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The Myersons and the meaning of the misery memoir

Confessional culture is crushing family sanctity.

By Brendan O'Neill / March 27, 2009


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.

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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.