February 22, 2017

Dispatches #139: Clown doctors, giant pigs and public shaming

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Welcome to Dispatches, a weekly summary of my writing, listening and reading habits. (No 'sounds' this week, though.)



I wrote a feature story for The Saturday Paper last weekend. Excerpt below.
Schlock Therapy

In hospitals throughout Australia a dedicated troupe of clown doctors dispenses therapeutic comic relief.

In a quiet and unassuming corner of Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane, a transformation is taking place. Inside a nondescript room are two women who seek to make people laugh so that they might forget their surroundings, if only for a few moments.

Standing before a mirror in a small room, Jenny Wynter applies eyeliner to complement the bright red circles painted onto her cheeks, before picking up a watermelon-adorned ukulele to tweak its tuning. Louise Brehmer secures a series of rainbow-coloured hair ties into her pigtailed locks, dons a purple bucket hat, and fills the pockets of her white lab coat with an array of props. The final touch? Bright red noses, naturally, for a clown can feel only naked without one.

Affixed to the lockers that occupy the back wall are photographs of six clown doctors, who work in pairs to prowl the bright-green building while spreading mirth. For a few hours at a time, these women dress up to stand out. They seek to become the lowest-status person in every room they enter; they aim for nothing more than to become the butt of their own jokes. When the red noses are on, they’re professional goofs. They act as outrageously as possible to make everyone around them feel better about themselves. “There’s not many jobs where walking down a corridor elicits a smile,” says Brehmer of their eye-catching costumes. “We’re here for the entire hospital, to bring an element of lightness to a serious place.”

Brehmer has been doing this work for 16 years, and considers it a valuable addition to her career as a freelance actor. “I’m still learning,” she says. “Some days, I have no idea what to do in a situation.” Wynter is a comparative newbie: her background is in stand-up comedy, and she has been a qualified clown doctor since June 2016, having completed her “clownternship” after making 50 appearances in the role. “It’s so much about reading the room, and being willing to change at any point,” she says. “You’ve got to show up with an open heart.”

On leaving the change room, they switch from friendly colleagues to partners in comedic crime. In the hallway outside, near an immunisation centre, they embrace and address each other by their stage names for the first time today. “Hello, Wobble!” says Wynter, who is now known as Doctor Angelina Jolly.

As soon as they round the corner, they join the general population of the public hospital’s bustling second floor, and the improvised routine begins in earnest. Within the first five minutes of finding an audience, Doctor Jolly blows bubbles and distributes squares of toilet paper to some bemused boys, Doctor Wobble uses her stethoscope to check the heart rate of a visitor’s stuffed panda, and the pair of them launch into an enthusiastic rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, accompanied by Doctor Jolly’s ukulele. “A lot of the day is just spent cracking each other up,” says Wobble, while they ride an elevator up to the sixth floor.
To read the full story, visit The Saturday Paper. Above photo credit: Jodie Richter.  

How I found this story: This is part four in my series of stories about different aspects of Brisbane hospitals. In the last year, I've written about a hospital school, superhero window cleaners and trauma prevention classes. I encountered clown doctors in the elevators while reporting the school story, and thought it would make for a nice bit of colour reporting as I followed them around the wards for a shift. Now I'm looking for another hospital-related story. Ideas welcome!


So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (2015, Picador). This is a remarkable book because its author has managed to base a compelling, coherent narrative around something that is very hard to think about, let alone write about. As Jon Ronson notes in the acknowledgments section, one of his interviewees told him that shame is "an incredibly inarticulate emotion. It's something you bathe in, it's not something you wax eloquent about. It's such a deep, dark, ugly thing there are very few words for it."

For this reason, it is essential reading, because Ronson had the brilliant foresight several years ago to place a microphone on a subject which continues to echo loudly today, as I write this in early 2017. His premise is that social media allows people to make snap judgments and form online mobs in order to gang up on individuals who have done something wrong, in the eyes of the many. The goal is to humiliate, shame and silence these people, so that they are punished for their transgressions. Here, Ronson records several significant stories in this vein, and speaks to the 'shamees', so that we might learn from their experience of what it is like to go through this kind of public humiliation. As he also notes in the acknowledgments, this book marked the first time that many of these people had spoken to a journalist about what had happened to them, so Ronson deserves full credit for positioning himself as the person to tell this complex story, and earning their trust.

I had heard Jon Ronson doing the press and podcast rounds when this book was published in 2015, and so prior to reading it, I had a general sense of its themes and many of the stories contained within. But one of its strengths is in the empathy of its telling, and fittingly, it begins with Ronson leading an online mob to tear down some academics who had created a Twitter "infomorph" based on his name and identity. His ego had been hurt, and he wanted to feel better about the situation, so he called on his fans. This begins a personal transformation: the infomorph episode leads Ronson to dig deeper into this phenomenon of technology-enabled pile-ons than anyone before him. He does not end on a hopeful note, either: the book's final sentence reads, "We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it."

He notes that with social media, we have created "a stage for constant artificial high dramas. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain." Again, the echoes are deafening: this still happens practically every week in the Australian media, at least, and one can only look on with a sense of helplessness at the machinery's gnawing teeth, led by the public's apparently incessant need to sink its boot into someone for doing something that's perceived to be wrong. (The villains seem to be reported on with much more vigour than the heroes, sadly, perhaps because of the higher emotional valence.) Ronson is self-aware about this, too: halfway through, he notes, "Shame can factor large in the life of a journalist – the personal avoidance of it and the professional bestowing of it upon others." This is Jon Ronson's most ambitious book, and his best yet. It's a must-read because it is a highly original work that strikes at the core of human nature.

Deal With The Devil by Dan Box in The Weekend Australian Magazine (3,800 words / 19 minutes). A heartbreaking, vividly-told story about the unusual deal that the parents of a murdered man made with his suspected killer.

Mark Leveson is working in the small accountancy firm he runs in southeast Sydney when the NSW attorney-general calls. ­Leveson, a solid, barrel-chested man, answers the phone the way he always does — brightly. ­Gabrielle Upton is gracious and ­generous with her time but that does not disguise the ugliness of what she has to say, the choice she’s offering him. He feels let down. Let down because a decade after his son Matthew, 20, disappeared, no one has found his body. Let down because Matthew’s boyfriend, Michael Atkins, has been found not guilty of the killing and is now living it up in ­Brisbane, where he spends his nights out clubbing with a succession of other young men. And now it’s come to this new low — the senior law officer in the state asking whether they should offer Atkins a deal: if he leads police to Matthew’s body, he will not be prosecuted. It’s a devil of a choice: they get Matt’s remains but in return Atkins, the man they still believe killed their son, walks free.

Back To Black by Amanda Hooton in Good Weekend (3,000 words / 15 minutes). A fine profile of author Neil Gaiman, who has sold millions of books around the world despite being deeply unfashionable, apparently. (I haven't read his work so can't confirm that, but I do love his 2012 commencement speech, 'make good art'.) He's also an absolute speed demon when it comes to autographing books, as shown in the opening section below.

In a room in a warehouse in western Sydney, Neil Gaiman is preparing to sign 400 copies of his latest book, Norse Mythology. His publisher estimates this will take one hour, which is a rate of one book every nine seconds. Sitting at a long table laden with gold-spined paperbacks, Gaiman seems unconcerned by such a schedule, unlike the eight warehouse employees around him, who are stacking books and opening cardboard boxes and arranging trolleys with the intense, slightly awed focus of astronauts on launch day. "I should get them all done with one lot of ink," he says, holding up a slim black fountain pen. "I seem to get about 500 per refill." He flexes his right arm in its black jacket. He is, as always, dressed entirely in black, which contrasts nicely with his recklessly curly, greying black hair. "The trick is to move your whole arm from the shoulder, not just your wrist. Now, who's going to be the person on my right?" His publishing company PR steps forward. "Okay," he tells her. "Now, in order for this to work, you've got to completely ignore my personal space. Just reach in and grab!" He turns to the young woman on his left. "We need a pusher and a grabber – so you push them towards me. Are we ready? Okay, let's go."

Power Switch by Mike Seccombe in The Saturday Paper (3,700 words / 18 minutes). A brilliant examination of the hypocrisy of Australia's Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who has installed a large system of solar panels in his own home while disparaging ambitious renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction targets for the whole country. This report is among the strongest examples of The Saturday Paper's sharp political analysis, and shows why I always feel better informed about the nation and the world after having read it.

It is an unusual double standard by which Malcolm Turnbull lives. The common complaint against politicians is that they do not practise what they preach, that their private behaviour is of a lower standard than what they publicly advocate. But in Prime Minister Turnbull’s case it’s the opposite. He practises what he dares not preach. On his Point Piper mansion, his office confirmed this week, Turnbull has an array of solar panels capable of generating 14.5kW of electricity. That is a pretty big system. The current average capacity of new domestic solar systems in New South Wales is about 6kW, but people can get by with less, provided they are not profligate with their power. The leader of the Greens, for example, Senator Richard Di Natale, runs a household of four people on 3kW of solar-generating capacity with attached storage, and lives completely off-grid. Occasionally, during the bleakest months of the Victorian winter, he tells us, he augments this with generator power. Those who install solar systems say a 5kW array of solar panels can power a large home of four people, including 20 plus lights, multiple televisions, all the usual household appliances, large or multiple airconditioners, and a swimming pool pump. Considering that Turnbull has a solar setup almost five times the size of Di Natale’s, producing about three times as much electricity as is consumed by an average home, his house is likely energy self-sufficient, so long as the sun is shining. 

Life With An Imperforated Anus by Ginger Gorman on news.com.au (1,800 words / 9 minutes). An impressive and empathic story about what it's like to be born without a hole in your bottom, featuring quotes from a couple of people who have experience with this condition, as well as a paediatric surgeon who treats "children whose guts don't work properly". 

There's a painful, searing childhood memory that will never leave Christi, 42, and when she speaks it out loud her voice tremors. “They had one of these little two-by-two metre cubby house things in the Kindergarten yard and I swear every single child in the whole class was somehow in that box like a sardine, jammed in there,” she recalls. Every child except four-year-old Christi, that is. “I asked if I could get in there and then all the kids yelled out that I couldn’t go in there [and that] I was horrible and I smelled of poo. “It really stabs you in the heart that these kids hate you, they don’t want anything to do with you …[and then] you hate your body, you hate yourself, you wish you could change it and you can do nothing because that’s just who you are,” she says. The burden of this shame and disgust is something Christi — a warm-hearted and vibrant high school English teacher — has always carried with her. She was born with a complex birth defect called imperforate anus. In plain English, it means a person is born without a hole in their bottom.

Stake In Kidney by Tommy Murphy in The Saturday Paper (2,000 words / 10 minutes). I was enthralled by this telling of the story behind a stage show named Mark Colvin's Kidney, which is about the relationship between the ABC journalist and business adviser Mary-Ellen Field that led to her kidney donation a while back, thus giving Colvin four more years of life (and counting). Tommy Murphy wrote the show, and as this excellent piece demonstrates, he's a hell of a writer. (Props to the headline writer on this piece, too; more proof that The Saturday Paper's headline puns are top-shelf.)

I threw the cistern of his dead mother’s toilet into a barge on the Thames. I turned to James Hanning and said, “This is a bit fun.” He had ceased to be the deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday that week because the print edition folded. To cap it off, his mother had died and he needed to urgently remove the contents of her partially renovated home. “No, Tommy,” he said. “This is not fun.” Writing a play, rummaging for the research to inform it, regularly involves a glimpse into another person’s agony. It requires sensitivity – mine had momentarily crashed with the childish glee of being allowed to break stuff. James had courteously replied to my emails to explain his horrible month and why it would be near impossible to meet. I asked if he needed a hand at the dump. “If you could face chatting while I drive around,” he wrote back, “that would be great.” We hauled all morning. There was no way this guy could have managed it on his own. The windowsill alone required two, and then there was the shower recess and the crates of brick. He had been putting off this mournful task. I wasn’t there just to be kind, but he thanked me for providing a distraction. It occurred to me: only a stranger could have helped get this done.

I Accidentally Bought A Giant Pig by Steve Jenkins on The Guardian (800 words / 4 minutes). After reading that great headline, I hardly need to sell you on clicking this short read, do I?! The accompanying photographs are fantastic. I love everything about this.

I had no intention of owning a pig. Then one Friday night five years ago, I got a message from a girl I’d gone to school with. She said she remembered how much I loved animals and had a mini pig that she needed to get rid of. She’d just had twins and it was all too much work. She told me it was six months old, had come from a breeder and wouldn’t grow any bigger than a very large cat. I said I’d think about it. My boyfriend Derek and I already had two dogs, two cats, a turtle and koi fish. When the girl called again a few hours later and said someone else was interested and that I had to make up my mind, I panicked and said yes without asking Derek. I thought: a miniature pig in your house, how is that not the coolest thing ever? At the time it was kind of trendy; George Clooney and Paris Hilton had had one.

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