I’d be lying if I were to tell you this was a review of a book, Any Ordinary Day, by that stalwart of Australian journalism, Leigh Sales. For I have almost as much to say here about what it’s not about than what it is about.
What it’s about
Any Ordinary Day is an investigation into how people cope when tragedy strikes, both in the immediate aftermath and when it has receded into the past. It’s about how people react “when life blindsides them” on one of those ordinary days which have gone “horribly wrong”. Adopting a conversational tone, there’s also some soul-searching, as Sales examines the tradecraft of investigative journalism in its treatment of tragedy.
Telling the stories sequentially, Any Ordinary Day comprises a series of interviews of lead players (and some off-stage as well) in some of Australia’s most public catastrophes over the last few decades, including the Black Saturday Victorian bushfires in 2009, the Toowoomba Queensland floods in 2011, and Australia’s worst mass casualty incident, the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. Survivors share with Sales their thoughts on, for example, how they dealt with the question of ‘why it happened to them’ and how the trauma has (or has not) transformed them.
The topic appeals to me. My ghoulish side is curious about catastrophes like the Port Arthur attack in Tasmania, the Waterlow murders in 2009, and the Lindt Café attack in Sydney in 2014. Sales’ interviews with staff at the Glebe Morgue in Sydney indulge my NCIS-leanings. I’m sentimental too. My heart still wrenches when I recall the face of Stuart Diver as he was carried out of the rubble as sole survivor of the 1997 Thredbo disaster. And I like facts. I appreciate Sales’ analysis of, for example, the probability of tragic events occurring (“the random distribution of misfortune”) and her accounts of the psychological studies of trauma. I gladly kept flipping to the comprehensive end notes.
While on one level the whole book is about mental health issues (coping with trauma and grief, building resilience, healing), there is little discussion of specific mental health conditions that might arise in relation to such trauma. Such discussion as there is covers terrorism and PTSD at p66-68 (see also Rosella Room‘s brief post on this here); suicide (p145); talking therapy (p160); and the value of trauma and bereavement counselling (p203).
Like a horror film, this book feeds our appetite for observing tragedy and loss and then, through discussion and analysis, soothes us. This analysis is not dry. Sales not only injects into the narrative a forensic analysis of her own profession’s tendency to amplify trauma (see for example the chapter on treatment by Sixty Minutes of medical student James Scott, lost in the Himalayas in 1992 (p81-114)), she becomes a participant in this journey. She reveals her own moments of despair and admits to mistakes as an investigative journalist. She frequently pauses the narrative to tell us that she wants “to weep at the injustice” of what has befallen her interviewees and often goes on to do exactly that.
Sales is rightly regarded as one of Australia’s top journalists. She’s well-known for her robust, ‘take no prisoners’ style of TV interview, ready to pounce on inconsistencies and perceived weaknesses of her interviewees’ accounts. In the interviews for this book, she comes across as relatively gentle as she seeks to unpick the complexities and tease out the subtleties of the responses to tragedy – whether that of the public at large or those directly impacted by the event.
There is value in re-telling these stories, in bringing to light the insights of those involved and in sharing wide-ranging academic studies on dealing with trauma. The book is a thoughtful account of some major events in Australian cultural and social history and draws on a wide range of academic literature.
What it’s NOT about
As you could sum it up as ‘when bad things happen to good people’, it’s not about diversity of experience.
Any Ordinary Day is not an investigation into how people cope with massive good fortune. It is explicitly concerned with unexpected misfortune. But I wonder if being the recipient of unexpected good fortune can also be traumatic, de-stabilising and life changing. Why not interview, for example, the winner of a huge lottery? A person who missed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17? How do these people manage the potential change in their life trajectories? Would individuals in these scenarios draw on a similar set of life skills?
What about people whose good fortune is at the expense of another – good fortune begat of bad? I’m thinking here of cases like organ donations – why not interview the recipient, or donor’s family – of an organ donation like a new heart or face?
And Any Ordinary Day is not about how people cope when they have played some role – moral or causative – in the calamity that befell them. It’s easy for the reader to sympathise with those people to whom the gods have delivered buckets of misfortune. We can sigh for their pain, wish them well on their journey of recovery, and cross our fingers that it never happens to us. From an analytical perspective, the more challenging cases, such as those with an element of moral responsibility or where stupidity rather than evil prevails, or an unwitting, fatal step has been taken, would have been a much harder book to write, but perhaps a more interesting contribution.
What about, I don’t know, a teenager in the last year of school with their whole life ahead of them who texts while driving and kills someone. Or the woman in Canberra who in 1997 won a radio show prize of pressing the detonator switch on a building implosion which would prove fatal to bystanders? Or why not consider the perpetrator of the Waterlow attack (now that’s he’s on antipsychotic medication) – how does he carry his burden of patricide? A perpetrator can also be traumatised by their action. Might not they also grieve? Sales writes about how people overcome tragedy. But can people ever overcome culpability? I guess that would have been another book altogether, one perhaps for another, less ordinary day.
Any Ordinary Day, by Leigh Sales, Hamish Hamilton, 2018