An emotional striptease

Ignore those publishers who claim ‘misery memoirs’ are popular because they tell life-affirming stories of survival. In truth, these books are a voyeur’s wet dream.

Frank Furedi

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These days, if you pop in to your local bookshop you are far more likely to pick up yet another autobiography revealing the sordid details of a despondent childhood than to leaf through an uplifting story of human endeavour. Welcome to the ever-expanding misery memoir market. The titles weighing down the shelves of bookshops throughout Britain, and on the other side of the Atlantic too, tell their own story. Behind Closed Doors, Don’t Ever Tell, God’s Call Girl, A Child Called It, Don’t Tell Mummy, Sickened – they all point to the dark and menacing secrets of a childhood dominated by toxic parents and other assorted paedophiles. This is human degradation on display.

Since the publication of Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s prize-winning memoir of a miserable Irish Catholic childhood, in 1996, the misery book market has flourished. These memoirs dwell relentlessly on the most appalling of children’s experiences. Their favourite theme is the devouring of childhood by such painful experiences as child sexual abuse, incest, adult and institutional cruelty, domestic violence, poverty and neglect. The king of the market is David Pelzer, who has become a one-man misery industry. His book A Child Called It – a story of extreme starvation, torture and abuse by a monstrous mother – inspired a new growth industry. In the UK, last year’s best-selling misery confessional, Jenny Tomlin’s Behind Closed Doors, sold almost 300,000 copies. And even that is peanuts compared to the millions of books the author formerly known as ‘it’ manages to flog. Pelzer has demonstrated that there is an insatiable appetite for the misery memoir; he has published not one but three harrowing autobiographies.

These graphic literary accounts of childhood degradation usually end on the note: ‘But hey, I survived.’ Cupcake Brown’s A Piece Of Cake, for example, which tells the story of a young girl who has gone through prostitution, alcohol and drug addiction and crime, ends with a hint of redemption through ‘recovery’. Like most of the authors of misery memoirs, Brown succeeds in turning her life around. The reader, however, is not left with a feeling of inspiration, but rather with an urge to take a shower.

A pornography of suffering

This is the pornography of emotional hurt. Book publishers often claim that misery memoirs are popular because they provide life-affirming stories of survival. In truth, the reason why they sell in millions is because they give permission to the reader to enter into a supposedly private world of intense degradation, appalling cruelty and pain. These memoirs confess to so much that they take on the character of a literary striptease. They provide titillating and very graphic accounts of traumatic pain which actually turn readers into voyeurs. And, as in real porn, there is a lot of faking going on, too.

Some of these confessional accounts of human degradation have been challenged by the author’s relatives and acquaintances. Constance Briscoe’s story of the horrific violence she suffered during her childhood in south London has been questioned by members of her family; she faces a libel suit from her mum. Kathy O’Beirne’s shocking account of a life destroyed by sexual abuse and cruelty has been publicly contested by her family, too. Even the appalling ‘it’ memoirs are disputed by some of David Pelzer’s brothers. In the US, James Frey’s ‘memoir’ A Million Tiny Pieces – which became the second biggest-selling book of 2005, largely thanks to gushing praise and airtime from Oprah – was eventually exposed as a fraud.

Of course, fiction has often masqueraded as fact. But misery memoirs do more than merely stretch the boundaries of truth. They set out to demonstrate that, whatever the facts might be, there is a higher truth out there – namely that the horrendous degradation of children is a normal everyday occurrence. According to this ‘truth’ about human misery, our capacity to love and care for one another is really just a myth. Large sections of the book industry have become complicit in promoting this degraded view of family life as a new reality. It’s worth noting that Borders bookshops stock these memoirs in something called a ‘Real Lives’ section. The message is clear: this is as ‘real’ and truthful as life can get; misery memoirs provide an insight into the previously hidden ‘reality’ of childhood and family life.

These books give the impression that, far from being rare instances of individual tragedy, abuse, degradation and torture constitute real life these days. In essence, they help to normalise the abnormal.

Behind closed doors

So, why is the market in misery books booming? Over the past three decades, traditional views of childhood, the family and private life have been constantly challenged. As a social scientist I am continually amazed to find that there are hardly any positive accounts of family life in academic literature these days. Instead the family is vilified as a site of child abuse and domestic violence. Rather than treating such dreadful episodes as tragic but thankfully rare occurrences, numerous ‘experts’ insist that they are the norm. One such expert has argued that the American home is ‘more violent than any other single institution’.

Family life, once idealised as a haven from a heartless world, is now widely depicted as a vile and abusive institution. Child protection professionals and media commentators seem to issue endless warnings about the dangers children face from their parents. This normalisation of child abuse has given rise to the idea that all those who live in families – which is almost everyone – is ‘at risk’. In academic literature on family violence, it is frequently argued that every child is potentially at risk of harm and every man is a latent wife-beater.

And apparently women and children are not the only possible targets of family violence. The invention of the term ‘elder abuse’ gives the impression that victimisation is a fact of family life right from the cradle to the grave. Even the relationships between children have been problematised by leading American experts on family violence. According to David Finkelhor, sibling abuse is the most common ‘kind of victimisation’ that kids face. Finkelhor argues that child-on-child assaults affect 80 per cent of children in some way. He uses the term ‘pandemic victimisation’ to show just how everyday this form of child abuse has become (1).

If victimisation within the family is pandemic, then quite clearly we should mistrust even those who are closest to us. The focus of our angst and anxiety should no longer be the alien stranger or criminal but our family relations, neighbours, friends, lovers and workmates. This new approach to everyday life has fundamentally redefined the way we are expected to relate to those who are closest to us physically and emotionally. If even family life is held to be a site of victimisation, then surely no institution can be perceived as being essentially benevolent; if parents, brothers and sisters cannot really be trusted, then how can it be possible to have faith in the integrity of more distant acquaintances? This is the message conveyed on a daily basis through books, TV and other forms of popular culture: that the family is a dangerous institution, and thus life itself must be pretty dense with risks, fear and distrust.

Popular culture retains a strain of respect for privacy and family life – yet here, too, powerful forces continually try to ‘expose’ the harmful deeds of toxic parents. Increasingly popular terms like the ‘dark side of family life’ invoke a sense of dread about private and thus invisible relations. The title of Jenny Tomlin’s bestselling misery memoir – Behind Closed Doors – captures the widespread belief today that a closed door is a bad thing; that awful things will inevitably happen behind the locked front door of a family home. Films, TV programmes and books claim that privacy is a ‘sham’ or a ‘cloak’, clung to by certain people who want to hide their real lives and the apparently toxic emotions that dominate their lives. Forget privacy, we are told – instead we should reveal to the world our pain and emotions. The public confession, especially on a reality TV programme or in an Oprah or Dr Phil-style confessional format, is celebrated as an act of bravery these days. Those who prefer to keep their problems to themselves are stigmatised as being ‘in denial’; the stiff upper lip is seen less as a virtue and more as a sign that one must have a mental health problem.

The metaphor of the dreaded closed door sums up today’s suspicious attitude towards private encounters. The title of the classic academic account of family violence, Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family (1980), best articulates the mistrust of our private lives. An American artist, Justine Nuaman Greif, recently exhibited a three-panelled folding screen work titled ‘Behind Closed Doors’. One review of the work said:

‘At first glance, the screen seems to depict Everytown USA. Some of the homes are modest; some of the homes and gardens are opulent; all of them seem to be a portrait of tranquillity. It is not until the visitors pull down the faces of each home and read the correlated messages that they are confronted with the realisation of what happens behind closed doors. Justine Nauman Greif has created a powerful means of reminding us that each time we retreat to the sanctuary of our own safe environments, we cannot forget the thousands of victims in our own communities who are fighting for their lives behind closed doors.’

‘Raising awareness’ about the danger of the closed door captures society’s lack of trust in one-to-one relations. The academic and political discussions of family life as potentially violent and disgusting has given rise to today’s outpouring of pornographic abuse-memories that now top the bestseller lists.

Misery memoirs sell because today it has become commonplace to seek meaning through degrading experiences. In providing graphic details about people’s lived humiliations, these memoirs make us feel more comfortable with our own existences. It is sad that we need to gain a sense of meaning and calm by reading about the degradation of others; yet the fact is, we live in a world where the victim trumps the hero. Some writers are happy to invent stories of painful abuse because they recognise that being a victim has public appeal today. The public is no longer very interested in stories of happy and purposeful childhoods, since such stories must surely have been written by people ‘in denial’ who cannot face the bitter truth about just how badly their parents hurt them….

Real life

As a social scientist, I am uncomfortable with the trend for intelligent adults to present themselves as debased victims. And as a father of an 11-year-old boy, I am deeply disturbed by the ideas that he is already picking up about childhood and family life. Like his friends, he knows too much about child abuse and seems to assume that family instability and even violence are the norm. Cruelty to children is no longer confined to dramatic fairytales; instead it is a daily theme in today’s ‘Real Life’ stories. Children growing up in our misery-saturated era are encouraged to interpret their lives through the prism of abuse and failure. By the time they are adults, many of them, too, will have learned to blame their shortcomings and problems on the bad stuff that happened to them in childhood.

This is where we can see the real damage caused by misery memoirs. In line with today’s prevailing cultural outlook, people are more and more expected to blame their personal failings on their parents or siblings. Stories of childhood misery continually inform us that regrettable events in our formative years determine our future destinies. Expressions such as ‘scarred for life’ or ‘damaged for life’ give us the impression that, no matter what happens to us as adults and no matter what we achieve, we remain prisoners of past events. Indeed, it is striking that Cho Seung-Hui, the mass killer of Virginia Tech, seems to have written his own version of misery memoirs: he wrote a play titled ‘Richard McBeef’, in which the lead character (a man who gets fat on McDonald’s food, ‘chowing down on three Big Macs in three minutes’) tries to abuse his 13-year-old stepson; and another titled ‘Mr Brownstone’, which tells of a high-school teacher who ‘ass-rapes’ his young students. There has been much speculation about whether Cho was inspired by violent Hollywood movies or violent computer games – could it be that he was actually inspired by the obsession with abuse and distrust that is prevalent in American and Western culture more broadly?

How different all of this misery-obsession is to my own childhood! As a child, I knew a thing or two about poverty and instability. Along with other refugee children from Hungary in the 1950s, when we arrived in Canada we were expected to have a part-time job by the age of 10. We didn’t just have chores to do; we had to contribute to the family’s day-to-day survival. From time to time, some of us were scared and upset by the corporal punishment inflicted upon us. Our parents spoke no English and thus could do very little to help us with our schoolwork. And yet we believed that most people were decent, and that we were entitled to a stable and happy family life. The stories we read about children who were more fortunate than us made us feel good and gave us something to aim for. We enjoyed these happy stories.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that none of my friends revel in painful childhood memories. Back in August, four of us met up for a drink, and we talked a lot about how we got into trouble together when we were kids. We recalled accidents, misunderstandings, arguments – but instead of morosely dwelling on the bad stuff that occurred, we talked about what we did and what we became. And that, too, is ‘real life’, something which we forget at our peril.

Frank Furedi is author most recently of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, published by Continuum. (Buy it from Amazon (UK)). Visit his website here.

(1) ‘The Victimization of Children and Youth’ by David Finkelhor, in Davis et al (1997) pp.89 & 91.

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