Misery memoirs have been around for a long time. They existed long before Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It became a sensation for Pelzer’s portrayal of his brutalised and miserable childhood. When I wrote my novel A Prayer for Blue Delaney, which touched upon the fate of Australian child migrants of the 1950s, I received many emails from young readers asking me if I’d read Pelzer’s book and I became aware of how many children read misery memoirs as if they are books for children. Just because a book is about a child, doesn’t mean it is suitable for younger readers.
Miserable childhoods are classic material for children’s books. Richard Davies has posted a list of 20 Classics that document shattered childhoods over at the Abe Books website. But there is a difference between children’s book about tough childhoods and misery memoirs. I’ve researched the lives of many people whose childhoods were fraught with suffering and struggled to make sense of the stories, to sift through the sickening details to find the core truth and integrity of the story. It isn’t the misery that makes the stories important but the humanity of the child. When retelling these stories for younger readers, it’s inappropriately gratuitous to include every gruesome detail. Sometimes when you ‘tell all’ you only create a work that is a testament of brutality, of the depths of human despair.
Misery memoirs no doubt have an important place alongside adult biographies but it’s more than a little disturbing when you spot one on the shelves of a primary school library.
Last Christmas, I walked into a Borders bookshops and was confronted by a wall of misery memoirs in the foyer. A pair of young girls who were no older than ten years of age were browsing the titles on display, presumably making their Christmas selection. And it struck me that the way these memoirs are marketed is almost more disturbing than their content. I am not an advocate of censoring the reading of children as I believe child readers are generally very good at self censorship but the covers of these books are both compelling and misleading from a child’s perspective. I chose to display in this post only a fraction of the covers that I stumbled across. There are dozens more in a similar vein. A doe-eyed child viewed through the soft focus lens has become a hallmark of childhood abuse. It’s no wonder child readers are drawn to them.
The titles alone give you a sense of the parallel themes: Ugly, Abandoned, Sickened, Broken, Cut and Scarred. Then there are the titles that reference society’s abandonment and failure to protect the children: Suffer the Little Children, Deliver me from Evil, Touched by Evil, Nobody Heard Me Cry, Nobody Came.
Perhaps the most disturbing titles are the ones that reference ‘Daddy’. Many of these books detail explicit and grotesque acts of sexual abuse. There are dozens of them, each detailing the betrayal daughters have suffered at their hands of their fathers. When I was running a search for related titles on the internet, the online bookseller threw up a list of titles about sexual abuse along with a very sweet picture book about a bear and his cub entitled ‘Kisses for Daddy’.
I’ve long suspected that Tolstoy was wrong when he wrote “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There is something depressingly repetitious about human misery.