All in the Family, for Everyone to See
Would you reveal your family's innermost secrets for fame and fortune? Some people wouldn't think twice -- and aren't we glad they wouldn't? Intimate memoirs are among the most moving prose ever published. And then there's Julie Myerson.
If you're reading this blog from anywhere other than a 30 square-mile patch of land around London, you probably have no idea who Julie Myerson is. She is an English writer who is weathering a storm of controversy for publishing a new book, "The Lost Boy," about her then-17-year-old son's addiction to marijuana. His drug abuse got so bad that Myerson and her husband changed the locks on their house and banished him. He was, they said, giving pot to his two younger siblings.
Rough stuff. Sad stuff. Stuff that probably happens in a lot of homes, even liberal, "middle-class" English ones. (The English middle class is different from the American middle class. There, it's practically upper class. For the Myersons, imagine a Takoma Park family that can afford one of those big Victorians and two Volvos, and has a "Free Darfur" sign in the front yard.)
This week the story got more enjoyable, for it was revealed that Julie Myerson was the anonymous author of a column that ran in the Guardian for two years called "Living With Teenagers." Suddenly, it all made sense.
What can I say about "Living With Teenagers"? It was the reason I leapt out of bed on Saturday mornings and hurried to the news agent's when we lived in Oxford. The column was like being treated to a weekly train wreck. None of us could pull our eyes away, not me, not my wife, not the two teenagers we were living with.
Here was a horrible woman writing about her horrible teenagers, underestimating the horribleness of them and completely unaware of how horrible she was. "Living With Teenagers" probably sold more birth control in Britain than any government health campaign.
The column came about, wrote one of its editors, because no one was writing honestly about teenagers. Myerson's column, however, "was so good it was chilling -- it was beautifully written, but also had a rawness to it, an honesty that was breathtaking. It was real."
I wish I could link to some "Living With Teenagers" columns, but they've been removed from the Guardian's web site, "to protect [the family's] privacy." (Sic!) Instead, I'll just have to describe them.
The characters were the author, her husband and their three teenage children: two boys and a girl. The older boy must have already been kicked out at the time I was reading them, since he only shows up to borrow money, steal food and swear.
In one column, the younger son is discovered to have dirtied his jeans with what turns out to be "anti-climb" paint, stuff put up to deter vandalism. Mum is upset but doesn't actually punish him. The daughter-- 15, I think -- spends one evening vomiting after a night of binge-drinking. Mom is upset but doesn't actually punish her.
In fact, no one is punished for anything. There are occasional little epiphanies that are meant to show the "love" in the family: One of the boys takes money that was supposed to be for a grandmother's birthday present and spends it on himself. But at the last minute he produces a flower and gives it to granny. Awwwww.
The column made for voyeuristic reading. It was published anonymously, the names of the children changed. There seemed to be no fear the kids would ever find out, since it was clear they didn't read the newspaper. It made parents all over Britain feel better: My kid may be bad, but at least he's not that bad.
Myerson's children did find out eventually -- told by friends -- and they were royally cheesed off. She stopped writing the column -- after publishing a compilation -- and now has come out with "The Lost Boy," which I suppose is "realer" than the "real" columns she had written. (I mean, where was the "breathtaking" honesty of her son's addiction in the columns? She admits that "some incidents were partly fictionalized, some details carefully rearranged and some characters composites." This is the sort of thing that gets you fired from an American newspaper.)
Her son has fought back. He's gone to the press, calling his mother "insane" and "obscene" for writing about his problems (not that he sees them as problems). Dad's weighed in too, writing that he hopes Julie Myerson's book will help others.
So, are there any lessons to be learned here, about honesty or openness or the suitability of mining personal experience for journalism or literature? No. I don't think there are. This is just one messed up family with one awful, clueless mother. When she was re-reading her Guardian columns, Myerson should have said, "Hang on. It sounds like this mother has no idea what she's doing."
And her Guardian editor, rather than printing them, should have urged her to seek counseling.
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