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I’ve Never Been to Decatur

Just about a year ago, this web I received the oddest email. “Hi, can we talk,” was its subject; an invitation I rarely decline. Its author, who claimed to be a 14-year-old boy with a rare hormonal disorder, attached a picture of himself to the correspondence. At first blush, the image appeared to be of a slightly underdressed pretty, white, female ‘tween in a tiara.

There were, as I saw it, two possible grown-up responses to this dubious plea for guidance and so I chose them both. The first was to forward the communication to the Australian Federal Police for examination. The second was to research the young man’s condition.”Paul” claimed to have a disorder called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome that had given him the silhouette of a Hollywood ingénue. I suspected he had something called Munchausen by Internet; a disorder that gave him the urge to feign illness.

It wasn’t long after the wired world plugged itself ineluctably into the internet that this phenom began. In 1998, the New York Times published a piece about “factitious disorders”. Of course, folks have been faking-it for hundreds of years but not with the precision, breadth and speed first seen in the nineties. With the rise of online support groups and medical cant always just a Google away, hundreds of fakers had risen to fame before the century was done.

There were few so celebrated as Kaycee Nicole Swenson, purportedly a 19-year-old woman battling with purported leukaemia purportedly in Kansas. On May 15, 2001 the hundreds of thousands of users who had followed Swenson’s blogged record of treatment and remission grieved when her death was announced.

Swenson, as it turned out, never was ill. The blonde former star of local track-and-field couldn’t have contracted any sort of disease given that she did not, in fact, exist. The author of some 300 upbeat posts was, in fact, a healthy 40-year-old Kansas housewife. When Debbie Swenson was outed, she was not entirely repentant. She apologised for the pain she had caused, but told The Times “I know I helped a lot of people in a lot of different ways.”

Actually, a lot of folks seemed to agree. On the internet thread that unravelled the ruse, one user wrote, “sure, it might not be real. does it really matter? if nothing else, the story of Kaycee’s death was a moving experience for some”. This week, following revelations that “Amina Araf” the Gay Girl in Damascus was not, in fact, living evidence of the wrath of Al Assad, we saw similar apologism.

In fact, the middle-aged Post-colonial scholar with his hand up Amina sprang to his own defence. He wrote from his Edinburgh home that he was trying to “illuminate” issues “for a western audience”. Apparently, he felt the world’s colossal pool of Anglophone middle-eastern commentators wasn’t quite up to the job. Thousands of others agreed. What, after all, is a little thing like identity when there are millions of lives at stake?

Well, quite a bit as it happens. The ghastly paternalism and plain old creepiness of some white dude in drag aside, authenticity matters. Especially when it comes to identity. This is not to say that one should bear the tyranny of an identity that doesn’t fit. Research and lived-experience tells us, for example, that the idea of an “authentic” gender identity can be easily undone. But, there’s an ocean of difference between moving as an individual away from identity norms and taking millions of blog readers with you.

And authenticity certainly wasn’t the case with “Paul” who, as I’d suspected, was a frequent faker. As it turned out, he’d approached dozens of others online claiming, at various turns, to have been disabled, sexually confused and physically abused. One of the users he contacted on a sexual abuse survivors site was aghast to learn that the “woman” to whom she had privately revealed vivid and particular details of a rape was not a compassionate survivor. Here was someone with a fetish bordering on mania feeding off the intimate details of her distress.

Authenticity is not an inauthentic word in the case of Amina; its value is not diminished by the focus on “issues for a western audience”. It makes a pirate handbag of Syria’s queer community.

You can produce all the Baudrillardian culture-of-simulation arguments that you wish. Certainly, the idea of “reality” may itself be imperilled in the world at large; “identity” may be a fluid thing; questioned even by neurologists. We are not yet ready to choke on this sticky, sweet Dessert of the Real.

This piece was commissioned for the ABC’s website
You know what the literary world needs more than anything right now? The memoir of a middle-aged Anglophone female whose appetites for sex, page
cuisine and, store
yes, no rx her-fascinating-self are reawakened in Italy. There are not nearly enough of those. Let’s have another. That would be awesome.

By which we mean: that would be a perfectly good waste of paper and another reason for me never to visit Italy for fear I’d become one of those unspeakable female bores who oozes coy racism when she bleats about the “simple pleasures” of Tuscan life and Tuscan penis.  Please. Please. Stop writing your dreadful memoirs. I don’t care about the uncomplicated joy of pasta, or penis for that matter, unless my mouth is full with both.

I have tried to trace the origins of this illness shared by women of my age-range. There must be a Patient Zero for a virus that has claimed so very many femmes. Because, once, you know, women in their forties did not feel moved to write about their Journey of Self-Discovery Beneath the Warmth of the Mediterranean Sun.  We weren’t always crushed by the heft of peri-menopausal twits Finding Themselves In The Dazzling Glint of a Carafe Of Sangiovese.

Have you seen the bookshelves of the marketplace groaning with the bloat of misty-eyed self-love? It’s repellent and evil and if I see ONE MORE stupid bint turn to southern Europe for an object lesson in cramming all of her orifices so full with men and artisanal cheese that she begins to sing like Maria Callas, then I may very well purchase a handgun and shoot every iPad between Melbourne and Florence. The world has had more than its share of this faux-naif nonsense and no one, but no one, benefits from a holiday in effing Provence.

And I know Provence is in France. More’s the pity. I used to like France. I used to think of it as the birthplace of structuralist thought, popular revolution and pastry. Now, all I do is think of hateful cotton-puffs spooling along on their rusticated bicycles saying, “I finally feel ALIVE in France.” Well. You know what? You can feel alive in Decatur, too. And if you don’t, it’s not the fault of the local pâtissier. Rather, it is the saturated fats of your own self-interest that have gone to your head. Cycling holiday in Provence, my arse.

As I was saying. There must be a wellspring for this peculiarly female and especially Generation X disorder that found its most noisome voice in the pile of cack known as Eat, Pray, Love. There must be an index case; an initial ninny known secretly to medical science who started this awful crap. Who was she? Who was the self-important belle to contract an illness that has multiplied in the book barns and imaginations of a generation?

The study of Patient Zero is very important in all examination of disease. By observing the virus in its original form, scholars can strive to research and contain symptoms which, in this case, are turning every middle-class middle-aged white woman into a crazed viral monkey who screeches and claws until she is allowed to partake of a ten thousand dollar Provencale cooking class. With optional cock.

I have spoken with epidemiologists for the good of our civic life and I believe I have located the source of the illness. When we X-ers were little girls, a woman known only as Charlene sang a terrible song called I’ve Never Been to Me. Buoyed at the number one spot on the popular charts for about five years by the crushed dreams of our mothers, it went on to be the soundtrack for an antidepressant advertisement and influence everyone of my age.

Me.Me.Me. They’re all searching for the Me to which they’ve Never Been. I’M TELLING YOU, you left her in Decatur.

8 Responses to “I’ve Never Been to Decatur”

  1. Fiona says:

    I am 40+ and I read Eat Pray Love. In a lovely villa in Italy actually and I promise that was completely unintentional.

    I skipped the self-aware find-myself crap in the book (so, lots of it) then burnt it in the fireplace so that no other human being would accidentally pick it up and have to go through the pain.

    It burnt well.

  2. Dylan says:

    well we wouldn’t want to blame “At the age of 37 she realised that she would never ride through Paris in the springtime with the warm wind in her hair” :)

  3. Dylan says:

    Marianne has earned the right to be Marianne, and take that project where ever she wants. and i didn’t really think of it as whining, more descriptive in a Heat Death of the Universe kind of way.

  4. Erika says:

    Helen, I loved this, just loved this column. So glad to have this Eat Love Pray rubbish written about honestly. Self absorbed wondering around the world to find oneself seems like a delusional journey. I’m a pretty old girl and have followed you on radio and in print for years now with admiration and affection. Your verbal gymnastics fascinate. I think of you chomping way through a thesauras for breakfast. Strength to your pen, Helen!

  5. Kim says:

    Helen, thanks for this – Finally someone who sees that book as I did – self absorbed clap trap or ‘a pile of cack’ as you so succinctly state. Someone (my husband) slightly misguided by someone else, gave me this book last year and stupidly I read it to see what everyone was on about. It made me so angry I wanted to slap the author, the publishers including anyone (my friends) who read it and said it was ‘enlightening’ (and that was all of them). Now my anger has abated I am just sad that people (mostly women) feel that the experiences that are described in the book are something to aspire to or that the author was anything other than self serving when writing it – and they made a movie out of it………

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