“Do you think he’s actually written the book himself?”, a colleague asked me the other day when I told her I’d been reading the Matthew Mitcham autobiography, “Twists & Turns”. “Oh yeah, absolutely”, I said. In some ways, reading the story of Matthew Mitcham was like reading a fairly lengthy blogpost. As well as the moments of informality and candid honesty, there were also moments when I felt he was trying to make sense of his own life. I got the impression writing this book was somewhat cathartic for him.
Much of the recent media coverage on the book has centred on the revelation he’d been using alcohol and crystal meth in the period between the Beijing and London Olympics. The book goes into detail about when, how and why this happened, and how Matthew had spent some time in rehab to try to regain some control over his life, and how he is still in recovery. As I read the book, I got the impression writing this book was also somehow part of his rehabilitation as he publicly apologised to friends and family for what they had gone through.
Those were the moments of the book which really touched me. I admit I skimmed over quite a few of the pages which dealt specifically with diving, as they didn’t interest me so much. I’d been backpacking throughout Europe during the 2008 Olympics and so had missed the excitement of when he scored the perfect 10. I understood why there were there – it was an important part of his story, and I understood why many readers would find them interesting – but I was more interested in the story of his personal life.
For me there was a lot in his personal story to relate to. There was the rather complex story of his birth and upbringing. There were also the “demons” he has dealt within his life, which I could also relate to. And there was the connection with Brisbane, where I had spent a number of my formative years also.
As I read about his early years in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but be connected to his story. “Oh my goodness, he lived around the corner from my aunt”, I noticed. And the gay bar he went to where they allowed him in as an underage patron? I’d been there too. With a good cultural knowledge of Brisbane, I knew instantly where that was, even though he failed to name it (for obvious legal reasons). I’d also been an under-age entrant to a gay bar in Brisbane many, many years ago. I was fifteen at the time, and was accompanied by a slightly older friend. Not much older, but old enough to be able to whisper in the ear of the bouncer and guarantee me entry. Twenty years later, and it seems little had changed when Matthew found himself in a similar position. Unlike Matthew, however, I was never accompanied by my mother.
His mother was an interesting, complex character. She had a relationship with a man – Matthew’s father – but separated from him before the birth of their child. She had a problem with alcohol. She had undiagnosed autism for many years AND… she went out clubbing to gay bars with her teenage son. Wow!
Meanwhile, Matthew’s father went on to establish a new family, and it’s only been in the last few years that they’ve met and have been re-united.
But it’s not all grim. There’s also some lovely humour in the book. I laughed out loud when I read about his childhood collection of guinea-pigs, all named with the letter “M”. There’s also a moment in the book when he writes about meeting his father for the first time. “Knowing that fathers pass their propensity for baldness to their sons, I could not have been more relieved to see that he had a full head of hair. My granddad and uncle on my mum’s side are completely bald”. Matthew, if you’re reading this, I have some bad news. All the evidence seems to suggest the Y-chromosome plays a role in baldness, but it’s mostly the X that leads to this. Whoops.
In contrast with the complex story of his life, and how he could have SERIOUSLY gone off the tracks, there’s the story of Matthew’s sporting success. With a seemingly natural talent for languages and sport, I knew as I read the book, Matthew Mitcham always had the potential to reach the highest highs as well as the lowest lows. In the end, in his brief life – he is only twenty-four years old – he has achieved both. He seems like such an interesting, engaging individual that I hope life continues to get better for him.
In the end that’s what makes his story so compelling. As you read the book, you just want him to go on and be happy, despite the set-backs. Although he’s not a great writer – it is a bit like an extended blog, with all that entails, and because he remains young, he perhaps lacks all of the self-reflection that will come with later life – he has a great story to tell. And as I read the book, I kept thinking it would make a great film. Hopefully some Australian television network or film-maker has already begun discussions about the television or film rights to this story?