Last week Kyle Sandilands attacked another journalist, Alison Stephenson, and a Twitter storm resulted in Austereo losing almost $8 million in advertising following a mass desertion of his new show by sponsors. But why do we like to watch so much? What are we looking for when we tune in to his attacks of rage? What fascinated us so much about both his tirade and the attempts to take him off the air?
We all want to see our own experiences acted out. We want to see them on television, we want to hear them on the radio and we want to go to the movies and find ourselves there too. We might want the cartoon or the airbrushed or the dramatised versions of our lives, but I think we’re desperate for our own stories to be seen and heard.
If we look at Kyle Sandilands from the point of view of our own need for storytelling — and we have to make some room here for our desire, because of course he’s only on air because of our interest — then we might go some way to explaining why any piece of incoherent vitriol that comes out of this man’s mouth is somehow front page news.
In the early 20th century Freud and several others developed a theory to explain why those of us with traumatic early experiences seemed to end up in similar strife throughout our adult lives. They wanted to understand why violence seemed to breed violence and why it was so hard for people to avoid repeating their past mistakes.
The theory, which became known as the compulsion to repeat, centres on the idea that we recreate our painful childhood scenarios, act them out in a sense, in a compulsive and repetitive way. We may take different roles when we do this, victim, perpetrator, bystander, but there is always a desire to make it come out right this time. But of course it never does, never can, because we can never fix the past.
Sandilands has publicly told the story of his painful childhood experiences, including on Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope in 2007. He described being kicked out of his divorced and warring parents’ homes, his stepfather’s physical abuse and a period of homelessness as a teenager. If you listen to him talking about his childhood, you can hear the rage and humiliation and you can also hear his desire to protect himself from ever feeling that way again.
Sandilands’ abusive tirades about several journalists who have criticised his work, including the latest attack on Alison Stephenson, are the actions of someone for whom criticism feels almost life-threatening. This is not simply arrogance or being thin-skinned. It’s the response of a child who was made to feel a deep sense of worthlessness and shame, and who genuinely fears total annihilation when criticised. To protect himself from being destroyed by shame, he has bolstered an incredibly fragile sense of self with grandiosity. None of this is working permanently of course, because the abuse needs to be continually re-enacted. And we are currently his loyal spectators.
As spectators we’ve stepped in to help create the retaliation part of the repeated childhood story. After a frenzy of outraged comments on Twitter following Sandilands’ latest rage attack, sponsors deserted the new show en masse. So Sandilands was effectively kicked out of home, if only briefly, once again.
So our stories can fit in neatly with Sandilands’ re-enactments. Our hero fantasies, revenge fantasies and our own desires to abuse publicly and to torment can all find their satisfaction here. Our moments of tragic childhood history can find their reproduction through his constant repetition of the story of being humiliated and excluded. These are our stories he is telling for us.
Not surprisingly, many of the comments on the various pieces that have been written about this latest incident have criticised his on-air partner Jackie Henderson for her support of him both on and off the air. How can she allow him to do what he does, they ask. But for many of us who were hurt as children, this is an essential part of our story. Someone stood by and watched and supported whoever was abusing us. They turned a blind eye and defended and protected our tormenter.
And this is also how men like Sandilands are able to continue to hurt others both on and off the air. Because it’s not just sponsors and our own fascination that give him a platform. Like all abusers he has defenders and enablers. People who never hold him accountable for his treatment of others, and who by doing this allow the abuse to continue. Henderson is the classic loyal partner of an abusive man. She would be an essential part of many of our stories.
Freud wasn’t much of a man for optimism, but he did propose a solution to the problem of our compulsion to repeat our past histories of pain in the present.
First, we need to feel and acknowledge the impact that our early experiences have had for us. Not simply talk about them, rage about them or toss them around for entertainment, but to really grieve them as painful moments that we can never repair. To acknowledge them as the terrible losses they are.
Only then can we see the pain of other people. Only then can we have sufficient empathy for ourselves and for others to treat them with respect and care.
Oh — and it helps if other people stop making excuses for our behaviour and profiting from it as well. We need our watchdogs. And we also need to deal with our own painful stories, so we can stop looking so desperately for them to be told on air.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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