminded me of Louis Theroux) delves into many instances of public shaming – not all of them related to social media – as he explores what has become a re surging global phenomenon not seen for centuries.

Not only does he interview the victims of public shameings including Justine Sacco, but he also delves into the psychology of this mob-like behaviour, explores how Google’s search tools have created reputations that refuse to go away and speaks to people who have made a fortune out of resuscitating the personal reputations of those who have become infamous online. (Yes, there are companies that can get your name off page 1 of Google searches).

Justine Sacco

Among Ronson’s  “case studies” is the story of the down fall of the writer Jonah Lehrer, who was caught out making up a Bob Dylan quote in a best-selling book  (in this case his public shaming felt quite deserving as Lehrer comes across as arrogant, privileged and above all…lazy) and that of Lindsey Stone who posted an irreverent (and frankly quite funny) photo on Facebook of herself flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery, which destroyed her life in much the same way that it ruined Justine Sacco’s.

c_fitfl_progressiveq_80w_636

Then there’s the story of former Formula One racing boss Max Mosley, whose alleged S&M Nazi-style orgy was splashed all across the British tabloids in all its photographic detail.

news_of_the_world_newspaper_cover

Mosley’s case is perhaps the most fascinating (not least because he was the son of notorious British fascists Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford) because he sued the Murdoch press for invasion of privacy and won in court.

The broader point Ronson makes is that Mosley – unlike other victims of publish shaming – was not embarrassed by his behaviour and instead became something of an anti-tabloid hero when took on the now defunct News of the World.

In the end I quite liked the feisty Max Mosley.

However, the greatest compliment I can pay Ronson is to say that reading his book changed my feelings about Justine Sacco tremendously.

Apart from revealing many mistruths about Sacco’s life (she was not the heiress to some rich businessmen or a spoilt white woman who didn’t care about others) it seemed awful that someone should be punished in vast disproportion to her crime, which at worse was that of making a silly, misinterpreted joke.

For as Ronson pointed out, within her Tweet, was the kernel of truth: AIDS is an epidemic in Africa that mainly affects black people not privileged white people. And that he says is the point Sacco was trying – albeit clumsily – to make.

As I read about Justine Sacco, the real Justine, I felt genuinely sorry for her and felt she deserved a lot of public sympathy and a chance at putting her lie back together. I also felt embarrassed at my glee at her public humiliation.

So I’d like to publicly apologise to Justine Sacco  for the part I played in ruining her life and thank Jon Ronson for writing his book.

And the next time I’m about to smugly retweet someone being torn to shreds on Twitter or mocked on Facebook for something silly or inadvertently in bad taste, I’ll think again before I click “Send” or “Post”.

Because the next time, it could be me on the receiving end.

Ted Bundy and I: Reviewing Ann Rule’s true crime classic, “The Stranger Beside me”

stranger beside meAmong the best books ever written about true crime and serial murder must surely be Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, about the serial killer Ted Bundy.

A former Seattle police officer and then regular contributor to true crime magazines as she struggled to raise four kids, Rule was commissioned to write the book that became The Stranger Beside Me  as the spate of murders of young, attractive girls grew longer and more baffling.

Paid a small advance, Rule was told her book would only be published if the murderer was caught.

No one at first believed that Ted Bundy, the charming, intelligent, good-looking young law student was capable of such horrendous crimes.

This included Ann Rule herself, who by the most incredible of coincidences had worked night shifts with Ted Bundy at a crisis centre in Seattle in the early 1970s.

But by the time Ted Bundy was founded guilty and sentenced to death in a Florida court, she had come to the awful realisation that the man who sat in the cubicle beside her night after night in Seattle,  saving the lives of those contemplating suicide, was also a monster.

If, as many people believe today, Ted Bundy took lives, he also saved lives. I know he did, because I was there when he did it.

Apart from telling the story of Ted Bundy  and his awful crimes, The Stranger Beside Me, also narrates Ann Rules own personal journey into the ‘Heart of Darkness’.

ted bundy mugshot

Ted Bundy mugshot

The truth, as Rule found out, was that Ted Bundy, driven by a uncontrolable and never quite explained rage had used his facade of good looks and charm to bludgeon, rape and mutilate dozens perhaps over a hundred young women across America in the 1970s.

Many victims were attacked as they slept in their beds on college campuses, others were lured into Ted Bundy’s infamous beige VW Beetle as he masqueraded as someone with his arm or leg in a cast, struggling to carry his possessions.

Just before his execution in Florida in 1989, Bundy confessed to 30 murders committed  between 1974 and 1980 But many believe, and Bundy hinted himself, that the true total was much higher, perhaps over 100.

Before that, despite a mountain of evidence linking him to many murders (though much of it circumstanstial) he claimed he was innocent of any of the crimes. Often defending himself at his televised  Florida trial, he was seen by many as charismatic, brilliant and charming, which only added to the myth of his innocence.

In the end Rule, who maintained a sporadic correspondence with Ted Bundy through phone calls and letters from the time he was first arrested in Utah until his conviction and death sentencing in Florida, came to see through the facade, to see that she, like so many others, had been conned.

ann rule

Ann Rule

No one, except perhaps his long-standing girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall (called Meg Anders in the book) had a more personal insight into Ted Bundy and in the annals of crime writing there are few who has painted such a three-dimensional portrait of serial killer as Ann Rule.

For she knew both Teds: the kind, sensitive, caring charmer and the psycopathic manipulator.

She describes Ted as “brilliant, a student of distinction, witty, glib and persuasive” who loved “French cuisine, good white wine and gourmet cooking. He loved Mozart and obscure foreign films” and who “knew exactly when to send flowers and sentimental cards” and whose “poems of love were tender and romantic”.

And yet Ted “loved things more than he loved people” who could feel more compassion for inanimate objects than he could ever feel for another human being.

On the surface Ted Bundy was the very epitome of a successful man. Inside, it was all ashes. For Ted had gone through life terribly crippled, like a man who is deaf, or blind or paralyzed. Ted has no conscience.

There’s a video you can watch on YouTube of Ted Bundy’s final interview with Dr James Dobson,  given the evening before he was executed in January in 1980, when his appeals and luck finally ran out.

In it he tries to explain the reasons for his crimes as being due to the combined influences of pornography, alcohol and violence in true crime detective magazines.

This video and shorter versions of it has been watched millions of times of YouTube, which says something about the public’s fascination with Ted Bundy, who  remains in the news, 36 years after his death at the electric chair. (An article appeared as recently as June 30 about a new  book “I Survived Ted Bundy” published recently on Amazon.com).

Rule says of this final interview that Ted was lying and manipulating to the very end, remembering a letter that he wrote her where he dismissed True Crime magazines as trash:  “Who in the world reads these publications?” he asked her.

“The blunt fact is that Ted Bundy was a liar. He lied most of his life, and I think he lied at the end,” Rule wrote. But, she said, Ted’s final performance accomplished one thing that troubled her:

Sensitive, intelligent, kind young women wrote or called me to say that they were deeply depressed because Ted was dead. One college student had watched the Dobson tape on television and felt moved to send flowers to the funeral parlour where Ted’s body had been taken. “He wouldn’t have hurt me,” she said. “All he needed was some kindness. I know he wouldn’t have hurt me…”

ted bundy trial

The ‘other Ted’: The famous enraged photo  of Ted Bundy at his Florida trial

There is nothing in ‘The Stranger Beside Me that glamourises Ted Bundy or turns him into the folk hero others made him out to be, especially after his daring escape from a Colorado jail in 1977, while facing kidnapping charges.

Rule stresses time and time again that whatever the tragedy of Ted Bundy’s life – who he might have been, what he become in the end – the real tragedy were all his innocent victims whose lives he ended. Indeed, she tells with great compassion the story of each of his many victims, of who they were and who they might have been.

And yet, she could never quite shake the memory of the Ted she knew before he became the serial killer ‘Ted Bundy’ something which became impossible following the publication and huge success of The Stranger Beside Me in 1980.

Ann Rule passed away on July 26 last year, aged 83 taking with her the title of America’s queen of true crime.

She publishing three dozen crime books after The Stranger Beside Me, but it remained her signature work with fans writing to her about it and asking questions about her and Ted Bundy decades later.

In an update to the book published in 2000 (I suggest downloading the Kindle version which has all the numerous updates since 1980), Rule writes:

It has been a quarter of a century since the day Ted Bundy called to ask for my help and to tell me that he was a suspect in the disappearance of more than a dozen young women…time and time again, I have naively believed the fascination with Ted would diminish and that I would never have to think about him again. I have long since accepted that I will be answering questions about him until the end of my days.