They f*** you up, your kids
The furore over Julie Myerson’s book about her drug-using son marks a downward spiral from childhood misery memoirs to misery mum-oir.
Bored to death of the misery memoir, those endless books by adults claiming that their lives have been scarred by childhood abuse and neglect, normally at the hands of their parents? Well, now there’s a new, overgrown kid on the block. Welcome to the misery mum-oir, a book by a successful middle-class mother claiming that her life has been ruined by her abusive and unappreciative child.
You may or may not have heard of Julie Myerson’s novels, but it has been hard to miss the controversy caused by her latest biographical book, The Lost Child, telling the tale of her disruptive, drug-taking teenage son and how Myerson and her husband had to throw him out of the family home aged 17.
After extracts detailing how her son had made her life a misery were published in the Daily Telegraph, Myerson’s son, Jake (now 20), gave an interview to the Daily Mail last Saturday in which he called her ‘insane’, ‘naive’ and prone to fantasising. Next day, his mum was in The Sunday Times telling her tales of woe. By Monday night she was on BBC2’s flagship Newsnight, defending herself to Jeremy Paxman. On Tuesday, her husband had a 3,000-word essay in the Guardian about how his skunk-smoking teenage son had traumatised their lives, then today the Myersons were interviewed together in their lovely kitchen for The Times. All before the book is even published.
This endless washing of dirty designer laundry in public has stirred up a lot of controversy, particularly within the luvvy and meejah community of which the Myersons are part. Some have stepped forward to defend the book for apparently trying to help other parents in similar positions. Many more have been outraged by Myerson’s perceived betrayal of her child in writing the book, and have wondered out loud how she could do such a damaging thing to her own son.
Myerson’s book does seem dreadful. Yet it is surely not difficult to understand where such a work has come from. It looks like the logical extension of powerful trends that have come to the fore across our cultural life in recent times. There is the confessional culture, in which emoting openly about personal problems is always deemed the healthy option, and the job of the writer is often seen as erasing the line between public and private lives. And there is the victim culture, in which one gains public recognition for personal suffering, and where it seems all must have deep wounds, emotional if not physical. Mix these poisonous trends together in a strong cocktail, and you can end up with a successful couple making a virtue out of publicly blaming their child for their problems.
Ours is a time when we are told that childhood abuse is everywhere, when the family is described as a toxic institution, and when concepts such as elder abuse make clear that nobody can escape. In which case, why should parents be left out? Why can’t mothers and fathers claim that they are family victims, too, even quite rich and famous ones? Thus Myerson claims to have had her eyes opened when one friend said of her son ‘I’m afraid he’s abusing you’. Ah, the poor little parents. Perhaps Philip Larkin’s famous line ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’ should be rewritten as ‘They fuck you up, your kids’.
These days, of course, many writers mention their own children and experience of parenting in columns and articles. I sometimes do it myself, especially when writing about public debates on issues such as education or health or child-raising. But that is very different from turning your family’s most intimate problems into a public spectacle for self-serving reasons. Myerson has always gone further than most in this direction, at one time writing an excruciating ‘anonymous’ column in the Guardian about living with teenagers in which she described her son acquiring his first pubic hair – it turned out that his schoolfriends knew it was about him.
Now, however, she has gone much further with her misery mum-oir, not only telling tales out of the living room, but pointing the finger at her child for the family’s problems. As with many misery memoirs, the facts in some of the horror stories she tells about Jake are disputed – he has his own version of events – and her claims about how cannabis ‘addiction’ destroys the mental health of normal young people are certainly open to question. Yet there seems no doubt that the Myersons had a hard time with their son. And while we might note in passing that it appears pretty pathetic for fortysomething parents to call the police to take their teenage son away because he is smashing some flower pots, none of us is really in a position to start lecturing others about how they should handle their family problems.
Writing a book about it, however, and splashing the controversy all over the media, is another matter. Myerson claims that writing The Lost Child after she had kicked out her son was ‘a way of spending time with him’ and that ‘my writing comes from a place I don’t have total control over’. So, writing it was cathartic. Leaving aside the psycho-babble, one thing she presumably does have control over is whether to publish her writing, and then give interviews to newspapers and TV programmes.
Some have claimed this is all a marketing stunt, and that she has put her sales before her son. That might seem true of the publisher’s reported decision to bring the book out a week early and cash in on the controversy. But there is probably something else motivating people such as Myerson. What many crave today is recognition of their suffering, of their moral status as a victim. It is not their sales they want to promote, so much as their selves.
Thus to judge by the extracts and interviews, Myerson’s book is far less about her son’s problems than her own pain. She writes about how throwing him out of their home ‘makes me want to die’ (what making a boy homeless might do to him seems less important), and then that she wants him to come back, not for his own benefit so much as because ‘I want the mummy-fix of seeing him fast asleep, safe and warm in his own bed’. Her husband’s own long Guardian article seems similarly self-obsessed. When Jonathan Myerson describes his (failed) attempt to hit his son in frustration, the important question he feels moved to ask is: ‘Who have I become?’
And when, during that abrasive Newsnight interview, Paxman demanded of Myerson exactly how a book claiming her son was a violent drug addict would improve his life chances, she was clearly taken aback, as if the question had never occurred to her.
The overblown media controversy surrounding this book about one teen’s behaviour, much of which seems pretty banal, does reveal the tortured state of our attitude to issues of parenting and child-raising today. No doubt some have enjoyed having a go at Julie Myerson as part of their campaign against too-liberal ‘bad parents’ – she admits that she never told her children not to take drugs. Her defenders, on the other hand, claim that her book shows the problems of parenting today and shows her brave decision to go out on a limb by exercising ‘tough love’.
In fact, the book and the justifications offered for it seem very much in line with the zeitgeist around the supposed need for a more therapeutic approach to child-raising, and more professional intervention in family matters. So Myerson writes about the importance of expert advice and of turning to groups such as Families Anonymous. And inevitably, she and her defenders have since insisted that the book is justified as an exercise in public education and consciousness-raising, to help other parents recognise the need to open up about drug problems and ask for outside intervention sooner. In the process, they risk exposing young people such as her son to what looks like the parenting industry’s equivalent of a public flogging – all for his own good, of course.
Yet despite the outrage The Lost Child has provoked in some circles, Myerson seems a writer in tune with the miserablist mood of the moment (which is why she has also garnered some outspoken support). A few years ago she wrote a sort of prototype misery memoir in the Daily Mail, about how her father was ‘twisted’ and cruel, an ‘emotional and social sadist’ whose sexually inappropriate behaviour ‘revolted’ her so that she was not sad when he killed himself. Now, having presumably barely recovered from publicising that family trauma, she has moved on to confessing her son’s crimes against her. Where will the fashion for finding abuse in every intimate relationship take us next?
The misery memoir is essentially about adults blaming their life’s problems on their parents and on their childhood experiences. The misery mum-oir, in blaming a child for wrecking the parents’ lives, looks like another more perverse form of abdicating adult responsibility. Indeed, infantilism appears to be one other fashionable trait to which Myerson is no stranger. Janice Turner, who interviewed her for The Times, writes perceptively that, ‘There is something not quite maternal about Julie Myerson’s relationship with her son, as if she almost seeks to be his peer’. At one point in the book, when she claims Jake told her he does not approve of what she has written but that he is being ‘merciful’, she concludes that ‘For a moment, I feel like the child’. Quite.
Or as perhaps Jake himself says of the rather tame dad-and-teenage-son tussle that Jonathan Myerson described in such dramatic terms: ‘It’s a very sad day when you discover you can beat your father in a fist fight.’
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Nancy McDermott met the ‘world’s worst mom’. Frank Furedi said misery memoirs are a voyeur’s wet dream. Rob Lyons thought we should decriminalise, but not celebrate, drugs. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.