Washing dirty linen in public through memoirs
How far are authors entitled to go in revealing sensitive details about family members, particularly children, in their writing? This question has preoccupied the British “chattering classes” in recent days, following the disclosure by novelist and journalist Julie Myerson that her new book “The Lost Child” tells of how her son Jake’s heavy use of skunk cannabis from the age of 15 almost destroyed her family. Jake is not named in the book, but is referred to as “our boy”.
Myerson claims that her son became addicted to skunk, a particularly strong form of cannabis which has been linked to behavioral and mental health problems. When she started writing “The Lost Child”, she intended it to be the story of the gifted 19th century child artist Mary Yelloly who painted a remarkable series of watercolors and died of tuberculosis in 1838 at the age of 21. But in the process of writing, Myerson found that the story of Jake became interwoven with the story of Mary.
In the book she describes how Jake’s addiction led the previously high-flying schoolboy, who seemed destined for Oxford University, to neglect his studies and to steal from her handbag to fund his drug habit. The scenes between parents and son became so violent that on one occasion he perforated Julie’s eardrum.
In the end she and her playwright husband Jonathan felt they had no alternative but to kick Jake out of the house and change the front door locks, days after his 17th birthday. Jake became homeless and moved between squats and friends’ floors. Now aged 20, and described as “working in the music business”, he has described his mother as naïve and “slightly insane”. He told the Daily Mail: “What she has done has taken the very worst years of my life and cleverly blended it into a work of art, and that to me is obscene.”
Many media commentators have condemned Myerson for in effect betraying her son and possibly blighting his future. She stands to profit from all the publicity, which is expected to boost sales of her book. The book was to have been published in May, but the publisher Bloomsbury has brought it forward by two months.
The accusations of betrayal grew when Julie admitted a few days ago that she had been the author of the anonymously written column ‘Living with Teenagers’ which ran for two years in the Guardian newspaper. The columns, based on real-life events involving her three children, were published in book form last year under the title “Living with Teenagers: 3 Kids, 2 Parents, 1 Hell Of A Bumpy Ride.”
Julie Myerson and her husband justify the publication of “The Lost Child” on the grounds that there is an emergency over the damage skunk is doing to young Britons. They say the book may help other parents.
The Muslim columnist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is one of the few writers to have come to Myerson’s defense. She wrote in the Independent : ”Myerson’s crime is that she is unflinchingly honest.” She added: “I would say that wouldn’t I? I frequently use personal experience in columns and books and even in a one-woman show.”
Alibhai-Brown says that when she wrote her short 1995 autobiography “No Place Like Home”, about growing up as an Asian in East Africa up to the time of Idi Amin, half her family cut her off, “one because I said she had ‘generous hips’ – which she did.” She is apprehensive about possible reactions to her latest book “The Settler’s Cookbook”, a food memoir which is not always flattering about Asians in East Africa and about members of her family.
Alibhai-Brown explains that she writes about her personal experiences “partly out of a passionate opposition to cultural protectionism. Asians are brought up never to expose what goes on behind the closed doors of homes, the secure gates around communities, cultures and faiths.”
In the Arab world too there has been a reluctance to publish revelations that are considered shameful. But this is changing. Speaking as a panelist in a seminar on contemporary Arab memoir during the 2008 London Book Fair, the Egyptian economics professor and writer Galal Amin said he is very fond of George Orwell’s dictum that “an autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.” His autobiography “What Life Has Taught Me” created a stir when it was published in 2007.
Galal is son of the renowned intellectual Ahmad Amin who died in 1954. In his autobiography Galal was unusually frank about his parents and their marriage. For example, he wrote that his mother had fallen in love with her cousin at the age of 17, and although her uncle had refused the marriage she had remained in love with him. Some family members were upset about such disclosures.
Another panelist was Jean Said Makdisi, sister of the late Palestinian scholar and activist Professor Edward Said. She is author of two volumes of memoir: “Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir” and “Teta, Mother and Me: Three Generations of Arab Women”.
Makdisi pointed to the growing number of memoirs by Arab authors written in English. They include Edward Said’s “Out of Place”, Leila Ahmed’s “A Border Passage”, Suad Amiry’s “Sharon and my Mother- in-Law: Ramallah Diaries”, Mai Ghoussoub’s “Leaving Beirut”, Ghada Karmi’s “In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story”, Serene Husseini Shahid’s “Jerusalem Memories” and Raja Shehadeh’s “Strangers in the House”, “When the Bulbul Stopped Singing” and “Palestinian Walks: Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape”.
Makdisi said: “Writing in English means imposing on the world the Arab story, the Arab view of things, which is not necessarily the view the world is keen to hear.” The central theme that unites these memoirs is “war, occupation, revolution, displacement, loss, dispossession.” The perpetual political crises in the Arab world have for long been “the bedrock on which everyone’s life is constructed or destroyed”.
As well as depicting the political upheavals their authors have lived through, such memoirs often candidly depict family relationships. For example Edward Said conveys movingly his troubled relationship with his father, and Ghada Karmi describes the difficulties her depressed mother had in adjusting to London after the family settled there as refugees from Jerusalem.
In both West and East, the trend is for memoirs to be ever more open over personal matters. This trend is accelerated by the spread of new technology, such as blogs and social networking sites, which encourage self disclosure. But it seems unlikely that many memoirists will for the moment follow Julie Myerson in lifting the lid on their traumas with their children.
Saudi Gazette 16 March 2009
17 March 2009: The first reviews of The Lost Child have started rolling in, and are on the whole extremely favourable. In the Guardian Mark Lawson describes it as "honest, affecting and noble". For the Guardian's Sunday sister the Observer Kate Kellaway says that writing the book was "in the most complicated sense a maternal act". At the Telegraph, Jane Shilling maintains that, "despite the flaws of structure noted above, it is not journalism, but a serious, writerly, self-critical account of what it means to feel that, despite love and hope and good intentions, you have failed as a parent, and that the child you bore (while still eerily, painfully familiar) is lost to you."