The Lost Child

Recently there has been uproar in the media concerning a book, The Lost Child, written by Julie Myerson about her teenage son and his problem with drugs. Myerson is a relatively well-known novelist and journalist with a healthy literary reputation, but this publication has certainly been one to bring damnation on her head. Those stringently opposed to her say she was unethical in telling the story of her son’s addiction to skunk, a new form of cannabis that users claim is harmless, although doctors are suggesting that it can damage teenage brains beyond repair. Myerson describes her son as veering out of control, refusing to go to school, stealing money from them, offering his younger brother drugs (which he later denies doing), making a young girl pregnant and refusing any interest in the matter (the Myersons pay for her abortion) and, in one brutal struggle for the keys to the house, hitting his mother so hard that she suffers a perforated eardrum. Eventually his parents lock him out of the house, partly in an attempt to provide some domestic peace for their two younger children, partly because they have been advised that ‘tough love’ is the best policy. Only when drug abusers hit rock bottom will they admit they have a problem and finally seek help. Despite all that has happened so far, this is not a point that Myerson’s son has reached. It is a heart-breaking story, one that sends a shiver down the spine of any mother, and Myerson’s account is not sensationalized – the events are sufficiently alarming to need no further embellishment – more, it’s an account of Myerson’s emotions as she loses her son inexorably to the fallout of drug abuse.

Reading the book, I didn’t feel it was  so contentious. But in the publicity that boiled around it pre-publication, when it was just the thought of a book, Myerson came in for some stringent criticism. No mother should shop her child in public, is the general line of thinking. She has used his story for her own financial gain, a story to which she had no right in the first place; she has exploited her child. I had considered quoting here some of the vitriolic statements made on the Guardian website, but to be honest, I didn’t want them dirtying my page. I’m sure you can imagine how delightfully people express themselves, as usual, on moral matters about which they know nothing. One person, for instance, suggested that what Julie Myerson really needed was a joint. How people think they can criticize the behaviour of others when their own leaves so much to be desired is a mystery to me. Anyhow, that kind of scary pack response inclined me towards Myerson’s side. Given that the misery memoir is a stable genre these days, how come it’s okay for children to attack their parents in print, but not okay for parents to describe their distress at the things their children do? I read an article that said children could publish tales of parental neglect because it was turning the tables of power – having been powerless to protest at the time, it was only right that adulthood should hand them at least the weapon of the pen. Parents, by contrast, are already in control, so it’s a kind of double whammy for them to wash their children’s dirty laundry in print. Well, I didn’t know what to think, so I decided to consult the oracle and went to find my son.

‘How would you feel if I wrote about you?’ I asked him. ‘Would you be upset?”

He shrugged. ‘You do it all the time already. On your blog.’

‘Yes, but then I’m usually writing about something funny that you’ve said or done, and you’re almost always there when I’m doing it. What if I wrote about something you’d done that you were ashamed of?’

And it occurred to me that for all Myerson’s son’s protests, he must in his heart be aware that his behaviour had been bad, and that he was not as okay with all that he had done as he has declared himself to be in the press.
‘Well, how many people would read this book?’ my son asked. ‘Would it be a bestseller?’

I’d almost finished reading it by that point. ‘Funnily enough, I don’t think it would have been a bestseller, if there hadn’t been so much publicity around it, and ironically it was the son who started it. He’s appeared in the press under his own name, with big photos of himself saying things like “You’re the addict, Mum”, and “What my mother did was obscene”. His mother doesn’t actually mention his name in her book, so he could have stayed anonymous if he wanted.’

‘Ye-es,’ said my son, thoughtfully. ‘If you did write about me then I expect I’d be annoyed, and I might have a bit of a rant. But we’d keep it private.’

That is the crux of the issue, I think, this confusion around the public and the private, about what you can say and who has permission to say it. I knew then for certain that I would not be able to write about my son this way for fear of upsetting him. But I do think that, in our culture, mothers are allowed to say very little that is negative – the ideal image has them as the fount of goodness and nurture, and woe betide them if they step outside of that role. It struck me that you would only write such a book if all hope of a relationship had broken down. Or, and then I could see why Julie Myerson would do it, as a last-ditch, crazy attempt to win someone’s attention. It felt so much to me like a book written for her son, to her son, not against him, in the desperate hope that he would see himself the way she did, as flirting dangerously with disaster. It felt like a wail of maternal anguish as she was watching him throw his life away. Now, people might disagree with what she thinks – they might see it as ordinary horrible teenage behaviour, or as exercising the right to be an individual away from a family. But no one will lose a sense of proportion more readily, or more alarmingly for independent witnesses, than a mother watching her child doing something she deems to be dangerous. It may not be pretty, but it’s human nature.

Now I should mention, at this late stage, that the book is not all about Myerson’s son. At least one half, if not a little more, is the story of Mary Yelloly, an eighteenth century woman whose drawings captivate Myerson when she comes across them by chance When she finds out that Mary died of consumption at the age of twenty-one, she starts to research the family and discovers that only three of the nine siblings survived the curse of tuberculosis. Myerson was conducting her research into the Yelloly family while her own was in meltdown, and it became impossible for her to tell the one story without also telling the other. Technically, I think the idea of intertwining the two stories is an excellent one, but for me, this part of the narrative was so thin and insubstantial compared to the emotionally-charged account of her son (and the equally gripping memories Myerson recalls from her own troubled childhood) that I found myself skipping it.

The problem is that Myerson simply does not find out enough about the family for them to become truly interesting. Instead she drags out every encounter with every surviving family member she comes across, describes every trinket she finds, every fruitless quest she undertakes. Intellectually, I wasn’t convinced by the marriage of stories, either. Myerson’s line seems to be that there are many ways to lose a child, those ways simply change over time. But I felt it was a great pity she hadn’t been researching a vexed or suffering mother – the parallels would have played out to much greater effect. Instead both the stories of her son and of Mary Yelloly are ultimately linked by being written in the white-hot center of experience, the place of not knowing, not understanding. They are both sentimentally written, evoking the past as nostalgia, focusing in on the fragment, the memory, reveling in its existence but bewildered as to what it might mean, what it might imply. This is a particular style and many people would enjoy it – for my own part, I felt that it was a premature book. It would have been better for me if Myerson had written it having put together a more coherent portrait of the Yelloly family, and having passed beyond the exquisitely painful rupture with her son. There would, I think, have been more, and more of interest, to say. But I do think, for all its detractors, that there are many mothers out there, going through the same thing, who will be relieved and comforted that Myerson wrote this and who will find in it a bond of solidarity on a family experience that is widespread, but oddly taboo. The uproar over its publication has shown that, even if it has had little else of value to say.

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19 thoughts on “The Lost Child

  1. I’ve got some mixed emotions about this. On the one hand, I’m not sure I would discount humiliating my child in such a public forum if I thought it was the best chance – maybe the only one – to “save” him from himself. On the other hand, why add humiliation to the equation if there is little hope it will work? (Which was apparently the case with Ms. Myerson’s son.) While I don’t believe it’s good to hide all the dirty laundry all the time, I do believe in wash day. Keeping family problems within the family does not mean one is ignoring them. Finding private solutions to private problems would be my choice. I’ll have to come down on the side of not publishing a child’s (or parent’s for that matter) deeply personal and agonizing demons. Having said that, I can’t imagine what it would be like to walk in Ms. Myerson’s shoes…nor would I want to.

  2. I also have to wonder, not having read the book, why people are so quick to call it “his story.” She is not some journalist who only learned of it later, she interacted with him the whole time. She’s telling her story too. Frankly, it’s hard to see a real qualitative difference between this and any other memoir where one of the characters thinks he’s been portrayed unfairly or unflatteringly–exes, in-laws, embezzling accountants…etc. It seems the outrage must be specifically dependent on the idea that the mother/child relationship is sacrosanct in a way that others are not–but that the child/mother one, even, is a bit different. I think that’s probably pretty unfair in terms of real-world relationships.

  3. Fascinating review on several levels: literarily, morally. We live in a culture of preoccupation with airing intense personal feelings in the media: as you say, the genre of misery. It’s okay on Dr. Phil; it’s okay on reality tv. So as long as someone else is making money off the backs of the suffering, it’s fine? Do I smell hypocrisy?

  4. Bluestocking – I do agree that this must be happening to a LOT of families. I’ve read elsewhere that for a journalist, Myerson was a bit naive about the whole circus that would (inevitably) start once she publicised the book. This might well be, but my contempt is certainly for the media, who are relishing making the whole thing much worse.

    Grad – oh how interested I would be to know what you thought of this book after reading it! It didn’t feel to me like Myerson in any way set out to humiliate her son. Her account read to me the same as a mother whose child had been through a terrible illness, for instance, or been taken over by a cult. I wonder how you would feel about a mother who wrote about those kind of experiences? And the son has been very vocal in the press. But I’m not going to come down on the opposite side to you, because I think the whole situation is so complicated. I’m only sorry that there hasn’t been a sensible, intelligent discussion of what’s happened in the press, and instead the usual vilification and sensationalising has obscured anything we might all have learned from it.

    Nicole – you’ve really put your finger on something there. What you say about it being difficult to differentiate between this and any memoir that discusses an unpleasant situation between people who were close and loving is exactly how I felt. Should we ringfence the mother-child relationship? Should we say it’s okay for children to write corruscatingly about their parents and not for parents to write about their grown children? The one thing we know for sure about experience is that everyone involved in it will disagree about what happened – by definition. And if the experience in question is one of conflict, then inevitably it will be ten times worse. Does that mean that we should never write about family conflict, or are there ways to do it that we haven’t discovered yet?

    Lilian – now I couldn’t agree with you more. To my mind, the people who should be ashamed of themselves are the media who have whipped this incident into a huge conflict. They are currently making the situation between parents and child much, much worse, and there is no sense that they are in any way to blame. ‘Look how this family is destroying itself!’ they all say with glee, whilst paying hand over fist to get out another article out to raise the emotional temperature further still. There is a discussion to have about this – but it isn’t happening at the moment.

  5. You have certainly written an interesting post about this thanks. I’ve heard a little bit about this book and the controversy around it. I don’t know enough to pass judgement on anyone involved. And to be frank, I don’t trust memoirs anymore, not after A Million Little Pieces. But to be honest I do think there is something sacred about the mother child relationship. To write a book like this, even if you think it’s going to help which I have a big problem with, seems like crossing a line to me. I’m not crazy about children who write similar books about their parents either. I think there are private things that should be kept private in all families. I’d have a hard time speaking to any of my family members should they make one of those things public in a memoir.

    Isn’t that what novels are for?

  6. Nicole’s comment really resonates. I also think writing is, for writers, the most obvious channel for their pain. It’s hard to imagine her not wanting to write about this, not needing to write it, and then not wanting and needing to offer it to a readership. It’s how she interacts with and makes sense of the world, so it seems a pretty natural thing for her to do. Reading your post, Litlove, I also couldn’t help think of all those despairing parents out there going through this wrenching, devastating situation the world over, and how they might fall on this and clutch it as a lifeline, for it is healing to know one is not alone.

  7. How interesting that this book has caused such controversy. Nicole took the words right out of my mouth, the story is not just the son’s story, it is Myerson’s as well. I can interpret the son’s complaints in the press in a number of different ways depending on whether or not he is still an addict or is now sober and in recovery. I can see how Myerson could have written the book as a last ditch effort to get through to her son and I can’t blame her for that or for making it so public. My husband is a recovering addict and he has told me many stories. The pain and suffering on both sides of the equation is heartwrenching. I hope that Myerson’s book brings comfort to other families in knowing they are not alone and I hope that it helps Myseron find some measure of peace for herself. And I hope that her son comes to understand sometime how much his mother loves him.

  8. Yet again, reason to stay away from the media and decide which books to read based on book bloggers’ responses to them. My guess is that those who were most opinionated about the book and most judgmental about Myerson hadn’t read much of the book, if any of it. With a blog, you know the person has read the book (or at least made a full-hearted attempt to do so). Having not read it myself, I do not think it is an invasion of a child’s privacy to write about the difficulties of being a mother, especially a mother in such an extremely difficult situation. I find it interesting, because as a society, we tend to hide that sort of thing, don’t want to hear it. But in fact, if society would allow this thing more often, maybe we could start coming to grips with the reality that mothers are human. Children are human. There should not be some superhuman relationship/bond imposed on them. Would people be as outraged if Myerson had been writing about a brother/neighbor/co-worker? People are outraged because we put expectations on mothers not only to love their children but to deny/hide all their own feelings for the sake of them. Maybe if we had more books/movies/TV shows like this that show parents’ real struggles, we’d start having more respect for parents, start realizing that parenting, even if the most rewarding, as it most often is, is the most difficult job we give ourselves to do, start saying “It’s okay to feel this way. It doesn’t mean you don’t love your child.” Maybe we’d stop blaming parents for everything, oh, and yes, thinking that it just might be an invasion of THEIR privacy, too, to write tell-all books without once giving a reader the chance to hear their sides of the tales.

  9. The most damning thing about the whole situation, I think, is what you say about the book being premature. I suppose I’m inclined to judge the situation in aesthetic terms and leave the private controversy to the author and her son. I don’t think I would criticize someone for telling their story, no matter who they were — I tend to think that’s their decision, and if they want to write the book, they can deal with the consequences. I think all we really need to be concerned about is whether it’s a good book or not — and it’s too bad it doesn’t quite work, as it does sound like it could be really interesting!

  10. CB James – I’m very intrigued by your distinction between fiction and memoir here. Do you think it would have been okay for Myerson to write the same story and call it fiction? I’ve just been reading a biography of the Mitford sisters and hearing how Nancy fell out spectacularly with her sisters after portraying them satirically in her novels. I also know someone who broke off a long and deep friendship after finding herself a character in a novel and considering it a terrible betrayal. The one thing about memoir is that when the characters are still alive, it does encourage most authors to be honest, accurate and kind. I have every sympathy for those readers who were upset by the James Frey debacle, but I wouldn’t think it particularly just to condemn all the other memoirists, past and present, on that basis.

    Doctordi – I do know what you mean. I do understand that need to figure things out by writing about them. I might have written it out, put it down in a drawer and used it in five or ten years’ time to create a more rounded book (you can tell I’ve been thinking about this a lot!). But undoubtedly there must be lots of suffering parents out there who would feel solidarity here. I’m uncomfortable with thinking that their point of view is only ever to be censored.

    Stefanie – one of the best comments I read on one of the newspaper sites, was at the end of the article interviewing the son. A man had written ‘I used to be an idiot like him. Don’t worry, he’ll grow up.’ It is awkward how it has come out in public and been subject to such vilification (and the media have been extremely irresponsible, if you ask me). But I do feel sorry for everyone involved, and can see how all sides of the conflict have good, brave intentions, as well as more dodgy ones. How interesting to hear about your husband (if I may express it that way). That must be an extraordinary story he has to tell, although I can well imagine it is a heartbreaking one.

    Emily – your comment is very close to my heart here. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Julie Myerson’s conduct, I feel deeply uncomfortable at the thought that we should automatically censor her voice. And whatever parenting mistakes she’s made, the real debate is in deepening the understanding between parents and their children, not insisting that mothers remain silent saints and martyrs. It may well be that the way she has done things is far from ideal – so isn’t the best way forward to understand what that ideal might be? How we might talk about these things with compassion and regard for all sides of the debate? I do so agree with you that cultural recognition for the incredibly difficult job of parenting would have valuable repercussions for just about everyone.

    Dorothy – I also agree very much with you! I heard about the fuss first, and then when I read it, I found myself forgetting all about the hoo-hah and just concentrating on the shortcomings of the book itself. I would have welcomed more information about the drug involved, and about other teenage boys’ experience, or about how other parents have coped (or not). I felt there were so many opportunities passed up in favour of an emotionally-heavy narrative of incomprehensible experience.

  11. I’m curious about the gender issue here. Beautiful Boy, the recent memoir David Sheff wrote about his son’s addiction to meth, has been a big seller, hugely praised as courageous and loving. So why is it so awful for a mother to write the same story? Should mothers be uncritical? Is it charming and endearing for fathers to express their embattled love for their children, while mothers’ love should be blindly unconditional? With Sheff’s recent example, I just wonder what’s going on.

  12. Jenny – Now that’s extremely interesting. I didn’t know about the Sheff memoir, and yet it makes compelling sense. Something tells me that if it had been Myerson’s husband who had written the book, there would have been a whole lot less fuss. I think that when we look at a mother, less than half of us look at her from a similar position, whilst every single person knows how it feels to be the child. Children’s expectations of their mothers are huge (after all, survival depends on them), but are they reasonable? And isn’t it time that fathers came in for some of those expectations, too?

  13. How interesting. I had heard about this, but not all the details. So often it seems like the stir the press creates overtakes what the book’s actually about, and that takes on a life of its own. I suspect people were criticizing the whole situation (mother especially?)without even having read the book. It’s so typical of the press these days, stir up the pot and then stand back and just watch it boil over. Of course we’re such a voyeuristic society, people love it, and you know how Everyone has an opinion.

  14. Thanks again for hosting this very interesting debate here. I may even get around to reading the book as a result. David Sheff’s book not getting this sort of press does raise a compelling point. I think I’d have to read both in order to pass judgement. I do think that how the issue is treated, the level of privacy that is exposed, etc. matters, not just the fact that one is written by the mother, the other by the father.

    As for the distinction between memoir and fiction….I think the label matters. If my mother wrote a novel based on my life, I could choose to dismiss it as fiction; I could say that things portrayed in it are a little bit like me; I could say that Mom changed some things here and there to help make the novel work. If she writes a memoir about me, then I have to admit that it’s true or publically call Mom a liar. In both cases, the authors cannot be surprised if the people they write about become upset with them. I think you should be free to write about whatever you want to. But you are also responsible for what you say.

  15. I wonder if perhaps the reason there’s a lot of controversy surrounding “The Lost Child” is partly because the story is so fresh for the family. This is not something that happened many decades ago, but rather a few years ago. I’m sure some do sincerely feel that this is a violation on Myerson’s son’s behalf. It does seem a bit like exploitation when the subject is still raw. Perhaps even stupid and irresponsible. It’s obviously Myerson’s right to write about whatever she chooses, but it’s a bit foolish on her part. In that sense, I agree with previous comments. Very interesting points on the matter.

  16. sadly, the misery memoir is not a stable genre and publishers won’t buy mine because people want upbeat… but, i did take great care to shield someone so that she is the only one who can possibly out her as the person in the book.

  17. Now, since I haven’t read it I feel slightly unqualified to make this next statement, but I’m going to anyway, since it’s actually more of a question – I wonder whether we get upset about stories like this because we can’t shake the idea that when a family breaks down the parents are ultimately at fault. I think this must be one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with a situation like Myerson describes…when does a parent let go and say – okay, I couldn’t have done anything to stop this – and maybe outsiders are uncomfortable letting Myerson be the judge of that. I can also see why others might be critical of her writing something so quickly after the events, but at the same time, writers deal with trauma through writing – I suspect she HAD to write the story, I suspect it wasn’t much of a choice.

  18. Pingback: Best Book Club Books 2 « Tales from the Reading Room

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