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I Think We’re Alone Now

September 5, 2009

My nephew, now 10, is a lovely little lad with an interest in pizzas and trains. He’s a good-looking boy with a super smile and, when it suits him, a great hug for the people he cares about. He also has Asperger’s syndrome, otherwise known as autistic spectrum disorder, and it means that for my brother and his wife life can be very tough indeed. I don’t want to bore you with details, or come across as self-pitying by proxy, but I will tell you that my nephew is not awesome at mental arithmetic, drafting perfect technical diagrams or Cobol programming. He can’t play piano to concert standard, memorise bus timetables or tell you the history of aircrash statistics. He is a noisy wee chap who is confused by disorder and scared of the unpredictable, and the mythologisation of Autism is more of a hindrance than anything else when trying to cope with him. He is fortunate to have two wonderful parents who both work within the NHS and can transpose their caring skillsets into the domestic situation.

So, at 10, I’m relieved he has his Mom and Dad to take the reins. I try not to think of his adult years, but I fear they won’t, unfortunately, be easy.

And, of course, lots of people have it hard. Which is why I’m reminded that last week I went to see I Think We’re Alone Now, Sean Donnelly’s much-touted-around-the-festivals documentary dealing with the darker side of fandom; Jeff and Kelly are in love with the 80’s pop singer Tiffany.

Jeff Turner is a 50-year-old man from Santa Cruz, California. He has been following Tiffany around for over twenty years. He tells anyone who listens that they are great friends and have spoken on the phone. He giggles as he shows his restraining order to camera, amazed that Tiffany’s full name is spelled out, even though he has had the order for years. He is worried about fascists (his stepfather is, he claims, laughing, a fascist), he is worried about crystal energy, he is worried about his thoughts being read by the secret Council that rules the world. He is comical but clearly very challenging. Jeff has long been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

Kelly McCormick is a 38-year-old hermaphrodite from Denver, Colorado, who says she was friends with Tiffany as a teenager. She says that Tiffany has inspired all the good things in her life. Her life does not look good. Living in relative poverty (both Jeff and Kelly are unable to hold down full time jobs, are on benefits, and are obliged to take a small mountain of medication). Kelly is also, it seems, both an alcoholic and clearly deluded about her athletic abilities; she tries to run everywhere but is quickly out of breath, a tad podgy round the middle, and yet she constantly champions her level of fitness.

Jeff and Kelly are fascinating and worrying. You want to know more about them, but you want other people to do the investigating for you. They have that loony on the bus quality; car crash rubbernecking people. They are also funny. Funny peculiar. And the audience laughed, and so did I. Jeff, in particular, seemed to have a comic timing all his own, and he’s the star of the show, probably because Kelly, angry and unpredictable, is hard to like. Jeff, by contrast, is aware of his difficulties and seems to want to explain them (at one point he tidies his room for the camera and he is always ready with a qualifying statement to make his observers more comfortable).

But there’s a complicity hidden deep within all this that adds a darker heart to the whole thing and it doesn’t come from the two stalkers. Despite the restraining orders and the obvious trepidation at conventions and fan meets, Tiffany continues to meet Jeff. She’s uneasy, but they embrace. At an Erotica convention she signs his copy of her 2002 Playboy edition, while he tells her reams of facts she either knows or has long forgotten. At every free beach gig or tourist trap where she performs, there he is, and later there she’ll be with a big smile and marker pen. Originally on MCA, she’s now with Water Music Records, and yet we meet fans who have followed her for years and who see her new album as the “one of the greatest records of all time”. Jeff and Kelly aren’t alone. You start to wonder who needs who.

Jeff and Kelly won’t be to everyone’s taste. This isn’t a bleeding heart slice of manipulation (if it was, it failed miserably) for they are both clearly problematic characters and you do not want to take them home afterwards, but it is a piece of work that shows honestly and openly how hard life can be for people with specific problems, and how perception can mold them further. It was good to note that, however small, both have a support network around them.

One last thing. Throughout the version of the movie I saw there were long and difficult breaks in the sound. These mostly occurred during Tiffany’s public appearances. I guess royalties are always worth negotiating.

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