International webvideo project
(c) Miha Mazzini, 2007
I'd like to tell you a very simple story. It probably won't seem anything special to you and I don't want to waste your time, so I'm going to make it as short as possible.
I enrolled on a university course in psychology because my best friend did. We'd been going to school together since kindergarten and I’d always copied everything she did. In the third year at university she met this guy and left to study abroad. That was the first time I couldn't go with her. I passed all the exams and one of the lecturers asked me if I was interested in writing my degree paper on the psychological profile of participants in reality TV shows. Even though I didn't watch television much because I spent my evenings reading text books, I accepted the offer as it meant I didn't have to think of another theme. I soon discovered that the lecturer had signed a contract with a particular television station and that he would make money from my work, but this didn't really bother me. A degree is a degree and you’ve got to get it somehow. I conducted tests with applicants and selected the ones that would spend a few months together. As the show was made under foreign licence, the producers knew exactly what viewers wanted and I had instructions about which psychological profiles don't fit together well in a situation where they are living in isolation from others. I had to select people who were different from each other, but still within the average, never anybody who was really special. After I graduated, my evenings were free and I suddenly had a lot of time and could have watched the show, but it had already finished. I heard it had been very successful and that children in particular liked the candidates I’d chosen.
For the first time in my life I had no revision to do and I was at a loose end. I visited my parents more often and we watched television together. They didn't like the show I’d selected the participants for, but admitted that they were probably too old for it.
I was bored and wished I had a boyfriend. I'd broken off all my relationships in the past when revising for exams took up all my time. I decided to start my master’s degree the next academic year and then do a doctorate.
An acquaintance told my father about a job he thought would be suitable for me, at least in the interim. The employer was willing to take on psychologists without any working experience.
That's how I started working at the asylum centre. In a refurbished former stables, immigrants from China, Africa and Eastern Europe spent months awaiting a decision on whether they would be deported or given asylum. I can remember the distinct smell when I entered the building for the first time, which I can still vividly recall even today. But I soon got used to it and after a while it didn't bother me. The premises were in a terrible state, but the work wasn't very demanding. My role was of a supervisory nature, only occasionally advisory: I listened to the immigrants, making notes in their files and with most of them I very quickly recognised the signs of depression. At first I used to refer them for a check up at the medical centre, where they could get a further referral for an appointment with a psychiatrist and a prescription for antidepressants, but transporting them there demanded so much preparation and incurred so many expenses that in the end I started going to the medical centre once a week by myself and the doctor simply gave me a whole bundle of prescriptions, made out to the names on my list.
During my second month there, one of the asylum seekers hung himself. The video taken by security cameras showed how the man had kissed his sleeping son in the evening, gently and slowly stroked his cheek, then taken a towel, gone to the bathroom, locked himself in a toilet cubicle and committed suicide. After this incident, the management fitted cameras above the toilets, too. The investigators were very nice and only had a very short talk with me. One of them regretted that the man should have killed himself on the eve of his deportation back home, as only a day later his depression would have become a problem to be dealt with by his own country rather that ours.
The son was fostered after being given his father's letter telling him to study hard and make something of himself. He, the father, couldn't go on any longer, he was too miserable and weary. This agreed with the diagnosis I’d entered in his file. I didn’t want to go and see his body, but when they showed a small and unclear picture of his face on television, I couldn’t remember having seen him in my office. I have to admit that I find it hard to distinguish the faces of people from other races and I need a lot of time before I can remember them.
Thus I was surprised to find out that he had left an envelope for me. In it, there was a sheet of squared paper torn from a notepad on which it said 36/3.
I didn’t understand. I put the bit of paper among my study material and stayed in the job until the autumn, when I started the master’s course. This time, the television people called me themselves and I tested all the candidates for the new season of the reality show. When we were negotiating my pay and I told them the sum I wanted, their rapid exchange of glances and satisfied smiles didn’t escape me.
I had more time now and was able to actually watch the show. As the show’s psychologist, I went to visit the participants, became friendly with them, fell in love with one of them and covered the walls of my rented bed-sit with his posters. When he was eliminated from the show, I comforted him and we became a couple. Two weeks later, I found him with another woman. He then took some time off to think and I promised I’d wait for him.
I got a call from another television station and then from another. I was becoming an expert on selecting reality show participants.
One evening, I was sitting at home, studying, when the bit of paper left for me fell on the floor. I looked at the numbers 36/3 and couldn’t think of any sensible explanation. The next day on the bus, I heard the radio news and the newsreader was talking about some paragraphs from an article of a law that had just been adopted by the parliament. At first, he described each paragraph in a bit more detail and then just referred to them by one number slash another number. I suddenly had an idea: what if 36/3 referred to a paragraph in a particular article of a particular law? But which law? The only one I had ever read in my life was the law on refugees and I even had a copy at home.
The third paragraph of Article 36 stated that underage persons who don’t have any living relatives or whose relatives can’t be found cannot be deported, but are automatically given the status of refugee and put into foster care.
I felt strangely odd the whole of the following week. I thought I was coming down with something or that I must have eaten something bad. Not bad enough to make me sick, I just felt this pressure and at times I found it hard to breathe, while at the same time I felt hot. And then suddenly all the strength just left my legs and I collapsed onto a chair, nearly breaking it. Luckily, this happened while I was at home rather than out.
Suddenly I understood everything.
It’s hard to describe the hours that followed. I displayed all the symptoms of a nervous breakdown, but all the time I knew it wasn’t a nervous breakdown. That I wasn’t cracking up, but awakening. I fell asleep from exhaustion and woke up refreshed as never before. Colours were clearer and my sense of smell was stronger. It seemed that before this I had spent all my life under anaesthetic.
I called the asylum centre and they told me where they buried those that died there and I went to put some flowers on the grave marked with a wooden cross, even though the body lying in it probably didn’t belong to a Christian; on the cross, there was only the name and the year of death. I looked at the soil covered with weeds and in vain tried to remember the face of the man that must have sat in front of me on a number of occasions, talking about himself. Talking about war, misery and persecution, like all the rest. Only this man had a son with him and had read the law. He understood that they would both be returned back to the place they were trying to escape from unless... his son no longer had living relatives. Him.
How long had he known this? How long had he spent preparing for death? He had waited until the last evening so that he was with his son for as long as possible and could put him to bed one more time that would be the last, and then carry out his plan.
I couldn’t remember his face, but I kept seeing the grainy shot of a man bending over his son, gently kissing him.
I knew where I was standing. Over the narrow and deserted grave of a hero.
I started thinking and I’m still thinking. About my state of general anaesthesia that disappeared the moment I came into contact with a heroic deed. About how I chose the most average people of all average people for reality shows so that not one would really stand out, because otherwise there was a danger that a viewer may awake from anaesthesia. Suddenly, I saw everything – television programmes, music blasting out of loudspeakers and radios, film posters, shopping centres and the masses in them, everything – as a strong anaesthetic keeping us in a permanent state of sleep. I realised I was studying something that helped compartmentalise all that is different. The only hero I knew didn’t die as a mark of the highest possible sacrifice, he was just depressed, sick. I correctly advised him to take pills, but he refused to, they found no trace of antidepressants in his blood. All the heroes who had throughout history sacrificed themselves to avoid this anaesthesia and who were at the time a model for the young are now, from our viewpoint, just depressives. By attaching a medical diagnosis we turn everything that’s best and worst in man into something pathological. And what’s left is just the average.
And the average makes people sleepy; especially children.
My former boyfriend from the reality show came to tell me that it was me he wanted, at least for that night, but I wouldn’t let him speak. I slapped him and slammed the door in his face. I opened it again after a few minutes, but he was gone and I threw all his posters after him.
I went on thinking: was it only me who was anaesthetised or is the whole western world asleep? Sunk in the safe greyness of the average, without any contact with the extremes of good and bad, in an anaesthetic depression that would have long ago disappeared were it not for the balancing effect of shopping therapy, made possible by cheap labour in China? Should I just sit in front of the television, like my parents? Was I capable of walking by myself after having been carried through life by this anaesthetising impulse?
I took the bit of paper and looked at it again.
He had chosen me. Probably only because I’d been there, and because of my profession and the education that should have prepared me for looking into people’s souls. But of course it hadn’t: I’d seen nothing, not even his face. Whereas he had seen me and he wanted to leave a mark. He wanted at least somebody to know what he’d done and why. He couldn’t tell his son because it would have given him a life-long feeling of guilt. He had chosen me. It took a while, but he did reach me in the end.
The story was published in the collection
You can read it in the German translation too.
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(c) Miha Mazzini, 2007