In his book about memory and the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien tells the story of his first love, at elementary school, and her subsequent death. The story is a neat piece of meta fiction in which the telling of the story is the point of the story. The story keeps alive his love, re-imagines her, and re-animates her. In the telling she comes alive again. O’Brien writes:
The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness….. There was the sound of the wind, the sound of birds and the quiet afternoon, which was the world we were in. That’s what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk.
That this magic can be so easily contrived in speech and writing obscures the burdens incumbent on doing so. To make the dead walk and talk again is a serious business. It is a responsibility. It is the taking on of a duty of care and no simple matter. It is very difficult to not speak over the dead. To call up those who cannot speak for themselves, to do that you’ve got to care. Care as in give a shit, and care as in close attention. Miss out on one of these and the dead are just stolen caricatures, and your story evidence of theft.
Peter Jackson was a footballer, a good one. He played for the Canberra Raiders, the Brisbane Broncos, and the North Sydney Bears between 1987 and 1993. Centre, five-eighth, pretty much anywhere on the backline Peter Jackson could play and play well. He was a regular for the Maroons and played a few tests for Australia. The usual tabulated set of stats and pithy career summaries don’t speak to his magic on the field: the way he would make visible his decision making process and then invisibly change his mind as he took the ball to the line; the way his long pink legs would crank up and go; the way he would run in such a way as to bring his teammates into the play as space opened in front of him; the flailing of arms and legs as he went in for a ball and all tackle; the deftness of his passing (and often his not-passing); and the gorgeous awkwardness of his efforts in kicking.
With the ball in hand you got the sense that he was a man with a few more seconds than others, that he had enough time to do things slowly and still win the contest. My clearest memory of Peter Jackson is of him running down the western, shadowed, touchline at a windswept Bruce Stadium (in those days you could barely hear for the sound of the wind through the eucalyptus at the southern end) on a bitter Canberra Sunday afternoon, the ball held high against his left breast and his gaze drifting back over his right shoulder as he cranked up those spidery legs and made his way to the try line, after a brief dummy and fend against the defending fullback, to score. I can’t remember much about this game, not even who it was against, but I recall rising to my feet and cheering, completely unselfconsciously, as his lanky figure wove at speed in and out of the grandstand’s shadow.
Jackson had a pretty decent career, weighty enough, in combination with a world’s best aww-shucks grin, to see him working successfully in television as a talking head and occasional commentator after his playing days were done. He was a charming bloke, he was often described as a larrikin but this really meant that he was quick to laugh and looked imperturbable when things didn’t go his way. But he wasn’t imperturbable at all. He was cut up inside. Football had done Peter Jackson significant harm. Football coaches and Catholic brothers between them had messed everything up for Jackson. Even football was fucked up because football got the attention that led to the harm. Especially football.
His energy and his timing, the laugh and the grin: these were defences as he bought time to figure out how vulnerable he was. This didn’t occur to me at the time. I didn’t consider footballers to be vulnerable back then, it would never have occurred to me to even think about it. Watching some of the YouTube footage of the Raiders in 1987 and 1988 you can see Jackson’s gawkiness in the moments before he receives the ball, you can see his worry. In those moments he invites the defence in, to close upon him, before using those few extra seconds to slip and sprint from capture.
With the clarity of a long view you can see the harm on Jackson’s brow, his puzzlement and confusion. What. The Fuck. Happened to me? What. The Fuck. Do I do now? It’s written on his face. Written in the way his body would curl to receive a tackle. It’s right there in his ruses to beat the tackler. It’s there in the ferocious spitting force of his zeal when he scored or his team won. The roar and the over exuberance often seemed a bit over the top but you know it’s football and footballers take football seriously, and when you’re a believer you take it seriously too, so the zealotry seemed fitting (and by today’s standards his celebrations appear relatively muted). Those moments are transparently easy to read now. It was a kind of revenge, of success despite. Retrospect only offers heartbreak on view. Fuck you football. Fuck you. You can see that Jackson wants to hate football but can’t do it. He can’t hate it. So he hates himself. Depression ate him and never stopped.
In 1997, aged 33, Peter Jackson died alone in a Sydney hotel room of a heroin overdose.
This story doesn’t do justice to the human being who was once here called Peter Jackson and played rugby league. This story can’t be a husband, a father, a son, a teammate, a friend. This story can’t meet you at the pub for a beer. This story can’t call you on Sunday evening for a chinwag about the Raiders. This story can’t barbecue you a steak. This story can’t vote or remember your birthday. This story is not available for a reunion. This story is not a person. This story cannot choose. This story is not sovereign.
Tomorrow is International Overdose Awareness Day. Lots of stories will be told. Many of those stories will be about the dead. The stories will be framed by love, by loss, by horror, by anger, by disappointment, by confusion, by passion, by lost hope, and especially by grief. The rich incandescence of these often gives rise to a kind of piety, a righteousness about the terribleness of it all. So many parents and partners, lovers and children, all muttering like Kurtz: the waste, the waste. And there’s some justice there, loss is not felt by the absent. But for all the good cause of it, for all the activist ardor about saving lives and reducing stigma, for all the heartbreak nothing should disguise the sovereignty of those who made those choices and those who lost everything when they did so. That’s the respect they are due. That’s the sovereignty we should acknowledge when we tell stories about them and their deaths.
It’s a complicated gesture, not speaking over the dead, but if we can pull it off we can share a little bit of the world that we shared with the absent. For a little while we can share what it was like when the dead walked and talked, what it was like to love them and be loved by them. What it was like to be in the world with them. To share that, that’s worth a little complication I think.