Madeleine Bunting: Jade Goody's story of sacrifice offers us the ultimate reality

Media coverage of the redemption of a dying mother taps into wider anxiety about the world we are all leaving behind

Since the beginning of February there have been almost 50 newspaper front pages on the subject - most accompanied by spreads inside. Over a million tuned into a documentary on the subject a fortnight ago; nearly 70,000 have now signed a petition to lower the age of cervical screening to 20.

No, I'm not talking about anything to do with the economic crisis which has plunged to new and frightening depths in recent weeks, but the fate of one young mother dying of cancer; Jade Goody. The appetite for every detail of this story seems limitless: the morphine, the operations, the all-consuming pain, the constipation, the despair, the stretcher from hospice to hospital.

There was an unbroken run in the Sun for more than two weeks when every single front-page story was about death. Most of them were about Goody, but she was interrupted by three other deaths: Ivan Cameron and the EastEnders actor Wendy Richard and last week, the stabbed teenager Rob Knox. The British economy is in free fall, but for a good section of the population, the subject about which they most want to read, watch or surf is death. Nor is it just a tabloid phenomenon; assisted dying has featured prominently in newspapers, including this one, and in the BBC's recent drama on the subject - A Short Stay in Switzerland.

It seems completely counterintuitive. Surely at a time when millions fear losing their job, when the future looks unremittingly gloomy, one might imagine people would want cheering up rather than this astonishing thirst for yet more misery. I was so baffled that I started reading a chunk of the coverage (no one could manage it all, Google now has 3,860,000 items on Jade Goody). They are all very sad stories; the suffering of grieving mothers, fathers, husbands. But their sadness is the tragedy of the everyday. There is nothing exceptional or unique; these deaths happen all the time. The ingenuity of journalists has had to be stretched to new lengths in the case of Goody to make this private grief available for public consumption, day after day: it can't help but be repetitive. This is a form of "news" which is not about providing new information, but by reiterating facts, it aims to offer some kind of emotional satisfaction. But what, exactly? It's perfectly plain why Goody has signed contracts for this extensive publicity, but much less clear why anyone wants to be her audience.

Inevitably, there is muttering from commentators that this is ghoulish voyeurism; the equivalent of a public picnic at a hanging. More muttering from the left claims that this could be a tactic to divert the masses from their anger with City bankers and their allies. Neither seems very convincing.

The most striking thing about the coverage is how celebratory it is. All the characters concerned are "brave" and "strong"; Wendy Richard "battled" with cancer. The coverage of Ivan Cameron's death celebrated not just his life but also the lives of many other severely disabled children. It prompted a string of articles describing the remarkable institutions and staff who care for these children, extolling their loving dedication. We heard about the courage of parents and siblings. It was as if we were being given permission to feel good about human nature; we were reminding ourselves how human beings are capable of great generosity.

Goody's coverage outstrips all others. A few years ago Goody was vilified as ignorant, brash and racist. Now she is known as "brave Jade" and even came third in a British poll last week of most respected living figures - after Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela. This is the ultimate reinvention of a woman who made her life purpose the narcissistic task of her own invention in public. How has she done it? By recasting herself as the self-sacrificial mother, forsaking her own dignity and privacy for the sake of earning money to leave her sons. Those following her plight passionately defend her from any hint of criticism. She has become a parable of modern-day redemption.

By so doing she makes her audience feel that little bit better about themselves. If even Goody can be redeemed by motherhood and suffering, then so perhaps can everyone else. All the familiar complaints about Goody are irrelevant; she may be badly educated, famous for nothing other than being famous and have no achievements to her name, but all that brings her only closer to her audience of millions.

It's not hard to see why we might want to reassure ourselves of the better qualities of human nature and the possibility of redemption just now, as we emerge bleary-eyed from a 20-year delusion that we could indulge our debt-driven preoccupation with house prices for ever. This need to restore our faith in human nature is the flip side of the blame culture that latches on to Sir Fred Goodwin's pension or insists that Gordon Brown should say sorry. Just as we need to blame, we also need to patch up our battered self-belief. It is not just global capitalism that is disintegrating, but also a western self-understanding that we knew what we were doing and why.

Susie Orbach, the psychoanalyst and author of a new book, Bodies, suggests that through Goody's dying we are "grieving for the death of a fantasy world we have all been living in". She believes that we all feel unsteady; we carry on as normal but we know that a lot of things will not be the same again. We are struggling to distinguish what is real - and death is, as the saying goes, the ultimate reality.

Another psychoanalyst, Andrew Samuels, identifies similar themes; he suggests that Goody is offering a kind of consolation in bewildering times. "We might as well be wandering on King Lear's heath - there is such a huge diffused anxiety. Patients talk to me of walking through a door into a room that has no floor. People fear the structure of their lives falling apart." He refers to Freud's concept of the death instinct, first published in 1920. The death instinct is present in all people, argued Freud, and is expressed in aggression but also in a compulsion to assuage anxiety, to withdraw from overstimulation, to seek quietude. As Keats phrased it, "half in love with easeful death".

Also Goody's sacrifice, suggests Samuels, prefigures how important this concept could become. What sacrifices will we have to make as a nation to pull ourselves out of this economic mess? And beyond that lies an even bigger question, about what sacrifices we will have to make to forestall climate change. At the back of many minds hover these kinds of unanswerable questions.

No one reading the latest instalment of Goody's painful demise has to be conscious of these connections. That's not how a media phenomenon works; it only has to tap into vague inchoate emotional anxieties. It can rework them, apply old patterns of mythology (the self-sacrificial mother for her young) and people latch on, captivated.

From being baffled, I have come round to thinking that this preoccupation with death has an extraordinarily positive dimension. It is part of a grasping for something of real and lasting value. It is a reaction against an incomprehensible world where trillions of pounds are bouncing around balance sheets without meaning. It's a drilling down to the irreducible basics of human life: love and death.


Madeleine Bunting

The GuardianTramp

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