By Erik JensenNon-fiction Black Inc.
Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen
Acute Misfortune blends the kinetic energy and lived excess of gonzo journalism with the controlled elegance and still observation of our leading literary non-fiction writers. This central juxtaposition mirrors the fractured, contradictory life of the book’s subject, Sydney artist and carefully constructed enfant terrible Adam Cullen.
Erik Jensen was a 19-year-old journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald when Cullen invited him to stay in his spare room and write his biography. Over the next four years, he was drawn deep into his orbit: accompanying him to drug deals, being shot in the leg by him (accidentally), thrown from a speeding motorcycle (on purpose) and bearing witness to hours of intoxicated, often contradictory confessions.
The biography is less an appreciation of Cullen’s art (its lasting significance is implicitly questioned) than an attempt to make sense of his life, which he staged as a kind of performance art. Jensen’s central task, at which he excels, was to untangle the many myths Cullen created around himself and sift through them to find a ‘true’ self. The portrait that emerges is of a man who desperately wanted to be extraordinary and embraced the excess that would ultimately destroy him in pursuit of that goal.
Acute Misfortune has earned accolades by everyone from Christos Tsiolkas to Helen Garner, David Marr to Ramona Koval. ‘Jensen’s portrait dares to be both beautiful and ugly – that is, he is both tender and forensic,’ writes Tsiolkas. ‘This is a marvellous, propulsive, intelligent read.’
Aged 19, Erik Jensen formed a volatile friendship with the renegade Sydney artist Adam Cullen, and moved into his home with the vague intention of writing his biography. Instead he became eyewitness to the unravelling of Cullen’s life, which ended, aged 46, in 2012. In Acute Misfortune, Jensen describes their interaction in bleak and unsparing detail, a story of ‘abused talent and excess pathos’. The writing is as restrained as the content is stark and often confronting, building to an unforgettable climax.
Adam was always dying. He called once to say he had pancreatic cancer, although it turned out to be a scare. His prognosis improved little either way. In the last years of his life he was in hospital every other month. Drugs wore away at each part of him. The stents in his ducts failed frequently, flooding his body with bile, washing him an awful yellow. “I look like an A-rab,” he would say, coming down hard on the first syllable. “A fucking A-rab.”
But Adam enjoyed hospitals. He was healthiest when he was sick. A call would come from the ward at the Nepean, praising the food and asking for cigarettes. Stuyvesant Red, soft pack. Other friends would courier in heroin for him. “I’m in hospital,” he would joke, “and I still have to look after my own fucking pain relief.”
In reality, hospitals gave Adam what he craved most: the sense somebody cared. “I actually really enjoy hospital. They actually care for you, and it’s really rather nice. It’s great, actually. I draw and I think about my own mortality. I’m not here for long, but I’m certainly going to get my kicks until the whole fucking treehouse burns up in flames.”
David Attenborough’s The Life of Mammals is playing on a television. It is the monkey episode, about forming social groups. A baby in a highchair sits in front of the screen. From the toys on the floor it is clear there is a toddler somewhere too. Adam is expecting his dealer to open the door, but it is his dealer’s wife who answers. He kisses her on the cheek and walks into the kitchen. Torn books and tied bags of garbage are piled up in the corners of the house. The couch is lost beneath unfolded laundry.
Adam’s dealer takes him upstairs. The heroin he is here for is stuffed into the cut-off corners of shopping bags, twisted at the top to make little pouches. Adam undoes one and with a shaking hand coaxes the yellowish rocks into a spoon. He carries his syringes and cotton buds and saline capsules and teaspoon in an old wooden box that once held Winsor & Newton watercolours. A tourniquet he stole from his last hospital stay is fetched from his jacket pocket.
The dealer fixes himself a taste as Adam dissolves the smack over the heat of his lighter. Downstairs, the baby is crying. Oil floats to the top of the heroin. “Sorry about that,” the dealer says. “It’s from Guam.”
Adam rolls up his sleeve and ties off. His jacket arms are never buttoned. He draws up the hit through an ear of cotton wool and hunts his forearm for a vein. “I always liked a challenge,” he says. The truth is his major veins are useless – collapsed after years of injecting. Adam misses twice, but on the third attempt he hits something and watches as a whisper of blood enters the syringe’s chamber and mingles with the yellow junk. “I never did anything the easy way.”
A taxi is waiting outside, having driven Adam from Wentworth Falls to the housing estate on Sydney’s western fringe. As soon as he is inside the car, he lights a cigarette. Adam only travels with drivers who will let him smoke. “It’s about getting lost,” he is saying as the smack kicks in. “Lost in jazz, lost in heroin, just being free …”
By the time the taxi finds the freeway, Adam is on the nod. His cigarette falls from his fingers and burns a small hole in the denim jacket he is wearing. The driver waits until the McDonald’s at Blaxland to prod him awake. Adam orders a coffee: white with three sugars. This is a familiar trip and the driver follows it to order. All up, it takes about three hours. Adam picks up the conversation as if he had never been asleep: “I own a gun, I take drugs, I’m fucking free – just free, free, free.”
Taxi drivers fight for Adam’s fare. It is a $300 wait-and-return, and he takes the ride three times a week.
Adam started smoking marijuana when he was fourteen but graduated to speed as soon as he made it off the Northern Beaches. That was six months into art school. “I used to shoot the fucking speed and it was awful,” he said. “That shit was toxic, it was really fucking toxic.” Not that the marijuana stopped. He was living in Annandale with a man whose parents had a farm outside Lismore: the supply was too attractive. “He’d bring down a garbage bag of dope he called Water Hen. It grew on the edge of a swamp. One toke and you’d be fucked. It made him very popular with me for about two years.”
Adam used heroin for the first time at twenty-one, in the toilets of the Marlborough Hotel in Newtown. It was a defining evening – a “little taste from a little Mick”. He never really stopped. “I started taking heroin when I was trying to get off speed. I was into uppers and I could handle the uppers, but I had to go down somehow. Go down, just go down.”
In June 2008 Adam announces he is quitting. This happens periodically. He has watched Andrew Denton interviewing Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, the 99-year-old matriarch of the News Corp media dynasty, and decided he wants to live as long as she did. “She is the most beautiful old girl I’ve seen. It gave me an epiphany,” he says in a car outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where he has been signing books. “I’ve been to rehab about four times, but it never really works. I just don’t want to end up in some fucking old man’s home like Max did.”
Adam’s second cousin, the actor Max Cullen, had been in Ireland when he found himself in a doss house, wet with drink, fleeing a broken marriage and a long affair and another short one. Adam had met Max for the first time the day before he left, during a family reunion at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba. He was fourteen. The episode that followed for Max had always troubled him. “I guess I just think everything’s a party, and it’s not,” Adam says. “I am an old man and I’ve just got to stop the booze.”
The story only begins to make sense when Adam stops the car at a teller machine on Oxford Street. He needs to borrow $600 from me, and he doesn’t want me to know he is using it to score.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist