When a five-year-old on acid is gold

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

Joan Did­ion... ‘this was a woman who was clearly not that clued into her own truth’

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