Rosemary Furber: Some mother's son

Julie Myerson threw her son out of the house. Our writer, who was thrown out too but later saw her own child walk away, asks if tough love works
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The Independent Online

The Myerson family has brought us a horrifying new form of entertainment in the past week, like a middle-class version of The Royle Family. They've reminded us that adolescence is when a child reckons it's time his parents knew the facts of life and the parents, who've hoped that their child will turn out like them, sometimes have to face some unpalatable truths.

In the interests of helping the family to bury the hatchet between each other's shoulder blades, one newspaper yesterday carried an extract from Julie's book The Lost Child, in which she writes about how she and her partner evicted their 17-year-old son Jake from the family home because of his use of skunk. (Publication has been brought forward to 20 March to cash in on the wave of publicity.) Jake, now 20, was reported yesterday as saying: "I realised I can't really deal with her destructive influence any more, so I shut her out. I really didn't want to have anything more to do with her, but not in an angry way." That sounds like a very hurt young man to me.

I can see both sides of this. I'll never forget the day my teenage daughter left home. An accumulation of problems (I've agreed not to be specific) had led to a Big Talk during which I could see my words floating straight over the top of her head. I felt like Badger in The Wind in the Willows dressing down the recalcitrant Toad. Next morning she stomped away down the road with a bag on wheels behind her. Her shoulders swung as if she was whistling The Great Escape but I can't be sure. Her father cracked first, sending little emails asking where she was (sleeping on a friend's floor) and how she was ("Good"). I texted too that I was putting on the roast spuds for Sunday lunch and she'd be welcome back any time, no questions asked. Ten days later we swapped apologies and hugs and, to relief all round, she was back in her own bed.

I hadn't meant my ultimatum to make her feel banished, but that's how she took it and I was in turmoil. Teenagers are indeed God's punishment for having sex but I had vowed that I'd never abandon my own children, no matter what, because of what had happened to me.

I was 24 at the time, quite a lot older than Jake Myerson, and I'd run away from a marriage that was nasty, brutish and short. I found myself having to answer to my parents for my behaviour. Nobody asked me how I felt or why, or where I was hoping to live. Instead they took me to the hotel they had chosen for my wedding reception and showed me the bills. I didn't dare tell them the full extent of his cruelty and, as I remember it, I couldn't get a word in anyway. They made it clear I had to go back to him straightaway.

I went back to London but not to the husband (a decision I have never regretted), and for two months, my mother subjected me to nightly harangues on the phone before she announced that I was no daughter of hers and broke off contact. I can't tell you what a relief that was. No more ghastly confrontations, and no more belittling comments as if I were a 12-year-old caught stealing sweets. But we humans are programmed to love our parents. We forgive them almost anything, and after 14 months we were talking again, though never about anything important.

Six years later, she was dying of cancer and I sat at her bedside. I was happily remarried with a new baby in my arms and she took the time, that last evening of her life, to tell me that she still did not forgive me for walking out on my first marriage.

The sense of abandonment never leaves you. You shrug it off, as I expect Jake Myerson is shrugging things off, and you learn to live without parents. You even take a pride in it. You watch other people slagging off their parents with bemusement and a shred of pity, and a shutter falls into place about your own needs. I know my mother thought her "tough love" was the right thing to do, but I believe that reconciliation is paramount and however much the younger people might be in the wrong, we can't expect them to make the first move.

It's up to us parents to close the gap, unambiguously and in humility, because even if it's only this once, our child might just be right.

Or so I thought until I spoke to Anne, a single mother of two boys who was working six days a week when her younger son, at 14, started being a physical threat. "He'd lost his key," she said. "He pinned me to the wall and said, 'Give me the fucking key, bitch!'" He'd developed an obsessive interest in violent computer games and had just done a 12-hour stint when Anne gave him a 15-minute warning: "I said, I'm going to come in and unplug that thing. He took no notice and I was reaching down to unplug it when he came at me. I cracked a rib falling against his wooden bed end. He showed no emotion, remorse, nothing."

At times Anne barely dared go home. "I'd be trembling as I approached the house." One night Anne locked him out. "He got on top of a wheelie bin and started banging on my window. He was so aggressive he put a broom handle through one of the panes, and I called the police."

As if she's still relieved by their support, she added, "The police took it very seriously. They searched his room and found a bong and no dope but they arrested him and made him turn up at court the next morning." Their advice about her son's skunk addiction was icy and clear: "It can't go on. The minute he's 16, you have to chuck him out. He thought I wouldn't, because of what people would think of me. He was really shocked when I did change the locks and kept to it."

Like Jake Myerson, Anne's son moved in with a friend's family and has never been back home. He and Anne have not exchanged a word for almost five years. Some family members are in touch with him and keep her abreast of his news, and her elder son has shown Anne Facebook pictures so that she can see for herself that he's at university, has a girlfriend and looks well. Anne is proud of what he's achieved and hopes that some day they will come together again. I hope the Myersons will find a way through their troubles too.

But Julie Myerson has upped the stakes. She herself mentioned Jake by name in the interview about her memoir that started this kerfuffle. Memoir goes back at least as far as Caesar's Gallic Wars and the present wave probably began in 1993 with Blake Morrison's poetic record of his father's death, And When Did You Last See Your Father?. Blake referred obliquely to a relationship his father had with another woman and changed her name, but nobody was fooled. Luckily for Blake, the woman and Blake's mother took it quietly, and ended up friends.

Jake Myerson might identify more with Christopher Robin Milne who let it be known that his father's winsome poems and stories made his life a misery. Apparently "Vespers" was especially grim to live with. It took three volumes of autobiography before his anger was off his chest, and the "silly old bear" was never quite the same again.

Jake might well write his side of it one day. His mother values his poems enough for some of them to appear in The Lost Child, but there in the title of this controversial book may be the heart of the problem. A 20-year-old who has been making his way alone for more than two years is many things but he is not a child. Publishers are probably offering him memoir deals already, but I sincerely hope that he and his mother manage to get together again before that. And that whatever he says, I hope that Julie will listen and digest it, and will trust him to be truthful. It's more than my mother did.