Can we look a little closer at what's happened to Molly Meldrum?

When we look a little closer at our treatment of Molly Meldrum, we are confronted with a startling picture. 

Last Wednesday, 80-year-old Meldrum, renowned Australian music critic, attended a concert at Rod Laver Arena. Specifically, a Rod Stewart concert.

During Rod Stewart's performance, a woman began filming. So far she has been identified only by her first name, and I've made a deliberate choice not to use it. According to her account of the night, she noticed mid-video that beside her was Meldrum, who she knew as an icon from her youth. Her camera panned to him. That's when she realised the former Countdown presenter was urinating. 

"There were people everywhere. It was disgusting," the witness told Daily Mail Australia. 

When they alerted security, the witness said they were more concerned about anyone filming Meldrum than about cleaning up the mess. 

"It was a disgrace... We all grew up with him and it is a shame he has morphed into this. The people with him... instead of telling him to put it away, they were just enjoying the show."

The selection of words are telling. Disgusting. Disgrace. Perhaps most notably, shame

This is not the first time Meldrum has made headlines this year. In January, Sir Elton John welcomed Meldrum to the stage during his concert, introducing him as a "national treasure". 

But once on stage, Meldrum turned around and flashed the 30,000 person crowd.


Samuel Johnson, who famously won a Gold Logie in 2017 for portraying Meldrum in a two-part miniseries about his life, has been vocal about Meldrum's behaviour. 

"I’m sick of him doing this, I’m sick of it," Johnson said, referring to the way Meldrum overshadowed his win at the awards night, hijacking the microphone and diluting the point Johnson wanted to make about cancer research. 

He said Meldrum had been "drunk as a skunk," and asked "who's looking after him? He must not be out in public during the PM, not with the way he drinks." 

He added: "Hang up your hat, mate." 

The crucial context missing from the public evisceration of Meldrum is, of course, a critical brain injury he acquired in 2011 after falling from a ladder in his Richmond home. 

Meldrum was in a coma for five weeks and suffered a fractured skull as well as serious head injuries. 

While we do not know – and have no right to know – the specifics of Meldrum's brain injury, friends and family have made it clear that he lives with clinical cognitive impairment that has, as tends to be the case, altered his behaviour. 

It was only three weeks ago that Marvel Stadium, only a few kilometres down the road from Rod Laver Arena, announced their inclusion of sensory rooms to accommodate neurodivergent patrons. While the execution of the idea attracted criticism, the move was roundly applauded.


Listen to the sensory room debacle discussed on Out Loud right here. Post continues after podcast. 

But when a man with a brain injury attends a concert, not as a public figure, but as a lover of music, and not as part of a public appearance, but as an audience member, our tolerance of any sort of difference wanes.

There is no doubt that urinating in a public space is anti-social. In fact, it's worth mentioning that the act itself is a criminal offence, the standard penalty of which is $200.   

It is also, however, what disability sometimes look like. 

My concern is what writer Freddie De Boer has termed the "gentrification of disability", namely that disability or mental illness or neurodivergence is something we only embrace when it looks like we do, preferably delivering a coherent, thirty-minute speech in a well-ironed pant suit. That we can tolerate. 

And while that is one face of disability, it does not tell the whole story. 

Sometimes cognitive impairment is uncomfortable or confronting or complicated. 

The remark "a brain injury doesn't make you urinate in public" has found its way into most comment sections and to that I say: yes, it sometimes does. By focusing solely on combating the stigma of disability, we run the risk of sanitising what it really means to have a brain that functions differently. 


Now, I don't know Molly Meldrum. 

I don't know if Meldrum drinks too much or if he used to expose himself even before his 2011 accident. 

But that's not really the point. In a lot of ways, this isn't about Meldrum. It's about the commentary that has dominated this conversation. How quick we are to tell an 80-year-old with a brain injury to stay at home. That he ought to be locked up. That it's time to hang up your hat. 

We want, it would seem, men like Meldrum to disappear. To read between the lines, public spaces are not his to occupy. He is old and he is senile and we've had enough of him. 

And yet most of us would like to think of ourselves as pretty progressive when it comes to the subject of disability. 

It was just 40 years ago in Australia when people with disabilities, particularly people with intellectual disabilities or cognitive impairments, were institutionalised, often residing in institutions on the outskirts of cities. They were invisible, robbed of basic human rights. 

Is this what we would like to return to? 

The argument has also morphed into criticism of his carers. Perhaps they lost focus for twenty seconds. The nature of cognitive impairment is that behaviour is unpredictable. Someone might do something they’ve not done before. I would like to believe that whoever was looking after Meldrum that night was doing their best. 


And finally, a word on the footage. 

A woman decided to send that video to Daily Mail Australia, for – what one might assume – a fee. 

In an interview with Kyle and Jackie O, she said "I really feel for him," clarifying "I'm not mocking him".

But that is precisely what we do when we distribute footage of a man, who we know is living with a brain injury. People, regardless of their cognitive capacity, deserve to be treated with dignity, and an act that might have been witnessed by half a dozen people at a concert has now been witnessed by thousands. Whatever damage was done by Meldrum "exposing himself" was exacerbated by the decision to expose the footage to the public. 

"I want Molly to be the Molly that we knew and that we all grew up with," she said, which demonstrates no understanding of how long-term brain injury works.  

There are many Australians who have suffered injury or stroke or live with dementia or serious mental illness, whose brains will never go back to functioning the way they once did. Their stories aren't glamorous. Their lives aren't the stuff of inspiration-porn. And they deserve access to public spaces as much as anyone else. 

Without shame. 

Without being told to go home. 

And certainly, without being filmed. 

Image: Getty. 

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