Dispatches #166: Smashed gods, stall catchers and very bad trips
Thursday, 5 October 2017Welcome to Dispatches, a weekly summary of my writing, listening and reading habits. I'm Andrew McMillen, a freelance journalist and author based in Brisbane, Australia. (No 'sounds' this week, though.)
Words:I had a story published in Good Weekend on Saturday. Excerpt below.
To read the full story, visit Good Weekend. Above illustration credit: Clemens Habicht.
Risky Business (3,400 words / 17 minutes)
How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs
Tom* closes his eyes, settles back on his bed, breathes in the aromatherapy oil he's burning and listens to psychedelic trance while waiting for the onset of the trip from the LSD he's just swallowed. It's 8pm on a Friday night this year, he's home alone in the sanctuary of his bedroom and he tells himself that this is his reward for finishing his exams (except for business studies, which he doesn't care about). Within moments, the 17-year-old's heart rate goes up, butterflies flutter in his stomach and waves of colour dance across his field of vision, regardless of whether he closes or opens his eyes. This is the fifth time he's taken the hallucinogen, the first four with no unpleasant side effects, so he's trying a double dose to see whether the sensations become more intense.
Tom takes precautions: he uses a drug-testing kit he bought from a "hippie store" near his house to make sure the drug is LSD rather than a more risky synthetic alternative. He cuts a tiny sliver from one of the tabs and drops it into a glass tube containing a small amount of liquid. He watches as the sample reacts to the chemicals, turning dark purple, indicating its purity. Satisfied, Tom eats four tiny pieces of LSD-soaked blotting paper known as "tabs".
The trip starts well, reaching an idyllic plateau, but the come-up keeps climbing – and with it, his anxiety. He doesn't hear his dad Karl* unexpectedly arrive home and climb the stairs. Sitting at his desk, Tom is so shocked when his dad opens his bedroom door that he can barely speak and doesn't make eye contact. So odd is his behaviour that his father imagines he's walked in on his son masturbating. Embarrassed, he bids his son good night – he's off to meet Tom's mum Jasmine* at a fund-raising dinner across town – and closes the door.
Tom is alone again, and the drug's effects continue to intensify. Trying to counteract the restlessness he's feeling, he walks onto the second-floor balcony off his bedroom and paces up and down. By now losing his sense of reality, Tom tries talking to himself in a bid to sort out the strange thoughts invading his mind. "Who's doing this to you?" he asks, raising his voice. "Who's doing this?"
Neighbours hear this bizarre phrase ringing out from the balcony. At first, they don't associate the deep voice with Tom: it sounds almost Satanic. In the darkness, they can faintly see a figure pacing back and forth. They call out, asking if he's all right. Well-known as an early morning runner, and well-liked as a trusted babysitter to several families in this quiet, affluent neighbourhood in Sydney's north where he's spent most of his life, Tom is clearly not himself. The family cats are howling, too, apparently as disturbed by his behaviour as the onlookers.
From the balcony, Tom scampers up onto the tiled roof, but loses his footing. A round, wooden table in the front yard breaks his fall not far from the edge of the swimming pool. The force of his weight smashes the furniture to pieces but he miraculously avoids serious injury. A concerned neighbour rings 000. Tom may be bleeding, but he's still got the speed of a cross-country athlete and seemingly superhuman strength, despite his reed-thin frame. He rushes back inside his house, tracking blood through different rooms, before smashing a back fence then running onto the street again, tearing off his clothes.
How I found this story: This one came to me after the June publication of a story for the same magazine, Trips To Remember, where I wrote about my own (largely positive) experiences with psychedelic drug use. A reader emailed me to say: "LSD is like a monster in our house, sucking all the potential and opportunity out of my beautiful son... as well as creating massive stress for the entire family," wrote a mother based in Sydney, who is quoted in the story under the pseudonym Jasmine. "Let me tell you from my experience (and by the way, I am no LSD virgin), that for our precious kids, LSD is plain playing with fire. They can't evaluate the high levels of risk versus the perceived mind 'expanding' benefits, and they are basically ending up, for want of a better word, completely fucked."
From that initial email, we began a correspondence, as I was interested in learning more about her son's experience. My editors at Good Weekend agreed it was a good idea to work on this as a follow-up to the first story, and so I travelled to Sydney in August to meet and speak with the family in question.
I have been writing about illicit drug use for about five years now, and I have always tried to balance depictions of the potential risks and rewards associated with the decision to use drugs of any sort. This one strikes the most cautious tone of my writing to date, and that's by design, as I think it's unreasonably dangerous for teenagers to be experimenting with powerful drugs like LSD – especially while alone, without any responsible persons to supervise them, per the concept of 'set and setting' that I outlined in Trips To Remember. I highly doubt I would have had the maturity or insight to handle a bad trip such as Tom's when I was 17 years old, and I hope that this article is useful for encouraging parents to open up some frank discussions with their children about a difficult subject.
Every Night Perfect by Kevin Dupzyk and James Lynch in Popular Mechanics (5,900 words / 29 minutes). Close readers of Dispatches will have noted several article recommendations based on U2's American tour of their classic album The Joshua Tree. I'm not particularly obsessed with this band, I swear. I like them just fine, but for some reason this tour has inspired plenty of excellent writing about U2's music and its place in popular culture. This is the best such article I've yet seen, and it's different to the personal essays I've mentioned here before. It's an exhaustively reported read about something I've idly wondered about as a concertgoer: namely, what are the minute-by-minute mechanics and logistics of assembling, troubleshooting and breaking down the huge stage productions used by globe-trotting bands like U2, who also happen to use the world's largest mobile video screen in their concerts? If you've ever wondered the same thing, you'll probably love this read as much as I did. Brilliant, original reporting. I'm grateful.
Searching For Lost Memories Under Thousands of Microscopes by Miranda Katz on Backchannel (2,200 words / 11 minutes). I was deeply moved by this beautifully written story about the gamification of Alzheimer's disease research.
DAY 4: 9:45 p.m. Four songs in. The people at the barricades had to come to the stadium on two separate occasions to secure this spot. The diehards. The people whose backs are lists of old U2 tour dates; the people draped in Irish flags. They came to MetLife Stadium last night, when everything was barely set up–the spotlights yet to be tested, the sound mix yet to be perfected–just to get a number inscribed on their wrists in permanent marker. And they came back today–doors opened at 5 p.m., but they were here long before that, because that is who they are–and presented their markings, the lower the better, to an employee of Live Nation, the massive touring company, and were walked in to grab a choice position at the 20-yard-line barricades directly in front of the drum kit. U2 started the show on the 45-yard line, but four songs in they're taking center stage for the main event: The Joshua Tree, their first huge record, is 30 years old and on this tour they're playing it in full. The diehards are ready to lose their minds. Their numbered hands are poised to clap, and make raised fists, and wave cellphones into the jet stream of the biggest touring band in the world. But the screen makes everyone equal. The screen means it doesn't matter where you sit. U2 has always been about equal rights for all. The screen is 196 feet wide and 45 feet tall. It fills the end zone and red zone of the north end of the field, blotting out entire sections of stands. It's the most advanced touring screen in the world, built specifically for U2: 11.4 million pixels of almost unnerving 8K clarity. It's nearly all carbon fiber, light and strong–so much carbon fiber that a spool of it the width of a sidewalk would be four miles long. U2 wanted it even bigger, but they realized anything wider wouldn't fit in the football stadiums where they would play. Football stadiums. As the band plays the first ethereal chords and pounding bass drum that start the first song of the album, "Where the Streets Have No Name," the screen explodes with light: soaring black-and-white footage of the empty two-lanes of the American West. It's a glorious moment. The diehards suddenly find themselves stuck in the front row of a movie theater–still not a bad spot, in this theater–while the people in the cheap seats (which are not cheap at all) experience a stunning panorama. Equal rights for all.
Gentlemen, Gentlemen, Be of Good Cheer, for They Are Out There, and We Are in Here by Chris Jones in Esquire (9,400 words / 46 minutes). When I heard the news of Hugh Hefner's death, I immediately clicked over to this brilliant 2013 profile of the man, and I wasn't disappointed in the slightest. Rereading this piece in light of the news, I was struck by the authoritative, documentarian tone that Jones strikes in this piece. Hefner's impending death is outright mentioned several times, and Jones seems to have written it with an eye to history, as if he knew this would be one of the texts that would be read and accepted as one of the most comprehensive portraits of who Hefner was. An outstanding piece of writing.
On a cool September evening, Judy Johanson curled up on her living room sofa with her iPad, carefully examining mouse brains. Her husband, Steve, slept just a few feet away. It was granular work, especially for a woman who for 24 years ran a daycare center. Judy scrolled through hundreds of slides, searching them, one by one, for tiny black spots. The task might have appeared deeply tedious–but Judy was in the zone. While Steve dreamed, she was joining thousands of amateur scientists in the search for a cure for his disease. When Steve was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer's disease six years ago, at age 58, he told Judy: "We can choose to be sad or we can choose to be happy." So they chased happiness: The Johansons worked with the Alzheimer's Association and began lobbying local and federal politicians for more research funding. Until last November, Steve was part of a promising 18-month clinical trial for a drug intended to slow his cognitive decline. Judy felt certain that the drug was working, but earlier this year researchers concluded it was ineffective. The news was crushing. Since then, Steve's experienced a significant decline. His mobility is limited; Judy converted their living room into a bedroom so that he doesn't have to use the stairs. One day this summer, he walked straight into the swimming pool that he'd constructed in their backyard nine years earlier. As Steve's symptoms have worsened, it's become harder to find trials for which he qualifies; at times, a treatment can feel impossibly far away. He no longer remembers telling Judy they should "choose to be happy."
The Smashed God by Brian Phillips on Grantland (1,600 words / 8 minutes). I was pleased to come across this excellent news feature from 2015 in my Instapaper queue, which I tend to 'sort by oldest' on the rare occasions I happen to open the app. This one's about solving the mystery of the Japanese battleship Musashi, which was lost at sea off the Phillippines for decades, until Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen invested serious cash to find it a couple of years ago. Brian Phillips is such a wonderful writer. I love this sentence: "What humans imagined as an ocean-dominating colossus turned out to be, to the ocean, insignificant, something small enough to be casually misplaced."
For as long as anyone can remember, Monday night has been Manly Night at the Playboy Mansion. A little after five o'clock, nine or ten of Hugh Hefner's best friends – invited guests, holders of inner-circle memberships that will be good until death – start pulling up outside the front gate. They talk into what looks like a big round rock, and a disembodied voice questions and admits them, sometimes sounding surprised about it–"Oh, hey, you can come up"–and the gate swings open, revealing a hedge-lined driveway and two yellow warning signs: BRAKE FOR ANIMALS and PLAYMATES AT PLAY. The Mansion soon looms at the top of a rise, a Gothic pile with leaded glass windows that overlook immaculate grounds tended by men in green work shirts, each with the familiar white rabbit stitched on the chest. The guests ease up next to a marble fountain topped by a cherub molesting a dolphin, and then they head through the Mansion's thick wood front door and into the appropriately named Great Hall, where there are several large portraits of their host watched over by a full-sized statue of Frankenstein. Ray Anthony, the ninety-one-year-old trumpeter and bandleader, is usually the first of the men to show up, with either a hat or a toupee on his head. Fred Dryer, the former football player and actor, also arrives, still looking capable of feats of strength, his hands the size of dinner plates. Johnny Crawford, the former child star (The Rifleman) and teen idol ("Cindy's Birthday"), wanders in, as does eighty-four-year-old Keith Hefner, the younger brother and only sibling of the more famous of the Hefner boys. More ordinary men join the gathering as well–a retired kindergarten teacher named Mark Cantor, a movie-memorabilia expert named Ron Borst, a producer named Kevin Burns. The youngest and newest member, Jeremy Arnold, is a film historian and writer. He's been admitted to Manly Night for only a year or so, after spending ten years in the less-exclusive Movie Nights' farm club–Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays–and he still walks around with a bemused smile, as though he's not quite sure how he ended up here or doesn't believe he has. All these men somehow drifted into Hefner's orbit, and for whatever reason he decided to snare them, the way a planet collects satellites. Now they will never escape his gravity. They will never try.
What's It Like To Lose Your Mother? by Tanya Sweeney in The Irish Times (2,000 words / 10 minutes). A beautiful article that answers a hard, sad and inevitable question.
Until last week, when the billionaire Paul Allen began tweeting images of deep-sea wreckage – a coral-encrusted anchor, a green valve hairy with algae – the annals of vanished ships contained no entry more mysterious than that of the Musashi, a massive Japanese battleship sunk off the Philippines toward the end of World War II. To call Musashi massive, actually, doesn't begin to do it justice. It was, and remains, one of the largest battleships ever launched – 70,000 tons of water displaced, with a crew of more than two thousand. Its nine 18.1-inch guns, the largest caliber ever mounted on a ship, were designed to fire 3,000-pound shells at a range of more than 26 miles. The guns and their huge turrets were constructed in the arsenal at Kure, near Hiroshima; before they could be installed on the Musashi, the Japanese Navy had to build a second ship just to transport them to Nagasaki, where the behemoth was being built. The Musashi was the second, and wound up being the last, of the Yamato class of battleships, oceanic fortresses dreamed up in the 1930s to give Japan ascendancy at sea. To understand what these ships represented, you have to appreciate the fantastic tension surrounding Japan during the buildup to WWII. The country had become an industrial power almost overnight, had beaten Russia in a war at a time when no one thought an Asian nation could compete with a European country. It was bristling with aggressive confidence and gripped by a furious, expansionist nationalism; it was also surging with resentment toward the Western powers that still treated it as a backwater. When the League of Nations rebuked Japan for its 1931 invasion of China, the empire withdrew from the organization in defiance.
The Giant Is Coming by Max Opray on Guardian Australia (2,600 words / 13 minutes). This is an excellent feature about Amazon's imminent arrival in Australia, and how retailers big and small are preparing (or not) for its threat.
If it hasn't already happened to you, it's likely you've wondered what it's like. Recently, curiosity got the better of someone and they asked outright: "What's it like to lose your mother?" Put it this way: I wouldn't want to do it every weekend. But the truth is, losing a parent changes you on a cellular level, the way being a mute witness to a minor miracle might. It ages your bones by decades – but experience it, in the natural scheme of things, you must. Inexplicable sorrow awaits us all, if it hasn't already happened. That's just life. To those who ask, I tell them about how you wake up that morning and although you don't know it yet, today's the day that they'll need you right away. You start working on a newspaper column and get halfway through before a hazy phone call tells you that you might be better off coming in, like right now. Just as you've done for months, you pack up the pyjamas that you washed blood from the night before and ring your editor with the best excuse ever as to why you won't be filing your column today. It looks like your mother is going to die.
Talk Of The Devil: Repressed Memory & the Ritual Abuse Witch-Hunt by Richard Guilliatt (1996, Text Publishing). This is one of the most disturbing books I have read. It documents a phenomenon that swept Australia in the 1990s, whereby hundreds of people began remembering unspeakable and long-forgotten sexual crimes committed against them by their parents and other family members.
Down Dandenong way, on the outskirts of Melbourne, Amazon is staking out a beachhead for the invasion. Strategically located near freeway connections to Australia's busiest cargo seaport, the US$465bn retail superpower's cavernous new fulfilment centre is gearing up to house hundreds of thousands of products shipped in from all over the world. Citibank analysts predict Amazon will hit Australia in October, although the business itself is tight-lipped about the details. In the lead-up this 24,000 square metre warehouse is shedding the red-and-green branding of former tenant Bunnings for Amazon yellow, as it gears up to serve as a staging ground for a highly automated online retail operation that has deftly outmanoeuvred competitors, unions and tax authorities all over the globe – and promises to unleash the biggest disruption to the Australian market since the rise of department stores. The incoming arrival of Amazon has seen the share value of major Australian retailers plunge, with local business leaders only helping fuel the panic. Amazon this year has been variously described as "the worst possible corporate citizen", "Attila the Hun", "a parasite" that "pays no tax" and threatens to "send everyone broke" – and that's just by Gerry Harvey, the chairman of the electrical retail chain Harvey Norman, which in May had its profit forecasts downgraded by 30% by Citibank after analysis of Amazon's impact in the US. The colourful entrepreneur's rhetoric has struck some as a little rich: the Retail Global founder, Phil Leahy, observed that Harvey's "contradictions are breathtaking, given he has beaten competitors in building his own empire".
It is a sensitive and emotionally charged subject to write about, as author Richard Guilliatt well knew, having reporting on recovered memory therapy extensively for The Sydney Morning Herald in the lead-up to writing this. Of he and his colleagues' interest in the subject, he acknowledges that "the media [...] had found a story which irresistibly combined lurid sensationalism with moral outrage."
Importantly, though, on the second page, he writes: "This book does not seek to minimise the devastating damage and suffering that can be caused by incest. Sexual abuse of children is widespread, its victims frequently suffer in silence, and the people who devote themselves to eradicating it are pursuing one of society's most laudable and difficult goals."
Central to the narrative is the 1994 criminal trial of a Western Australian man, whose two adult daughters underwent recovered memory therapy and then accused their father of monstrous sexual assaults dating back to their early childhood. "Clive Moore's daughters had searched within themselves and reconstructed their memories of their father and their past," Guilliatt writes near the beginning. "In the process they had set in motion a chain of events which would lead to a criminal trial that became celebrated as the first 'repressed memory' prosecution in Australia."
While reporting on that trial and documenting how the phenomenon first spread across Western psychotherapy, before becoming popular among Australian therapists – despite the fact that recovered memory therapy had already begun being discredited elsewhere – Guilliatt remains an objective and impassive observer. It's not until right near the end of the book that he breaks with this approach by writing from his own perspective.
"I scan the room, taking in the other seventy-odd therapists around me," he writes on page 256. "They are a casually dressed bunch, mostly women but a handful of men, their faces fixed in similar expressions of furrowed concern as they stare at the painting of the young girl hooked up to the mysterious mind-control apparatus." He eventually comes to realise that the group who believes in this (since widely discredited) form of therapy are themselves not unlike a cult.
I found this book disturbing because it shows how therapists and other so-called experts were allowed to feed off a media-led hysteria that had little basis in reality. As the central criminal trial shows, the accusations of the two adult daughters caused a deep and seemingly irreparable rift in that family, and caused nothing but pain for all involved. "If nothing else, the events of the past decade should sound a warning about such misguided zealotry," Guilliatt concludes. "Hysteria has only ever harmed the cause of protecting children. Every false allegation of child abuse absorbs the resources of a system which is already struggling to protect children in genuine danger."
Thanks for reading. If you have feedback on Dispatches, I'd love to hear from you: just reply to this email. Please feel free to share this far and wide with fellow journalism, music, podcast and book lovers.