A few years ago I glanced at the front pages of the newspapers as I dashed for a train and I noted that Paul Gascoigne had been hitting the headlines again for his battles with alcoholism and depression. It struck me that as a society we are morbidly fascinated by tales of genius squandered. British sport has had its share of “mavericks”. Down the years we’ve seen George Best, Alex Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan to name just a few.
In most pop culture genres there are similar stories to read. The death of Amy Winehouse in particular saw her sainted in death by a media, who in life treated her problems with disdain, mockery and judgement. With the coverage often feeling intrusive and vitriolic. Certain elements of the media circled the story of her demise like vultures, revelling in her joining the “27 Club”. This reveals a troubling trend of the media looking upon drug and mental health issues with a strange form of romanticism as if it is a natural by-product of wayward genius.
Another recent press anti-hero is Pete Doherty. Put very simply he is a young man with an illness, who happens to play the guitar. However his media portrayal sways from awe-struck reverence at his poetic “genius” to furious condemnation at him being a waster and drug addict. From Brian Wilson to Syd Barratt, rock history has been full of troubled genius but what we seem unwilling to confront in all these cases is the stark reality of mental illness. Depression and addiction are far from romantic, they are tragic. A vulnerable person has enough to deal with without being subjected to a trial by media.
Why then are we fascinated with these people and why aren’t we more willing to stare the ogre of mental fragility in the face. We wax lyrical about the fine line between genius and madness but stumble when it comes to offering up the truth behind the public face. We do not like to say the word depression because it is not an easy thing to understand.
Taking the example of Gazza again we have seen public perception of him go from adoration, because of his jovial image, encouraging him to play up for the camera, to rightful criticism when he committed domestic violence. We have then been bewildered as he phoned into a local radio station claiming to know Raoul Moat and we have had an outpouring of public sympathy at the sight of a clearly troubled and frail looking man. The puzzling thing about the media response is that Gazza has been in his current state more or less since he retired from the game. If you look back at any interview or newspaper article on him in the last 10 years he cuts a similar figure, so what has changed? Maybe the prospect of him dying has finally awoken people to his troubled mental state.
As a society we have to take responsibility for a culture that builds people up only to savagely tear them down. What is deemed to be innocent tomfoolery one day is branded a squandering of talent the next. It is our (the media consuming populace) fickleness that we has created a lot of misery for these people. We have contributed to their plight by gossiping, by tuning into the “real lives” style documentaries and by buying the newspapers and magazines. We are the architects and builders of this savage cult of celebrity.
Atticus Finch said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Finch challenges us to query the things we take for granted, the picture painted is always more complex than initial appearances suggest, we have responsibility as the reader to think more compassionately. This is all the more relevant in the “fake news” era that we live in.
“Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone”.