Saturday, March 7, 2009

Drawing the Line

One of my favourite authors, Julie Myerson, has sparked a debate after writing a book about her son's use of cannabis and how it led to the heart-wrenching decision to throw him out of their home.

Now this is a tricky one, because her son did not give his permission for the book to be published and tried to have it blocked. In fact he's furious, and has branded his mother 'slightly insane,' saying, "This book is simply an extension of her maternal journalism. My mother has been writing about me for the past 16 years."

The extract I've read is beautifully written (as are all her novels) and in a way I'm curious to read it because (apart from the drugs, thank goodness) I can relate to it all too well, and her son's reaction could be said to be that of a typical teenager, and in a few years time he might be mature enough to read it and understand. BUT. Would I have written and published it? No. Maybe as a memoir or form of therapy, knowing it would never be published, but I tend to steer clear of including family traumas in my writing. It's hard enough living with them, for heaven's sake! I need my escapism, but of course that's a personal choice.

It may even be a good thing if it's opened a wider debate about the potential mental health problems that long-term cannabis abuse can cause, and how it can destroy a family, but just like sex scenes, I couldn't write it myself - with or without permission.

Is there anything you wouldn't write about, or is it just me?


Amanda said...

It's beautifully written, as you say. But I'm like you, Karen, I try to steer clear of anything real. Surely putting it into print is just making the relationship between her and her son worse!

Bernadette said...

I agree with you Karen. I wouldn't write anything as personal about somebody close to me who would be likely to be upset by it. Maybe that makes me a poorer writer, but possibly a nicer person. If he had been happy for it to be written, that would be different, but we should be able to trust our mothers not to reveal our personal lives to the world, in my view.

Dumdad said...

I've just read the extract and I think I can begin to understand a little of why Myerson did what she did. Jake was taking industrial quantities of skunk, stealing, he was violent - he punched his mother and perforated her ear drum! - he got a 16-year-old girl pregnant and, this was what pushed her to the brink, she wrote: "One morning I discover that he’s been giving his 13-year-old brother drugs. He and his friends – selling him cannabis. Teaching him to roll a joint when he still occasionally plays with Lego and listens to story tapes at night."

So ultimately she was trying to protect her other younger son.

Whether she should write a book about it, though, is another thing. Tough call.


I say good on you Julie Myerson, I firmly believe that books like this should be written. Subjects like drugs, abuse etc that may appear uncomfortable should be aired and not swept under the carpet. If I were a writer (!!!) this is the subject matter I would probably tackle. Good post Clarkey. Tommox

Suzanne said...

Difficult to comment when I'm not in her position (thankfully), but I don't believe I would have written the book - it seems like a betrayal of the son and an invasion of his privacy.

HelenMHunt said...

I had an article published a while ago that was about three generations of my family. The only living person mentioned in it was my brother and I did let him read it and get his permission before submitting it. It didn't say anything negative about him at all, but I still felt he should see it and be happy with it before it was published. It was quite a hard piece to write because it dealt with my grandfather's death, my grandmother's alzheimers and the death of both my parents from cancer, but I found it cathartic to write. I definitely wouldn't have submitted it for publication if my brother hadn't wanted me to though, or if I felt it would cause him a problem.

Anna said...

no way. I write about what I know, not about what I live... big difference.

Susie Vereker said...

Hi Karen, I had heard about this book and was interested to read the powerful extract. I now have a lot more sympathy for JM. Perhaps she thinks her son is a lost soul anyway so she might as well write about him in the hope of helping others. But if he isn't quite lost, then she risks harming his life still further.
I agree with the others, I'd never write anything that would damage a member my family, or indeed a friend.
To more cheerful topics, belated thanks for your encouraging comment on Jan Jones's blog which I missed originally. So glad you enjoyed 'Paris Imperfect'.

Honeysuckle said...

I don't think she should've written it, unless maybe under a different name. Without doubt it's an invasion of his privacy and his best revenge would be to write a novel himself revealing his version of family life in the Myerson household.
I like his decsription of her as 'slightly insane' - simple, but pretty damning at the same time.

Debs said...

I wouldn't write about anyone close to me either.

I once sold a piece to a magazine about sibling rivalry (not real) and my father was upset, saying that he hadn't realized I'd felt that way all these years. I had to explain that it was fiction.

Tam said...

I'd write it but use a pen name. We're going through some tough times in my family at the moment (although thankfully nothing like Julie Myerson) and my daughter knows I intend to write about them once we've come out the other side. Because she knows it's only for the purpose of helping others, she's OK with it and I'd never name her in the process.
I admire Julie Myerson and can even empathise but, as with so-called misery-lit, I don't think I could go there.

B said...

I've been reading all the articles about this this week and thinking that publishing without her son's consent was a mistake.


I just clicked through to read the extract. And now I'm thinking, will it help other parents to be able to read what she and her family have gone through? Would it have helped them so much if she'd written a fictional story based on her experiences?

I don't know. But when your son assaults and injures you, I'm pretty sure that you'll feel like the worst mother in the world, whatever you do. I can only hope that her story will help other people. And that sooner or later, they will reconcile and understand each other.

Having said all that - would I have done it myself? I very much doubt it.

(have i commented here before? i don't think so. hi! *waves*)

Lane said...

This is a tough one and reading around the papers today, it seems she is being vilified for what's she done. Unfairly I think.
As usual there are two sides to the story. She says he gave permission. He says - now publication is almost due - he didn't (although he took payment of £1000 for his poems).

She was at the end of her tether and as Dumdad has already said, she had two younger children to protect. She had a tough call to make (in locking him out of the house) and if writing about it helps other parents in the same position - so be it.

Would I write about something so personal about a loved one? Not without permission, no. And even then... But who knows.

womagwriter said...

Writing articles for self-help groups to help other parents is one thing - writing a book to make money is quite another. Seems like she's cashing in on her family problems. While I don't condone what her son does, I don't think she was right to publish a book about it without his permission. Even with his permission I think it would be in bad taste.

Jean said...

The taboo against writing or talking in public about family traumas censors many of us. Perhaps sometimes rightly so. But is it ever right, and helpful to others, to do so? Having broken this taboo to some extent myself, I would say, yes, but it does raise a lot of ethical issues for a writer that need thinking through. I'm going to post about these and related issues on my blog at some time in the near future.

Fionnuala said...

Gosh, this is a tough one. I think I'd likfe to feel by writing something like this I could help others and perhaps it may be cathartic for me too BUT I do think that I'd use a pen name? Fx

Dumdad said...

There's an award awaiting you at my blog.

Fiona said...

I totally agree with you Karen. I really feel for her and there by the grace of God... but perhaps she could have waited until/if her son felt they could write the book together.

I'm not even keen on see my name in someone's story even though there are millions of Fionas in the world.

Edward said...

No reason why she shouldn't have written it. Plenty of reasons why she shouldn't have published it - certainly in the way she did. It's rather telling that publication has been brought forward - I guess sensation sells. She's publicly ruined her son's reputation, allegedly to help other parents suffering in the same way. The same could have been achieved by anonymity/changing names etc. It turns out (so I'm reliably informed) that Myerson wrote the execrable Living With Teenagers in The Guardian - from which she appears to have learnt nothing at all. Of course, all writers feed on their families but this is overt cannibalism and no more edifying than Houellebecq.

Rob-bear said...

As someone who deals in issues of confidentiality on a regular basis, I think there is a huge ethical challenge here. How much can you invade someone's privacy before s/he feels violated? Abused?

That's why even we bloggers need to be very careful about what we say in relation to our families, friends, and co-workers in our blogging.

Lorna F said...

I'm fascinated by this debate - memoir is something I've considered writing - and have written, partly as a cathartic making-sense-of-the-whole-damn-thing exercise, partly to record events and places which matter and will, inevitably, be lost otherwise. Some of this writing I feel proud of because it is so intense and so felt - but at the same time I feel I cannot possibly publish any of this as the people involved would be hurt or offended. If memoir is to be any good it has to be honest - but if it's honest it can be seen as betrayal. There's no easy solution to this: to transform it into fiction would dilute it, I feel. I'm just going to have to live to the age of 110 when everyone who could be offended has dropped off the perch and then publish ... Having said all that, I watched Julie Myerson on Breakfast the other morning and while I take on board all the mission-to-save-other-families-from-this-hell stuff, I still found she made me deeply deeply uncomfortable.

KAREN said...

amanda - It certainly hasn't improved things - seems to be getting worse by the day according to the papers :oO

bernadette - I agree - the thought of my mum writing about our family fills me with horror! (Not that we've anything to hide I hasten to add!!)

dumdad - Having since read the piece by her husband, and the revelation that she wrote a column about her family for years, until she was 'outed', I just don't think her reasons for publishing the book were valid. Shame, because she's a great writer :o)

tommo - I agree, but only with the right permissions and for the right reasons. After further revelations from the Myerson quarter, I don't think hers are valid I'm afraid!

suzanne - It's just better to not go there, in my opinion. Too damaging, unless everyone's given their permission.

helenmh - That's the rub I think. Is it taking advantage because technically her son was not an 'adult?' Nothing worse for a teenager than having your views ignored!

anna - You're right, and maybe if she'd woven it into a fictional story she could have got her point across much more effectively without upsetting anyone!

susie vereker - Thanks for dropping by! I'm reading your other books now, and I'm guessing none of them contain damaging family secrets :o)

honeysuckle - They all seem to be coming out of the woodwork now - her husband wrote a piece in the Guardian yesterday. It's as if they need to 'explain' but in doing so they're making things worse!

debs - It's funny you should say that, because after my Mum read my first-ever novel she got upset thinking I'd based the not-very-nice mother on her, when I hadn't at all!! Guilty conscience perhaps?

tam - That's the thing. If it helps others all well and good, but I'm not sure how this book will to be honest. Time will tell I guess, but I can't bring myself to write about our family problems, even for my own benefit!

b - Hi, and thanks for dropping in :o)

It was a very evocative piece - I think she's a great writer - but I would have preferred it dressed up as fiction. I just feel uncomfortable knowing it's caused such a furore, I guess.

lane - I truly understand the problems they're going through, but I just don't see how this book will actually help anyone which, for me, would be the only justification for publishing it. But time will tell, I guess :o)

I am jealous of her fab writing style though!

womag writer - Seems she's been writing a thinly disguised column about them all for ages too - she changed her son Jake's name to Jack in that, but was outed when schoolfriends started asking him if it was based on real-life. I think this one is going to run for a while!

jean - You're certainly in a position to comment, and I'll look forward to reading your related posts :o))

fionnuala - Yes, maybe using a pen name would be a good option but even then you'd probably get flack from family!! Unless you didn't tell anyone at all ...

dumdad - Ooh, thank you I'll pop over :o)

fiona - Yes, maybe a 'surviving against the odds' type story a while after the event.

I don't see many Karen's in fiction - not sure whether to be offended or not :o)

edward - Good point, and that's the rub for me really. I honestly don't think it will help other people, especially not with all the bad feeling now attached to it. On the other hand, like you say, maybe more people will buy it because of the hoo-ha.

KAREN said...

rob-bear - Thanks for dropping in, and you're right. The ethics of it don't sit right with me. It smacks of taking advantage, because the situation is within your own family.

lorna f - No, I wasn't convinced by her either, and I think the interviews and the piece written by her husband in the Guardian have only served to discredit them further to be honest.

I think I remember Lulu (of all people) saying she waited until her parents had passed away before writing her autobiography for fear of offending her parents, but then you run the risk of people saying, well they can't answer back now, can they?!

Lynette said...

I watched her on the Alan Titchmarsh show yesterday and could see some of what she was saying about the drugs. She explained that this wasn't just cannabis but skunk and she wanted to warn other parents about the dangers.

The question I have to ask though, as she is a journalist and used to performing lots of research, why didn't she just write a factual book about skunk and interview users and former users instead, if she felt so strongly about it?

There are some boundaries that should never be crossed without the person's permission.

Jane said...

Some very interesting comments and a lot more measured than the bile filled stuff at Comment is Free. I have to say though that this 'I'm doing it to help other families' is self-justifying bollocks, and I'm surprised a writer as good as Julie Myerson is coming out with tripe like that. If I needed proper advice on how to deal with a drug addicted teenager I would turn to Narcotics Anonymous or a nearby drug charity, not a novelist, however talented.

I feel deep sympathy for her misery at Jake's addiction. You really don't know how terrible it can be until there is someone in your family lying, stealing, hitting, promsising. Al-Anon are full of white faced families who have to cut the cord or be pulled down with the addict. And many of them worry that unless they do cut the cord they are guilty of 'enabling' the destructive behaviour. So shutting the door might have provided the wakeup call the son needed. But retaining publishing rights to his addiction and profiting by it is not a good decision. Has she offered to donate money from the book sales to a drug charity? Not as far as I've seen.

For me this is a salutory lesson in that talent does not mean you can plunder other people's lives. You would think that having to end writing the Living with Teenagers column because her children's friends and parents were being recognised and made unhappy by their domestic foibles being turned into journalistic fodder, would have given her some pause for thought. Apparently not. Was it Einstein who said that the true definition of stupidity were those who refused to learn from their mistakes?

Rob-bear said...

Interesting phrase in Jane's post: "plunder other people's lives." That's a pretty "strong" statement. And right on the mark, I think. As harsh as sit may seem.

Also a good question: "Has she offered to donate money from the book sales to a drug charity?" Fair comment.

February New Year's Resolution (better late than never)

Well, Christmas flew by in a flash - and lovely it was too - and January got off to a busy start as I had a deadline for the second book ...