When I was 13 years old, I was really into Michael Hutchence. I would cut photos of him into heart shapes and then sticky tape them to my skin, where I approximated my own heart to be. I would secretly wear him like that all day, under my school shirt.
This is a mildly mortifying memory, but having a crush on a celebrity heart-throb is the kind of thing you do when you are 13. Many of us have a Michael Hutchence in our past. Then you grow up, peel off the paper hearts, pull down your posters, and donate all your embarrassing band T-shirts to Vinnies. You age out of the depth of feeling that can inspire you to stick someone’s face to your body.
I grew up too, and if I ever gave any thought to my old penchant for Michael Hutchence, it was only to wince at the thought of who I used to be. I would wince, also, at the thought of taping anything to my now papery skin, which was stretched loose by age, irresponsible sun exposure, and all the babies it once contained.
But then the weirdest thing happened to me, a grown woman, an old bag. I felt these same feelings again. I got one of those intense, actual crushes on a person you only know from the television and the pages of magazines. The skin might have changed on the outside, but on the inside, it turned out, I was still the same.
Benedict Cumberbatch was my new Michael Hutchence. Middle-age was the new adolescence. What was once a mildly mortifying memory was now a very alarming lived reality.
I can’t really explain why it was Cumberbatch, in particular, who reignited my apparently smouldering passion for celebrity heart-throbs. Maybe it was just a case of right place, right time, right cheekbones. I was stuck at home with two young children when it happened, and disappearing – bit by bit, day by day – into the roles of wife, mother and cleaner.
On one of these days, much like any of the others, I sat down to watch an episode of the BBC’s Sherlock, which stars Cumberbatch, a man I had seen a hundred times before. But for some reason, a man I’d seen a hundred times before suddenly looked different. Feelings I’d previously labelled as the malformed offcuts of adolescent development sparkled like new.
I wanted an explanation, or a diagnosis even, for this ridiculous (and frankly embarrassing) regression. I spent a long time looking for one, speaking to many other women who’d found themselves in the same situation, who had fallen for Cumberbatch like they were 13 again. I wanted to know what it said about me. What kind of mother did it make me? What kind of wife?
But the more women I spoke to, the more obvious it became that falling for Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t the only thing we had in common. They were all so shockingly happy. There was such an abundance of joy among them – among us – that I would end these conversations with my cheeks sore from smiling too much.
An explanation no longer seemed necessary, for who wouldn’t want this? I had spent so long cringing at the memory of my adolescence, I’d forgotten along the way how good it actually feels to really lose yourself in something you love. And with so little time and space in my life outside motherhood, I’d forgotten what it was like to “waste” my time on something which wasn’t in service to other people’s needs, something which had absolutely no purpose. Aside from, you know, fun.
My feelings about Cumberbatch were only for me, and that felt indescribably good. I just had to excavate that good feeling out from under all the shame and embarrassment I’d piled on top of it, over how weird and inappropriate it was to be a middle-aged woman with a teenage crush. What a mess I’d made of my pleasures, to let my sense of self be determined by my roles – wife, mother, cleaner – rather than by what brought me joy.
After leaving high school, I never once felt the absence of a paper heart, but I can see now that something was missing all that time. I no longer feel the same way about Hutchence, but I know I have the capacity to still feel, in that same way. One heart-throb replaces another, fads and fashions change. But how much do we?
This is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch by Tabitha Carvan is out now in Australia, NZ and the UK, and in the US on 31 May.