As a journalist, Leigh Sales often encounters people experiencing the worst moments of their lives in the full glare of the media. But one particular string of bad news stories – and a terrifying brush with her own mortality – sent her looking for answers about how vulnerable each of us is to a life-changing event. What are our chances of actually experiencing one? What do we fear most and why? And when the worst does happen, what comes next?
The centrepiece of this book is a series of candid interviews with ‘ordinary people’ blindsided by tragedy and trauma.
Readers will immediately recognise some of the interview subjects, particularly those who are synonymous with the terrifying circumstances that catapulted them into the public consciousness; for example, Walter Mikac and the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, Stuart Diver and the 1997 Thredbo landslide.
The names of other people may be unfamiliar, yet we’ll recall with horror the disastrous events in which they were unfortunate participants, such as Louisa Hope and the 2014 Lindt Cafe siege.
Then there’s a third group whose names and tragedies briefly appeared on our radar courtesy of news media, but were soon forgotten. Supplanted by a new victim and catastrophe du jour.
Leigh Sales‘ journalistic credentials shine through these interviews. She turns the spotlight on herself and her profession; describes a culture that values and rewards breaking news, fresh angles and juicy details; queries the line between behaving ethically towards the victims or subjects of a report and serving the public interest.
While approaching the subjects with kindness and empathy, she still manages to ask the difficult questions – questions we all want answered but would be reluctant to ask. At times, it’s uncomfortable to read and indeed her own discomfort is clear, yet ever the dogged journalist, she persists. And the interviewees, to their credit, respond with honesty and good grace.
Sales also presents research findings which explain how our brains process fear. She examines the media’s role in reinforcing our fear of random disasters by emphasising unusual events. Then she highlights various mathematical theories, such as probability and the Law of Large Numbers, to put the likelihood of occurrence into context.
Wading through the research passages is hard going, a bit like reading an academic paper or, at the very least, a school textbook. Yet it does elevate the book from mere reportage to something deeper and more profound. Investigative journalism with a side helping of personal quest for enlightenment. Sales sums it up perfectly when she says:
“It’s both reassuring and unsettling to learn all of this. Using cold hard logic, I understand that the chance of a random disaster personally ensnaring me is remote … And yet that’s not as comforting as it should be …”
The interviews focus on the grieving process and the different pathways to acceptance, adaptation and recovery. The most important takeaway for me was the value in casting aside my awkwardness and fear to accompany others in the face of great loss, trauma and adversity. Avoidance can intensify the pain. As Walter Mikac explains:
“There’s nothing anyone could say, no matter how badly it came out, that could be as bad as what’s already happened to you. So it’s much better for people to just let you know that they’re there to help, if you need it.”
And regardless of what you think of him as a political figure, former Prime Minister John Howard‘s advice to “… meet the bereaved person at their response, not with something preconceived” is valuable in its insight and empathy.
It’s fair to say I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s unlike any other I’ve read – part biography, part memoir, part investigative report, part self-help guide. At times, it resembled a long feature article in a weekend newspaper or magazine, like Good Weekend (The Age). It’s sensitively written and, for the most part, easy to read, yet the content is challenging and confronting. I’ve learnt a lot, but there are still many questions to ponder and opportunities for self-reflection. And I’m all about that.
What it all comes down to is this: we are each “… as vulnerable as the next person to life’s vagaries.” Misfortune is randomly distributed and indiscriminate. So we would do well to remember that:
“… happiness isn’t some goal that we’re working towards, it’s just in the daily living of life … It’s just appreciating the small moments.” ~ Hannah Richell