The Misery Memoir

It’s amazing to think that writing about troubled childhoods has become a genre in itself over the past fifteen years or so. My friend, Kathryn, was in her local branch of W H Smiths when she saw a whole section of books categorized as ‘misery memoirs’. I can understand wanting to write about a ruined childhood, to trace the journey from premature devastation to something solid, valuable, real. But many of these memoirs remain mired in trauma, it seems to me now, as I’ve been turning my attention to them and starting to think about what they mean. And I wonder what provokes the urge to read about children locked in cupboards for petty misdemeanors, beaten and starved or psychologically tormented. What’s that all about? When I began looking at these books, I’d initially picked out Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood and Andrea Ashworth’s Once in a House on Fire to read, the former describing a loveless childhood in a religious household, the latter a violent upbringing at the hands of a drunken stepfather. But every time I picked them up, some instinct within me recoiled a little, unwilling to venture into this ugly territory. I’ll have to do it at some point, and both books have won awards and are considered modern classics in their way. But if the misery memoir remains a popular genre, it also seems that critical opinion has moved on in the past few years, and as I checked out the more recent publications, it was the books that promised humour and a little compassion for all concerned that were winning the critical accolades. At the very end of this route lay the first memoir that I finally did read, Mother Country, by Jeremy Harding, which tells the story of the author’s search for his natural parents.

Jeremy Harding, an acclaimed journalist and translator, knew he was an adopted child from the age of about five onwards, but waited until his father was dead and his mother too ill with dementia to be anguished by his actions to start looking for his birth mother. All he had was a birth certificate with her name and the address she was inhabiting at that time on it, no mention of a father, and a fairy tale that his adopted mother had spun him that changed and grew more elaborate over subsequent retellings. The story of his roots was one that had a lot to do with class, that great British disease that was rampant in 50s when Harding was a child. Colin and Maureen, Harding’s adopted parents, were relatively well off, even if they chose to live (or at least Colin chose to) on the edge of a river that flooded for part of every year in various family houses that had none of the modern conveniences we take for granted nowadays. For a while Colin had earned a decent income at cards, until he had found a job with the Stock Exchange. Maureen did not work (until much later in life when she briefly and joyously ran a florists), was not altogether happy with life, drank too much and lived in a faintly hallucinatory world of her own creation. Maureen had two children from a previous marriage to a man who was seriously rich, and whom she had left for Colin. When Colin wanted a child of his own, they found a poor, young shop girl who had got herself ‘into trouble’ and arranged to take the child from her with the usual promises of being able to give him a better life than the one he was otherwise destined for. They then faked a pregnancy for Maureen and passed the baby off as their blood kin. But Harding always knew that he had been rescued from a different kind of life, even if he wasn’t altogether sure what that life was, and in his early years at least he was fond of his new parents, happy and secure in his context and unscarred by his sudden transition up the rungs of the ladder of class.

One of the most satisfying aspects of this memoir is the portrait that gradually emerges of Harding’s adopted parents. One of the most enigmatic elements of it is the reader’s gradual recognition that he quietly despises them. Quite what caused the breakdown in their relationship remains a mystery; it’s a story Harding never tells, and its absence leaves a gaping hole in the narrative. Into this vortex is sunk the reasons why he is so emotionally engaged in the quest for his natural mother. Oh he gives the usual statements about curiosity and wanting to know for his own children’s sake, but there’s a hefty big reason lurking in the margins of his storytelling that I, for one, ached to know about and remained unsatisfied. He was sent to boarding school at a very young age, and that may be part of it. And he reserves his greatest dislike for his father, Colin, who seems to be class conscious to the point of psychosis. Researching his roots he learns to his surprise that his adopted mother, Maureen, came from exactly the same kind of poor background as his real mother, only her astounding rags-to-riches first marriage (which included elocution lessons) fast-tracked her into a wholly different milieu. Colin was not the same class as her first husband, and therefore probably more tender about it; he refused to let Maureen keep up with her old friends, eventually pulled the plug on her beloved florist’s shop because a working wife was not de rigueur for a man of his standing, and generally erected barricades about their family that made them prisoners of their own sense of themselves. He does not emerge well from this record. Maureen is drawn with more sweetness, her love of musical songs, her fantasizing, her easy sociability with people from all walks of life remain endearing qualities, even if they crumbled about the edges into delirium, unreliability and moral weakness. Reading between the lines, Harding’s quest for his natural mother was as much about putting distance between himself and his adopted background as it was about finding something primitive and authentic.

Harding is a good writer who tells his story well, but where he excels is in giving brief but evocative sketches of people. I particularly loved the description of his grandmother (Colin’s mother) as ‘open and apparently carefree, but she liked a dispute and loved a lawyer.’ Her lengthy letters to her solicitors ended in a line of script that curled around the margins of the entire page, and she was famous for taming moor hens and bringing them into the house, which was considered most eccentric: ‘Dressed in a shabby, last-minute way, seldom without a hairnet to complete the effect, she was nevertheless oddly elegant, and gave the impression that at some point in the early morning, making haste and running riot had been the only options, there were the birds to attend to, there was the garden and at length, the solicitor.’ I found myself a little frustrated, however, with his lengthy descriptions of the process of uncovering genealogical data. It’s as if, eschewing the personal journey he is on as too momentous and too complex to describe, every other real life journey has to be accounted for in the narrative; from the various record offices he haunts to the trips around London that he makes. These are all described in what I have always considered to be masculine style (which does not foreclose it as an option to women) in which he describes precisely where he finds his files, and where he puts his car, rather than attending to the larger picture of landmarks and impressions; the result is sometimes resistant to visualization in the mind of the reader, despite, or maybe because of, the precision of the detail itself. But in the way he organizes his hunt into a kind of detective-style inquiry he produces a gripping narrative whose ending I will not spoil.

But in this fable of class and blood kinship, I emerged with a sense of nurture being far stronger than nature. As an educated, highly literate family man, Harding is far more a product of his adoptive parent’s upbringing and his own free will than the DNA of the mother who gave birth to him. For all he may push Maureen and Colin to one side in his desire for something different, something other than the flaws and the foibles he perceives in them, there are undoubtedly echoes of their imagination, their resilience, their almost romantic territorial possessiveness about him. His trajectory through childhood and into maturity is no different with adopted parents than it would have been with blood ones, and education makes the greatest impact on his expectations and his lifestyle. That’s not to say that being adopted doesn’t have significant consequences on his perception of himself, but as ever, for Harding as for all of us, the important parts of life were taking place in the dimensions where he simply wasn’t looking.

18 thoughts on “The Misery Memoir

  1. I too find it interesting how this type of book has become so popular lately. I hear about new ones being published all the time. The only book that I’ve read that I think would fall into this category is The Glass Castle, which I had mixed feelings about. I haven’t actually ever seen a section devoted to ‘misery memoirs’ in the bookstore, yet. There’s something a little depressing about that.

  2. I finally got around to reading the classic example of the misery memoir, Dave Pelzer’s A CHILD CALLED IT, and was entirely put off. It was so terribly badly written that I could barely finish the story, and I will not be reading more in the series. I am honestly not sure why his books are so popular. As to the genre in general (and it really does appear to have become a genre of its own)the appeal probably lies in the “good child triumphs over evil adults” theme, I only wish publishers/editors spent more time selecting well written ones!

  3. Why people want to write these books is no doubt a complex thing, but the consumption of them seems in line with reality tv, the coverage of the famous and celebrity types in the tabloid and not so tabloid press and the ever increasing appetite for some kind of extreme exposure. On another track it ties in with the increasing length of modern biography. It is all a promise of something which cannot be delivered. Perhaps it is the uncertainty and fluidity of high speed modern life which is driving this desire to have something so detailed and definite to find meaning or models in. Clearly to have something to related to for many people who have faced and are facing traumas of various kinds is no doubt a good thing, but it seems to have gone beyond that in recent years.

  4. I do find it interesting to read the stories of other’s live, if they are well written not sensationalized. However, I do find it tiresome the way the publishing industry has jumped on the bandwagon of reality televsion, glorifying outlandish portrayals of “real people.”

    This book does sound a step above some of the other “misery memoirs” (that’s a new term for me, and very apt!), and I would definitely be inclined to read it.

  5. When I was interviewing candidate for places on our English degree and got round to my stock final question (and one that with a good candidate could keep us talking for hours) “What do you read for pleasure?” almost nothing made my heart sink faster than a response of “David Peltzer”. I have never been able to see the attraction. I don’t understand what enjoyment you get out of vicarious suffering. However, if you want a book about similar experiences that doesn’t go down the misery route have you read Augusten Burroughs’ ‘Running with Scissors’? A very different approach.

  6. I absolutely recoil from displays marked ‘misery memoir’, or, as my local library yesterday, ‘tragic lives’. But I must recommend Lorna Sage — Bad Blood is far more than a misery memoir — it is a fascinating and well written book and I don’t think you would find it taking you into ugly territory.

  7. I shuddered when I saw that section myself. It seemed … well, just plain wrong to have a section devoted to books of that ilk. Our receptionist read – and reread – nothing but books like that. Okay, bad things happen and we know they do and it’s wrong to ignore them but it just seemed so sad, looking at this wall of misery, a testament to a world I sometimes find myself just a wee bit fed up living in. I read ‘Sybil’ back in the seventies and gave up on it. That was quite enough for me.

  8. Traditional* fairy tales have a similar premise. Innocent child, evil step-parents, misery followed by a final triumph made all the more worthy because it is achieved by someone with so many disadvantages. These tales had a strong attraction for young people. Perhaps this sudden surge of “misery memoirs” is a reflection of State’s** treatment of all its citizens as children. We may all be feeling the oppression of evil step-states. Not that this excuses bad writing!***

    *Pre Disney

    ** ALL States. I am not picking on any particular state but on a world-wide trend.

    *** Not that there is any in this blog, from either the blogger or the commenters.

  9. In graduate school we talked a lot about the “misery memoir” and we were generally expected to agree that they basically took up space, and I tend to agree. Don’t get me wrong, I like the IDEA of giving voice to the previously voiceless, but these memoirs end up being so self-indulgent and poorly written that it’s hard to find value in them. I’ve been “off” memoir for quite a while because of that but after reading Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, which is just a sheer joy of a read, I’m thinking of returning. I love in that book how she creates her parents – so much love there, and so much great writing!

  10. I read for enjoyment, so I have not selected books from the ‘misery memoir’ category. It appears to me that these books are a form of catharsis for the author (and in no way do I mean to treat anyone’s misery lightly). I am sure people have always been writing this sort of thing – in journals, diaries and other private places. It is the readers supporting this type of writer’s public form of therapy, and as Becca mentioned, ‘reality tv’ is where it’s at. So are the readers reading because ‘thank goodness that didn’t happen to me,’ or are they simply glorying in the gory? I don’t know. It is all indicitive of what is happening in our world: violent video games, tv ad nauseum, and the latest, most ridiculous thing I have every heard of: exergaming. A computer game you can interact with that simulates various sports. “…based on what people want to do – have fun, be competitive, interact socially, and feel good and look good without hard work!” Oh my gosh, we are living “The Jetsons”!!
    Sorry, got off on a side road there.
    Harding’s memoir, on the other hand, sounds like a book worth reading. Thank you for the interestng review.

  11. I’ve pondered this trend since the last Harry Potter book was published. People of British descent seem to be obsessed with orphans, especially lately. When the last book was out, I predicted that we would see a surge in misery memoirs (thanks for that classification, it’s helpful); I see from a visit to my local Barnes and Noble that this is true. I see it as an unresolved, unconscious problem in the collective unconscious. And, yes, people who live misery memoirs or write them do tend to stay stuck. I quit my work as a therapist in part because of this. Many people just seemed to not want to be happy. I never thought to suggest they write a book and contribute to the genre, though. ;o)

    I don’t want to read the book, as my backlog of books to read is huge. But I’d like to know: did he find his mother, and what was the outcome?

  12. It is a good question, why the misery memoir is so popular. From talking to a few people I know who like them they all seem to agree that it gives them a feeling of satisfaction that bad things may happen in their own lives, but not as bad as that. In other words, they are relieved that there are people worse off than they are. I think I have read one memoir that would fit the category and the whole thing was horrifying but yet I couldn’t look away. Medical horror after medical horror from childhood onward I wondered how this person could still be alive. Unfortunately I don’t remember the title. Your description of this book sounds interesting, though I think the story you say he didn’t tell would be the best one to read.

  13. Great review, I guess the fact that even an insightful and capable writer like Jeremy Harding stuggles to get to th truth of his own experience is why, whilst so many memoirs need to be writen, few need to be read.

    I agree with Ann that Augusten Burroughs’ ‘Running with Scissors’ is a joy. The fuss made over actually how much of it he made up was interesting. Neuroscience has shown we remember what we ‘think’ happened, not what did. For me a books that look for truths in a bit of reality give so much more than memoirs packed with reality but little truth.

  14. Lisa – it’s curious, isn’t it? I haven’t heard of the Glass Castle but will look it up now. I’d like to read a selection of memoirs for my research and I’m on the lookout for any good recommendations! Equiano – thank you for warning me about the Pelzer – I know it had a lot of publicity and is something of a popular classic and I wondered whether I should read it. But that really was one of books of unrelenting horror I picked up and then found myself putting down. Bookboxed – that strikes me as a very wise interpretation of the motives behind this kind of writing and publishing. It’s intriguing why what seems most real is equally that which seems most disturbing. But then it’s always said that happiness has no story. I’m not sure that’s true, but undoubtedly misery has a lot to say. Becca – some of the books that describe people’s lives are just brilliant. I’ve loved everything Margaret Forster has ever written about her family history, for instance, and I very much enjoyed Jacqueline Dimbleby’s memoir of her ancestors. I thought the Harding was an interesting and enjoyable book and particularly good for anyone interested in adoption. Ann – What a nice interview question to be given! And the Burroughs is an excellent suggestion. We have a copy of it – my husband has read it in fact – and I am very intrigued by it. Harriet – thank you so much for the encouragement to read Bad Blood. It was shortlisted for the Whitbread I do believe, so I did think it must have merit. But that kind of recommendation makes me much keener to read it. Jim – I read once that storytelling is about breaking something and then putting it back together again in a way that is surprisingly better than it was before. The misery memoir can get stuck at the level of destruction, I fear, and it’s curious but undoubtedly true that readers need a bit of comfort and encouragment in their reading matter. Thank you for your comment and welcome to the reading room! Archie – what an interesting comment, to think that this is bound up with the regressive tendencies of the Western world. I do agree with you that we are encouraged to be ever more childish (mostly by the media and selfish capitalism) and it’s true that the genre has gained in popularity over the same time period. Hmmm, food for thought! Courtney – I keep coming across Annie Dillard’s name in the blogworld lately and I really MUST get hold of something by her. Thank you for the recommendation, which I will follow up. And very interesting to hear your experience from your non-fiction course. I agree that giving voice to the voiceless is essential, but there are many ways of doing it that honour tragedy but foster reparation.

  15. Qugrainne – loved the digression! Yes, there is an ever increasing search for what seems ‘real’ and ‘unmediated’ in modern culture, which is of course ironic given that so much of it comes in virtual form. You’re quite right that diaries and journals used to be the space for private reflection, but if you think of the ones that exist – and for some reason those of Anne Frank an Etty Hillesum come to mind – they tend to impress us by the courageous resilience of the author. I suppose the misery memoir always wants to present that kind of a voice, but the urge to sensationalism rather spoils it. Eve – I find your comment about people not wanting to be happy completely fascinating. I’d like to ask you more about it, if I may, so I will email you later on with the end of Harding’s story and a few questions! Stefanie – oh hie me away from the medical horrors!!! How awful. But I can see the comfort that can be gained from reading about others whose position is worse than our own. Isn’t that what we tell used to tell children, too, when they were suffering? The Harding is good, but I’m expecting some of the memoirs I have ahead to be better. I will of course let you know. Andrew – I’ve read, too, that our memory is wholly hostage to the emotions of the present, and very open to distortion. And then putting words to experience always alters the experience, no matter how hard we try to be clear. Thank you also for the vote for the Burroughs. I can see that I really must move it higher up the list. And thank you for your comment – it’s lovely to have you visit.

  16. Just yesterday I listened to a radio program, This American Life, that told a story of babies switched at birth in the hospital and how the story came out; it had interviews with the major people involved and it was just fascinating to listen to what it was like to have the truth revealed — to me the story seemed an argument for nature over nurture, as the revelation explained SO much about the switched babies that didn’t make sense before — the personalities that didn’t fit in the family, the popularity or lack of it at school, religious sensibility, even artistic tastes. But, of course, that could simply be because of the way the story was shaped. Told another way, it could turn into a story of nurture over nature. But get this — one of the mothers KNEW about the switching practically from the time she got home from the hospital; she told her husband but he didn’t quite believe her and didn’t want her to say anything, so she lived with the secret for 43 years! Anyway, I digress, but your post reminded me of the story. The victims of the switch could write a misery memoir for sure.

  17. I had a lot of things to say after I read your post, but everything I wanted to say has been said, more eloquently, by your other commenters, especially Qugrainne. The way things are going in the world makes me want to stand on a mountaintop and scream at people to wake up, if only there was a way, and if people would listen. I don’t read these types of books nor do I watch any reality TV, both my husband and I are disgusted by it. I used to work in bookstores and remember when “A Child Called It” came out, and I wonder if that book started this craze. I never read it. I did read Sybil way back in the seventies, but I don’t remember it very well. When we go to the theater to see a movie and watch all the previews at the beginning, I never am enticed to go to a movie that is dark, dreary, violent, especially if there are any terrorists in it. With movies, I want to be entertained, moved, or carried along on an adventure, not horrified, disgusted, or frightened. I especially am not interested in seeing something terrible that could happen tomorrow. All I really wanted to add in my rambling post was that you wrote a great review of a book. Have you ever thought of writing as a professional reviewer? (Maybe you do, I don’t know.) You have a real gift for reviewing.

  18. Reb – oh thank you so very much, that’s so kind of you and a compliment I’ll treasure. I don’t review professionally, although I’m an academic and have spent most of my career writing about books so I’m practised that way. I would LOVE to review more professionally, but getting started requires a lot of hard work and perseverence. Still, you never know your luck. I am entirely in agreement with you on films that are dark, dreary and violent! I spend my life trying to calm myself down, not work myself up into a state of agitation. Sensationalism is so depressingly prevalent in the modern media, and if there’s any room on that mountain top, I’d be delighted to stand alongside you and start screaming for representations that are more in touch with everyday life and its uplifting possibilities.

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