Ben Cousins, My Life Story
Published by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited
Though often reluctant to read, we sure love stories. And it’s not just Adam’s journey on MasterChef or the latest in the Shane Warne saga. Even coffee beans — single origin? — are made to tell a tale. As for our own lives, narrative often reigns supreme there too, so much so that we barely notice, let alone question, the plot: an upward trajectory ideally — usually towards a successful career and happy family.
This tendency to view life as a story is extremely useful. If you care about the future, you’re less likely to act recklessly in the present. It can also be a source of hope. In our ability to think beyond the present we open up the thought that things might be otherwise: things may be bad now, but they need not remain that way.
Still, when it comes to narrative there’s a danger, especially if the narrative is the typical one of ambition and success. It’s not just that it sets us up for disappointment — life rarely works out as well, or goes as smoothly, as we would like. It’s that it makes us anxious and restless. It exerts a subtle forward pressure on things. Trapped in the narrative version of ourselves, it can become difficult to sit still, and even harder to feel at peace.
Perhaps no one bears out this restlessness better than Ben Cousins. Forget the drugs, the more fascinating aspect of the Ben Cousins story is his narrative addiction. Here’s a man so driven to be the best that at 13 he was up training at six in the morning: “I was obsessed, never satisfied with anything I’d achieved, and hyper-focused.” An asthma sufferer, Ben may not have been as naturally talented or athletic as the other kids, but he was more determined. In 1996 he was named the best first-year player in the AFL, by 2005 he was the best in the competition. A freak on the field, Cousins taught himself to run longer and push harder than all the rest.
Yet, all this hard work had unforeseen consequences. Success didn’t breed satisfaction — for Ben, “just being an Eagle wasn’t enough. It might have been for other kids, but it wasn’t for me. Always, always, I had to search for something extra.” Or as he notes elsewhere, “I could rarely just exist and do nothing, never go on a holiday and sit down and think.” The drugs, no doubt, were part of this restlessness — they fuelled it and were fuelled by it. Trapped in the narrative version of himself, they brought temporary relief but long-term misery.
The harder Cousins worked on the field, the harder he partied off the field. For a long time it proved a winning formula: “Every time I had a binge, I had to purge myself with hard training and a great game. In a perverse way […] I began to tell myself that my good performance as a footballer was dependent on the binges.” But it couldn’t last. In early 2006, Ben fled a booze bus. When eventually word got out, he was stood down as captain of the Eagles. Though the team would go on to win the flag that year, his addiction was becoming more and more difficult to manage. Around the club he was no longer the same person. Withdrawn and paranoid, he started accusing teammates of trying to make him look bad by training so hard. In March 2007, West Coast suspended its star indefinitely. By now, Cousins’ addiction was the worst-kept secret in football. Cousins checked in to Summit Malibu, a rehabilitation centre in California.
Often the problem with stories such as these is that they make things over-simple — Ben was an addict and a ratbag, but once he’d gone through rehab he was cured. As one banner read at Subiaco the night of his comeback in 2007: “Ben, we applaud what you have overcome”. Overcome. Past tense. But life’s not like that, especially not life as an addict, and it’s something Cousins knows only too well. As he says, “it’s never behind you”. In other words, there’s no neat beginning, middle and end. It’s not that cause and effect is suspended — we’re not entirely powerless to explain or narrate, and nor is he — but sooner or later we hit a limit, a point beyond which it’s impossible to explain or neatly sum everything up. More than that, there’s a point beyond which it’s no longer healthy to try to explain. The story is often a part of the problem, rather than the solution. What Cousins needed, and what we need too perhaps, is to step outside all the story-telling, to shut the narrative down — “take the pace off it”, as Cousins would say. Only then might a half-way happy ending come into view.
On the surface, Ben Cousins: My Life Story is a disappointing book. It’s true that in many ways Ben’s is a remarkable story. But a remarkable story doesn’t make a remarkable memoir. It’s all in the telling and Cousins isn’t quite up to it. The account of his early years in Perth is intriguing enough, but ultimately neither his writing about childhood, nor about his football or his habit, is as searching as it could be. As Aleksandar Hemon has argued, the problem with memoir is that the confessional space it creates can be solipsistic; the rough logic is that “I’m the only one there, you don’t get to enter”. Often, instead of illuminating his experiences, Cousins ends up cataloguing them in a spirit of self-absorption.
Still, just beneath the surface, we’re let in on a more interesting story — Cousins’ battle with the notion of story itself. The book registers the force of the danger and the power of narrative obsession. If in the end Cousins’ life story leaves us torn, it’s because the book itself is torn. On one hand, it is part of the problem. Its very existence signals a ongoing fixation with narrative. On the other hand, it is part of the solution, for what Cousins learns about the danger of narrative he learns precisely through telling his story. Perhaps the point, then, is not so much to destroy stories as to learn to tell ourselves better ones.