Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Forgive me a little bout of déjà vu. The thriving market in "misery memoirs", with its monstrous mums, uncaring siblings and plucky, tormented survivors, has run into a rather rocky patch. Barrister and Crown Court recorder Constance Briscoe faces a libel suit from her own mother, Carmen, whose lawyers dispute the accounts of childhood violence in the bestselling Ugly. Over the Irish Sea, Kathy O'Beirne's self-reported history of victimisation both at home and in Dublin's Magdalene laundries (in Don't Ever Tell) has spawned both a concerted denial from her family and a spirited fightback from the author.

A couple of years ago, I tried to unpick the thickets of claim and counter-claim around Dave Pelzer's weirdly toneless books about his years of maltreatment in the family from hell. One Pelzer brother stated that he never received so much as a slap; another that what lucky Dave underwent was bliss compared to the tortures he endured. Monty Python's competitively abject Four Yorkshiremen did spring to mind. You might cry; or you might, guiltily, begin to laugh. As I did when I heard some of the objections lobbed at Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes by aggrieved sons of Limerick. If his clan were so cripplingly poor, one asked, how come shoeless Frank had joined the second poshest scout group in town?

These tales of trauma have less to do with healing souls than selling books. Yet children do suffer, in secret and in silence, and we sometimes need a plausible narrative of what happened to them. The problem is that, in an adversarial culture, single-viewpoint yarns of pain and blame always serve specific emotional, commercial and, indeed, legal ends. No one ever won a case or topped the charts by seeing all sides to the story.

Long ago, in another journalistic galaxy, I had to comment on the wave of gruesome accusations levelled against relatives during the great panic over physical and sexual cruelty in families that marked the dying days of the Thatcher era. The fuming ranks of "experts" seemed split between those who detected Satanic male beasts at every suburban hearth, and others who thought Britain in the grip of a family-breaking witchhunt led by dogma-crazed social workers. Needless to say, close attention to any case disproved both kinds of fantasy. Many of these children had clearly suffered greatly. However, mapping the exact chain of events - or the cloud of mingled causes - behind this hurt would have taxed the wisdom of a bench of Solomons. A gifted novelist, I often thought, might have reached a rounder truth.

Again and again, I was struck by the extreme disparities in memory and judgement between members of the same family. One child's happy home could be another's chamber of horrors, and secrets. Another lesson was that these grim tales from the courts and inquiry-rooms purveyed a flesh-creeping pornography of pain. The parade of abusive demons - depraved dads (or stepdads) and mad mothers for one part of the audience, state-salaried home-wreckers for another - gratified readers while leaving their core beliefs largely intact. Prurient curiosity came wrapped in righteous robes of outrage and compassion.

These questions seldom bother publishers. When it comes to the exploitation of trauma and distress, they are hopeless recidivists (yes, just like the press, cinema and television). In recent weeks, they have been sniffing around the story of Natascha Kampusch, free after eight years of Viennese captivity. "Completely fascinating, extraordinary," croaked one literary ghoul; "the biggest misery memoir there's going to be," drooled another. Her PR agent said that "From a purely capitalist point of view, this woman is a goldmine." Thank you, Dietmar Ecker. You want to stop this? Don't buy these bleeding books.

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