Committed: The Adventures of PETA’s Rebel Campaigner
278 pages • Duckworth Overlook • May 21st, 2009 [PB]
In December 1988, when I was seventeen years old, the House of Fraser department store in Plymouth was eviscerated by fire. The smoke was so thick that it could be seen from the sleepy village in which I lived across the border in Cornwall. The House of Fraser had for some time been in conflict with animal rights activists from the Animal Liberation Front over its practice of stocking fur coats. As a sometime fox hunt saboteur, and prototypical angry teenager, I was on the side of the activists. Watching the on-scene reports of the fire, and assuming this was the work of the activists, I was uneasily pleased that a dramatic solution had forced the question that the House of Fraser management had spent weeks evading. The fur trade was, simply, barbaric and wrong. The 1980s, as Dan Mathews writes in his exceptional memoir Committed, had witnessed a revolution on the issue of animal rights in the popular consciousness. The management of the House of Fraser, like the department store itself, belonged to another era.
It transpired that incendiary bombs planted by the ALF had caused the fire. The object was to burn a few fur coats, but the building was so old, and the sprinkler system so ineffective, that the fire was soon out of control and the whole store was engulfed. Your average citizen was outraged by the action, all self-righteous indignation, and the insurance meant the House of Fraser could rebuild the store and bring it bang up-to-date. The ALF did not come out of it so well, from media representation through to troublesome internal politics. There were, however, no fur coats in stock when the House of Fraser reopened its doors.
Activism of the kind that Dan Mathews engages in throughout Committed is more measured, although it is at the same time in-your-face, unapologetic, and oftentimes at odds with the legal system. He has in fact been arrested so many times that he wrote an article entitled ‘A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Jails’. What he describes in his work for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) as a campaign strategist is in effect a balancing act between the delivery of the message and the message itself. At what point do the tactics involved in the delivery of the message obscure and deflect from that message? To get attention one has to seek attention, and it is this process that this raucous, hilariously funny, and lucidly written memoir describes. Mathews delivers the message, but does so in such a way that the bearer remains both attractive and palatable. It is this feat that is at the heart of his campaigning strategy.
Committed is, first and foremost, not an autobiography. It is a memoir of Mathews’ work as a campaigner. He describes his childhood in as far as it shaped his personality and his ideals. These early chapters are essentially about how his upbringing prepared him both psychologically and philosophically to work for PETA. The fact that this upbringing was on the wacky side, and that he has a great gift for comic narrative, helps. The tale of how the family home was turned into a centre for rescued cats, how his family was viewed by the neighbourhood, and how the landlord kicked them out because of the ‘no animals’ rule, is a Marx Brothers’ comedy sequence. Yet at no point is the sense of mission lost.
Mathews’ rise in the ranks of the PETA, an organisation that was in its fifth year when he joined, is clearly down to his audacity as a campaigner. The chapter about the PETA raid on the offices of Calvin Klein in New York is jaw-dropping. And that does not let up from protest to protest.
To get attention as a charity with limited funds, Mathews emphasises, one has to be prepared to be outrageous. Yet, as he writes of his appearance at the Vienna Opera Ball with Pamela Anderson, at which he was expected to perform all sorts of high jinx, he wanted “to use the opportunity to create a deeper appreciation for animal rights rather than just more outrage”. There is a level-headedness to his approach that is all too often missing from the sensationalist media coverage of the events. Committed is a fascinating insight into the how-and-why of the protests that rarely make it into media reportage.
There are times in the narrative in which the events seem to unfold as if fate is his guardian angel. That said, the intricacies of how and why events are set in motion would be of more interest to the historian than the general reader. The stories of hanging out with celebrities who work for the cause – or ones that are just along for the ride – aren’t always that compelling. Aside from the tales about Pamela Anderson, that is. Mathews is a far more appealing writer when it comes to the people that he encounters in his day-to-day work. Celebrities are useful to the cause, but they are not necessarily interesting.
Shock tactics are fundamental, Mathews writes, “if you want to reach beyond the small core of whoever might care about an issue and lure in the voyeuristic masses. Embracing this sad fact is what sets PETA apart from most other pressure groups.” There is a clarity in this statement that permeates the entire narrative. It is nigh on impossible not to fall for Mathews in reading his story. He is engaging, passionate, funny, serious, and deeply human. As an activist and as a writer he embodies that most precious of traits, empathy.
“I was rattled by the thought that I had been attacked after class
as a teen for being gay, and now as an adult for being a carrot;
I guess you could say that I’ve courted hostility
for being both a fruit and a vegetable.”