The Myersons and the meaning of the misery memoir
Confessional culture is crushing family sanctity.
First we had the misery memoir, autobiographies about boys called "It" and girls called "Ugly" who were abused by adults. Now we have what one British journalist calls the "misery mom-oir": an autobiographical work by a mom who claims to have been screwed up by her own teenage kid.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Lost Child" by Julie Myerson, an award-winning British novelist, has caused a storm here. The book combines a biography of Mary Yelloly, an early nineteenth-century artist who died young, with autobiographical segments on Myerson's decision to throw her 17-year-old son, Jake, out of the family home after he got addicted to cannabis and started to behave badly.
The very public fallout between the Myersons has been eye-wateringly painful to behold. Under newspaper headlines such as "Mum, What You Did Is Obscene" and "A Middle Class Family At War," Jake has labelled his mother as "slightly insane" for writing the book, while Myerson has hit back with yet more revelations about his bad behavior. Myerson's husband and Jake's father, Jonathan, has written a three-page feature for the Guardian newspaper about the time he almost hit Jake.
Now a 20-year-old student and aspiring musician, Jake says he refuses to have anything to do with his parents.
Literary London is scandalized. Not since Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" has a book so dominated newspaper headlines. It has even been covered in a prime-time TV news show, in which Julie Myerson revealed that Jake stole money from her, too. It was at this moment that I thought to myself: "Enough. Please stop."
Is it really appropriate for a mother or father to write so nakedly about the apparent wickedness and waywardness of their own son – while he is still alive, still studying, and yet to enter the job market, where employers are likely to look unfavorably on a young man who has been exposed as a drug addict and thief?
Some in London's literary set have defended Myerson. Others have vociferously condemned her. One columnist said Myerson and her husband "personify the worst generation in history" – the Baby Boomer generation who grew up to be self-pitying, responsibility-shirking adults.
Myerson has unquestionably crossed a line. It is one thing for adults to write about what was done to them as children, but for a mother to write an exposé of her son's destructive behavior feels like a violation of a sacred bond. Parents are meant to help their troubled children – with advice, discipline, maybe punishment – not embarrass them before the eyes of the chattering classes and TV viewers.
The Myerson book and scandal look like the degraded end products of today's cultures of confession and victimhood. There's a powerful cultural imperative today to "let it all hang out," to emote openly on the most intimate and private aspects of our lives.
And yes, this trend has winged its way from California, across the rest of the US, right here to Britain, formerly the home of the stiff upper lip but now an Oprahland of therapeutic TV shows and revealing memoirs that can be found in bookshops under signs advertising "Tough Lives!" or "Personal Struggles!"
Meanwhile, under the cult of the victim, individuals now gain public recognition by "showing their wounds" and revealing how much they have suffered. Our own Princess Diana, who said she wanted to be "a queen of people's hearts" on the basis that she understood the British public's inner pain, did much to promote the idea of suffering as a virtue.
Celebrities, writers, and others increasingly make their mark by revealing what has been done to them rather than what they might do for the world – to the extent that even a successful author such as Myerson feels the urge to reveal all about her suffering at the hands of her own offspring. In our era of confession-making and victim worship, it seems, no family spat stays private for long.
But perhaps the most worrying trend behind the rise of the misery memoir, and now the appearance of the "misery mom-oir," is the commonplace idea that families are vortexes of abuse. As the British sociologist Frank Furedi argues, "Family life, once idealized as a haven from a heartless world, is now widely depicted as a vile and abusive institution – and nowhere more so than in 'misery memoirs.' "
At a time when the distinction between private life and public life seems utterly eroded, and when public confession is cheered and the family is booed, it was only a matter of time before a mother, previously that most discreet and compassionate of creatures, wrote a memoir about the damage wrought by her own child. Myerson's book is not so much the product of a "rotten parent," as one critic said, as the product of a rotten culture.
• Brendan O'Neill, a journalist based in London, is the editor of spiked, an online publication.