Monday, April 11, 2016


Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine High School school gunmen. I just finished reading her terrible (in subject matter, not rendition) book about her son Dylan. It describes who he was as a child, his shocking crime, who she was as a mother, and who she has become since. None of us need to exercise much critical thinking to imagine that perhaps the only thing worse than having a child murdered would be to be the mother of a child who murdered other children, before killing himself. Not that Sue Klebold ever says that, or even brushes up against it, on every page is her awareness of the suffering brought to the families of her son's victims and her sense that she has no place comparing her grief to theirs. 

It is a thing too terrible to grasp and Sue Klebold has spent the last 17 years reckoning with it. Her book is called A Mother's Reckoning. Reckoning has been all she can do, there will never be peace, understanding or resolution for her. It's not a thing she wants our pity for, I read this book feeling keenly aware that she wants us to know the parts of her son that were invisible to her, that we might not be so blind when looking in our own homes. 

In Sue Klebold's audit of herself as a mother she punishes herself over things as insignificant as putting sprinkles on Dylan's 3rd birthday cake instead of icing, she finds infinite ways to blame herself while the rest of the world joins in, in tabloid headlines and blaring talkback radio invective. She describes a son who showed no outward signs of suffering from depression and yet as long as two years before the shooting at Columbine High School, Dylan Klebold had expressed a desire to end his life in his writings, writings that she would not see until months after the tragedy. While she resists the temptation to take hold of the lifeline that might exist (for her) in connecting Dylan's actions with his depression, she demonstrates a connection between the two and is careful to point out not all people suffering from mental illness are violent, while many violent people have a mental illness. 

Sue Klebold steers well clear of Eric Harris' (the other shooter) story, it's not hers to tell. But further reading of reliable reporting describes Harris as being the dominant personality in the partnership. Dr Dwayne Fuselier is a clinical psychologist and was the supervisor in charge of the FBI team during the investigation and told Sue Klebold, "I believe Eric went to the school to kill people and didn't care if he died, while Dylan wanted to die and didn't care if others died as well."

Sue Klebold's message is this, she had no idea anything was wrong, and I believe her when she says it. This is the story of a boy who had no way of processing the feelings that threatened to, and ultimately would, annihilate himself and many others.

I think it's possible to teach a child to know what to do with those feelings, based on my empirical data of one story. My story.

It makes my stomach lurch to discuss my son in any way that connects him to Dylan Klebold - but I knew I had a child whose feelings threatened to engulf him, and I knew it early. I had an uncle who committed suicide, I had thought about suicide as a teenager - the statistics on teenagers who consider suicide are high so it's no great shakes that I'm one of them. When we become parents we know we can guard against so many external things that might hurt our children, I didn't need to work hard to imagine that the threat could be internal. 

I remember the first time I was aware of the notion that my child's manners might reflect on me as a mother, it was unavoidable, really.

The bustling mother who lived across the road from my place bailed me up one day to tell me that her four year old son was distressed that my kid was getting away without saying please and thank you and it was troubling him (her kid) that my kid didn't appear to be suffering from any consequences. This struck him (her kid) as profoundly unfair because he was copping consequences left right and centre, mostly being  made to stand in the bathroom with the door shut. 

I tried to defend my kid, I said, well, he's only three years old but Manners Police was well ahead of me and her attack was planned, she said her kid had thought about that, and Joey*, who was also three, and lived up at number 17, Joey had his pleases and thank yous down pat. She repeated to me the conversation she had had with her son, about my son's manners, verbatim. I think I mumbled that I'd try to do something about it. (*Not his real name.)

It still makes me shake. I can't believe I gave her the time of day. In 1998 I had bigger fish to fry than please and thank you. 

My kid was a ball of feelings and at some point most days, those feelings looked and sounded like rage. He destroyed his bedroom, hit the back of his door with a tiny cricket bat, scrawled crayon over the dents, became purple faced, screamed between clenched teeth. I felt like I was at war with the tiny human I had given birth to. My love for him was so great there was nothing in the known universe large enough to compare it to. Feeling that much love for someone else feels like your days should be filled with fluffy ducklings and puppies, instead I felt visited by emotional violence, I was terrified.  Not of him, but of what overwhelmed him. The worry that his behaviour might invite judgement from others was overridden by a belief that if I forced this kid to suppress his unpleasant feelings I would be inviting danger later. I wasn't firm in that belief, I was as shaky as all get out, women like my neighbour made sure of that. 

We were wading into dark water, every day.

I read parenting books, I went to parenting classes, I asked other parents for advice. I was told to enfold him in my arms and hold him tight until the rage passed, I was told to ignore him, lock him in his room and why don't you just bloody smack him? 

I don't like to admit to the smacking, but I did it a few times, it didn't help. I tried the other stuff too. But eventually I did a thing that no one had told me to do, I gave his tantrums commentary. I told him how he was feeling, sometimes while holding him, sometimes while he flailed at me. I knew he was pissed off at being told it was time to turn the telly off, I knew he was frustrated that his mate wouldn't let him touch his trains, I knew he was furious it was time to go to bed. You are furious, I said, you don't want to go to bed, going to bed SUCKS, I know, I know how that feels, it's awful. Eventually his hot, tear streaked face would slump on my shoulder, both of us exhausted. 

I suspected his rages had something to do with language, at three he didn't have the vocabulary he needed for his little life. I can hear "use your words" coming out of the mouths of others, but what if no one ever bothered to give you the words in the first place? I was trying to give him words, to teach him to describe the feelings that frightened him into rage. 

The tantrums went on until he was five, publicly and privately. I stayed in this dark water with my son, whispering words into his ear and eventually we came ashore.


He made a small collage on straw board, the face of a bonny baby, cut out from a magazine, glued to the plain background. On it he wrote "I am twelve and I can no longer feel joy." We had been looking at a book of glorious handmade postcards from the Post Secret project, this was his secret. 

No one likes swimming in dark water, not knowing what's at the bottom, maybe it's bottomless. I dived in after him and tried to stay calm.

How do you not get busy with that knowledge? The temptation being to leap into all kinds of reassurance that there is so much to be joyful about, I can hear my own mother saying "Don't be silly!". I wanted to list the members of our family who loved him unimaginably but I knew that he already knew that, it was incontrovertible, a given, and in that moment it wasn't enough. I wanted to bat that feeling away, not give it permission to be in my house, in my son. Acknowledging it felt like inviting it in. It was counter-intuitive to be still. 

Staying calm felt like fixing my feet to the earth as a hurricane bore down. Staying calm meant not telling him I was frightened. Staying calm meant asking him if it felt like despair ... despair is the loss of hope, I said, is it like that? He said yes. 

I told him that I thought I was a good help with a lot of things, but that I thought he needed someone better qualified than me to help with this. We got help, eventually we came ashore.


At fifteen he told me about a loneliness that had infected his heart. He described wanting someone to share his innermost thoughts with, rightly so at fifteen that person should no longer be his mother. He was telling me there were things he wanted to talk about, that he couldn't talk to me or his friends about. I said I think you need a girlfriend? He said he thought so too. I told him it was still possible to feel lonely while snuggled next to someone on the couch, posting a note to his future, girlfriends won't complete you.

Girlfriends! Lucky him, tall, handsome, funny, mostly not shy but with a gyroscopic wobble deep inside him that could shut down the funny and the not-so-shy and replace it with an awkward cold sweat in seconds, if he let it. From where I stood it looked like there was a queue of eager girls looking up at him with unabashed wonder in their eyes, they would come over to hang out, which usually meant draping on him. But none of us is looking out of the same window, he didn't see it that way.

We had stood on the little diving board at the edge of dark water and leapt in so many times, my son and I, and we had not drowned. Maybe asking a girl out is a bit like that kind of fear. He asked a girl out, she said yes. 


It's not like I was an Emotionally Tooled Up person all the time. I'm as capable of being unreasonable and intractable as anyone, but I've tried my hardest to own up to it in the event. 

There were times the storming teenager said "Fuck You!" or worse, "Fuck you, Amber!" (demoted) and times when I roared "NO! Fuck YOU!" right back, like a perfectly formed idiot. I'd go to bed wondering what parental success felt like. Do any of us go to bed on successive nights, weeks, months, years - telling ourselves "Good job girlie, you're doing it right!" Would it ever be done, this job of making a person? Lol. 

The woman who passed on her son's complaints about my son's manners in 1998 was the first in a long line of mothers I would compare myself to and find myself coming up woefully short. Twenty years later I'm much steadier at the helm.

Those wild storms that possessed him at three years old, four years old, right up to five - I learned to read the weather of him and to teach him to forecast himself. I tried to teach him that there was no shame in feeling despair, anger, loneliness and to try to differentiate between fear and rage, which so often blow the same valves in us. We talked about all of that, and still do.

I asked him to read this and if it would it be okay to publish. He said he wanted me to make it clear that so much of what caused him grief when he was young was what was going on at school. I remember telling him that school was a benchmark for later in life, to give him something to compare to, that things would never be that bad again. School isn't like that for all kids, but it was for Dylan Klebold.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Pitch drop custodian, John Mainstone, dead at 78.

In the decades that Professor John Mainstone was custodian of the Pitch-Drop Experiment he didn't once see the moment when one piece of pitch became two.

Pitch perfect patience.

Pitch Drop
By Amber Cunningham (Afternoons producer)
Did I tell you how much I love my job? I love my job.
We get to meet the coolest people on ABC Afternoons and today I think we met the most patient man in the world. 
Professor John Mainstone has been custodian of a single science experiment for 52 years. Enough time for eleven Prime Ministers to move in and out of Kirribilli House and for the passing of seventeen olympic games. The experiment is called The Pitch Drop wherein it takes between ten and twelve years for a lump of pitch to schmooze through a funnel and drop. Pitch is solid enough to smash with a hammer but its solidity co-exists with fluidity. I know. Crazy.
In terms of visible thrills and spills, there are none, yet science egg-heads the world over watch this thing on webcams and obsess about seeing the exact moment when one piece of pitch becomes two. It happens in one tenth of a second. You can ignore it for nearly a decade but after that, look away at your peril.
Professor Mainstone has been watching since 1961 during which time the pitch has dropped eight times and on every occasion ... he's missed it. Once in 1979 because he took a Sunday off and once in 1988 because he was getting a cup of tea. That right there would rot my socks. Yet he remains the most patient and sunny-natured man, he didn't even throw his cup of tea at a wall. On the most recent drop Professor Mainstone had cameras rigged to capture the moment, the cameras failed. 
So while the dual properties of pitch might excite the science-y types among us, people like Professor John Mainstone inspire in me equal levels of wonder. It was lovely to meet him.
P.S. Sarah Knight has been standing in for a poorly Gillo. Quite literally standing in, Sarah has jerry-rigged a stand-up work station, stacking her computer on top of a couple of boxes. Apart from that, working at the ABC is exactly like being on the Starship Enterprise. True.

Dark arts? Or just a game?

Ouija-board-650x427By Amber Cunningham
Afternoons Producer
My family did loads of stuff that was weird but probably the weirdest was whipping out a ouija board after a Sunday roast and calling for visits from the spirit world. Hindsight's a fine thing. At twelve years of age I didn't understand that my Grandparents might be clinging to the possibilty of communicating with their son, dead at twenty-one. Or that on account of their age, this kind of thing wasn't unusual, a parlour game played when they were kids. Harmless, not weird, like a telephone. Sort of. 
Today I wanted to hear other people's stories about ouija boards, I thought we could kind of hold hands over the radio and gang up on the thing that scared us when we were kids, say BOO to it. Put it back in its box. 
Somewhere along the line I got the idea that if I stood up and roared at the thing I was afraid of I could conquer it, (the fear). Public speaking, volcanoes, shopping for a swim-suit. Two out of three? Nailed 'em. I wanted to hear a collective "Phooey!" from our audience and be able to go to bed without burying myself under the doona using a snorkel to breathe.
The ouija board loomed large in my childhood nightmares, it was a conduit for a ghost botfly to take up residence in my soul and hatch a writhing demon. Based on some of the texts we received on the show today, I wasn't alone. There was no "Boo!," no "Phooey!". There were only warnings. Stay away.
But guys???? Haven't you read Harry Potter? (The dark-arts will never triumph over love!) Haven't you seen Monsters Inc? (Laughter is more powerful than fear!). Even so, if you asked me to take part in a session with a ouija board? I'd run for the hills. 
I still want to hear your stories (group therapy?). Maybe tell me here. Sleep tight. 

Maylands I love you but you're freaking me out

Maylands Boat Yard
By Amber Cunningham
Afternoons Producer
Comment on our facebook page today: "720. Stuck in the 1970's [sic], just like it's [sic] audience. These days it's a yuppie central [sic], it's got a good ethnic mix, different wealth brackets, it's got some nice urban grit and it's not gentrified."  Correct on all nongrammatical fronts.

Maylands was today named as Perth's "next big thing". The buzz word used was "buzz". Great news for Maylands and all who sail in her, but. But.
Maylands was thus described by an international travel publication of such massive popularity that it has the knack of turning the world's hidden gems into heaving tourist meccas. That which was familiar and lovely to the local few becomes sexed up and kind of cheap. It's like coming home and finding your Mum has had a boob job, botox, died her hair yellow-blonde and started listening to Nickelback. 
I might not have grown up in Maylands but my bestie did and our memories have osmosed. She grew up a river-rat on the muddy foreshore of Maylands. Took off from home, aged seven, to leap off the Bath Street jetty, was dragged home by the ear by her Mum. Snuck off at night with her sister, armed with rope, a bandaid and a torch, to explore the semi-derelict brick works with its clay-pits and sleeping machinery, ladders leading to nowhere but a precipitous drop. Went hooning around in the mud flats with her Dad in his car, hoping to get bogged and be late for school. Maylands had bush, orchards, horses. What remains unchanged at Maylands is the boat yard, there are flaky-painted hulls that have sat in the same spot for forty years. So, shhhhh, international travel guide, don't tell anyone. You'll ruin it.
The claypits are now a new development, a crop of Fediterranean ticky-tacky houses with 'ornamental' lakes. The couple of chi-chi eateries which are now operating in Maylands are no doubt amazing and fabulous and filled with pretty ballerinas from around the corner. But. But. 
With regard to this; "it's got some nice urban grit and it's not gentrified". The shiny fame-glow bestowed on a place by a hugely popular travel guide has a way of changing things. 
Maylands? I loved you just the way you were. 

u2 me R everything. SRSLY

Eddy Amoo 1

A Love Letter To My New Husband: cc: Eddy Amoo,Singer,The Real Thing c/o: Liverpool, UK

You To Me Are Everything took up residence in my 10 year-old heart in 1976 and stayed there quietly, lyrics and all, doing nothing, for a couple of decades. During which time I processed it as being a true story, a thing that I might grab hold of in the love stakes, ie: that one day I might love someone enough to want to take stars out of the sky, move mountains etc, etc. Which is why eventually that song started to make me cry, big fat tears of self-pity. 

When I started working on Russell Woolf's Drive programme at the beginning of the year the Vinyl Tuesday baton was handed to me by Patti Brook who had jumped ship and gone over to Geoff-Land. Three years of chasing rock-stars and screening for the kind of acid-flash-backs that are okay to talk about on the radio versus the kind of acid-flash-backs that aren't okay to talk about had taken its toll.

With complete disregard for anything that Russ might like (sorry, Russ) I set about stalking the singers of songs that had meaning for me. Eddy Amoo from The Real Thing was at the top of my list. When an email lands in your in-box and its author is someone you've revered since you were ten, it's hard to stay cool. And by the way, it's Eddy who puts "u2 me R everything" in the subject bar. Because he is a righteous dude.

It was one of my first "pre-interviews" - interview is over-stating it. My opening words to Eddy were a gushy "EVERY TIME I HEAR THAT SONG I CRY AND I WANT TO GET MARRIED". His response, "DON'T DO IT!". Righteous. Dude.

I got to shoot the breeze with Eddy Amoo for about half an hour during which time I learned his daughter lives in Queensland, he grew up in Liverpool, on the night before the band appeared on Top Of The Pops his Mum was sewing costumes for the band. Check them out, they're incredible. He spoke about growing up in Liverpool and being British Black, the gist of which is here.
In an email he said this:

"It's only when we really think about it that we realise that a hit song becomes a footprint in the lives of people we will never meet. When you weigh this up it's quite humbling, I thought of this when you mentioned your feelings towards U 2 Me. I hope everything goes well for you."

Back to the tears. Three weeks ago I got married. After fifteen beautiful years together and a couple of gorgeous kids we shot off to New Zealand and eloped. We thought we were rubber-stamping an already sealed deal, but here's the thing, we've been like a pair of kids and we can't stop staring at the lumps of gold on our fingers and each other. Ew. I know. 

Last week I chopped up a little slide-show with You To Me Are Everything running under a bunch of stills from our holiday, each of them up for less than a second, I ran some words, rolling-credits-style, at the beginning, wherein I said to my new husband that I would take stars out of the sky for him. I let my teenage son preview it and he said it was way too cheesey. I said it's not all about you.  

These are the words that stick in my throat like a stiletto and stop me from speaking.  
This song used to make me cry because of what was missing, now it makes me cry because of what I have. cc: Eddy Amoo, Singer, The Real Thing. c/o: Liverpool, UK.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Post natal something or other.

I drew a cartoon with the above text about ten years ago. I tried scanning it this morning but the quality was really poor. I have a lot to say on this subject and I've just spent hours dicking around with all that stuff above so now I'll get on to what I really wanted to do - which is to reach out to anyone who might identify with what all that says.

Ten years ago my son was six, my daughter one. I couldn't say I had post natal depression. Saying you think you have post natal depression feels like saying you don't like being a mother. I couldn't separate the two. Now I can. I loved being a mother. I hated the drudgery that went with it. I loved the smell of my children, their perfect skin, the things they did and said, the way they lit up for me. Sometimes I found reserves of patience. Sometimes I didn't.

I hated that the white noise in my head wouldn't allow me to listen to music, the white noise of a cry, the constant demanding, tantrums. I hated that I never managed to achieve what I had hoped to achieve on any given day. I shrank my goals until they were tiny and I still failed. My world became tiny. The endless repetition of daily chores, the Sisyphean weight and pointlessness of them. It was like showing up for a job that I was massively under-qualified for and failing, day after day after day.

At some point I went under. I could neither breathe, nor scream.

Nobody knew.

The cartoon I drew was as close as I could get to saying it out loud. I showed everyone and they laughed and told me I was clever and I wondered that they couldn't see the terror in my eyes. Or the shame. The cartoon was me screaming.

I waited another three years to get help.

It's not like those years were joyless, they were just really hard. Harder than they should have been. Even today I play it down. "I think I had mild post natal depression" I say. I have massive difficulty owning it. I know women who had a much harder time than I did and I don't seem to be able let myself off the hook on that one. Just because other people were having a harder time than I was didn't mean I didn't need help.

I asked for help the day I felt my body catch up to my mind, it stopped coping. It refused step into line and continue pretending everything was okay. I started having panic attacks.

Yesterday, driving over the bridge into Freo the traffic stopped and I was next to a woman with two tiny children in the back seat of her car and I was hit by a wave of relief that those years are done for me, and, hard on the heels of that, a wave of grief that I hadn't enjoyed them as much as I could have.

Post natal depression doesn't mean you're a bad mother.

And just in case your mother or your husband or your mother-in-law or your sister never tells you that you are a wonderful mother could you please say it quietly to yourself now, because you are. Don't be afraid to ask for help.