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.