The parents amongst us on Public Address on Public Address have all, to one degree or another, written about our children. The reception of that writing is almost invariably warm and generous. Yet I am sure we have all thought about the extent to which it is proper to employ our own kids, without their permission, as characters in public stories.
Turns out, we can stand down. Because nothing we have written comes close to the selfish and indulgent behaviour of the British writer Julie Myerson.
Myerson's family drama has transfixed the British press in the past week. I caught up with the story as I curled up on the couch yesterday, a painful neck strain having dissuaded me from going to see Watchmen or, indeed, doing anything that would require moving around or seeing people.
Myerson has written a book called The Lost Child, in which she sets out the twin narratives of a girl called Mary Yelloly, who died of TB 200 years ago, and a troubled male teenager in the modern world. But in her first interview about the forthcoming book, she revealed that her male character was in fact her son Jake, who, by her account, had fallen so deeply into a cannabis addiction that she and her husband had been obliged to eject him from the family home and change the locks.
And how, you might reasonably ask, did Jake feel about this story being told?
The Myersons' son, who now works in the music industry, has read a draft of the book and his mother said that he has been generous enough to understand her need to write about the trauma.
Right. Because it's all about her needs. As it turns out, Jake, now 20, is horrified by his mother's actions:
Jake flatly contradicts his mother’s avowal that he gave consent. He says he consulted a lawyer but was told he couldn’t stop the book. “My mother seems to have suggested I somehow agreed to this book, which isn’t really correct. The book contains some poetry that I wrote when I was about 15 or 16, and I remember getting a call saying she’d pay me £1,000 if she could use it. Of course I took it, but that doesn’t mean I want it to be published.”
“I can see why he’s saying different now,” she says, sighing. “He wasn’t aware of what would happen; no way. I do feel bad, that I should have protected him.”
If Jake is ill, an addict — which she claims and he denies — did she really think he was capable of making a sensible decision, especially with money on the table?
“Gosh. That’s interesting,” she says. “The thing is . . . he is actually relatively happy at the moment. He doesn’t behave like an ill person. No one meeting him would think he has a problem. But I suppose what you’re saying is fair.”
It turns out that Myerson has been fictionalising her family life for some time. Although she has yet to admit it, she was "Anonymous", the author of a column called 'Living With Teenagers' that ran in The Guardian for two years up till last June, and spawned a profitable book of the same name.
The final instalment of the column was published with a response from her son, "Jack", who expressed his horror at what she had done, and "my mum's strange choices about what she left out". But, wrote Jack, "in the end I decided not to switch out on my parents. I realise it wasn't worth the argument, and there are also a lot of benefits to living with a mum who can make people laugh and cry with her writing. Not everyone agrees with me, but some people do."
It seemed a generous and mature response in the circumstances. And Jake's recent pre-emptive interviews in the British press (the Daily Mail tracked him down via his Facebook page) also seem to indicate a lucidity that is missing from Myerson's accounting of herself.
Jake Myerson was clearly having problems as a 17 year-old, and if he was truly supplying dope to his younger siblings, that would be a ghastly problem for any parent; one that might justify shutting him out of the house to protect his brother and sister. But Jake flatly denies that claim ("one of her fantasies"), and says he was able to demand that his mother to remove it from the book. Unfortunately, she seems happy enough to twitter about it interviews.
Jake says his cannabis use was a symptom of problems in the family -- principally, a breakdown in his parents' relationship -- rather than the problem in itself. Myerson says he went from being a bright, motivated boy at school to an abusive yob after taking up cannabis. And yet, this is her account of the discovery:
Julie found out that he was taking drugs one day when “we were snooping in his room and we found a CD case with ‘Keep off’ on it”, she says. “A lump of cannabis. We put it straight back and thought, ‘Okay, what shall we do? We have some knowledge, which is good: he’s done it. He’s tried it and might take it to a party.’ So we thought we’d do nothing, because at that point he was working really hard at school, doing incredibly well. At parents’ evenings they’d say he was very motivated, maybe a bit naughty, mouthy. Why do something? We were naive.”
Hold on. She and her husband were "snooping" around the bedroom of a bright, hardworking child, searching through his CD cases for … what, exactly? He had trust and security issues? No bloody wonder.
An extraordinary column in The Observer by Alexander Linklater dismisses any idea of sympathy for Jake, on the basis that he has "had his say, taking his share of the media spotlight (and monetary rewards) to describe his mother as insane, and to claim that he had asked her not to go ahead with publication."
There is no doubt that Jake did beg his mother not to publish her book, and that he even consulted a lawyer. He did take £1000 for the use of his poems, incorporated by his mother in the book without his prior permission, but he was destitute at the time. It would be some kind of tough love to ignore the duress involved in his decision.
Jake, now 20, says his mother "has taken the very worst years of my life and cleverly blended it into a work of art, and that to me is obscene." He describes his parents, both writers, as "acting like six-year-olds".
Well, perhaps he would say that. But even with his "frequent and enjoyable" use of cannabis, he comes across as resigned but lucid. His mother emerges as a self-obsessed baby boomer idiot.
The fine ladies on MumsNet would tend to agree.
I almost didn't write about this, because it is yet another example of the British media's mining of the inside of people's lives for profit. By writing about it on the other side of the world, I'm perpetuating the process.
But I do understand what it is to have an angry, disruptive presence in the family; I know how hard it is to work through that. But the detail there is private. It is hard to cast yourself unsympathetically in writing about your children -- you want to be understood, your feelings to be shared. But if I ever start to look like Julie Myerson, please, somebody send me a very, very stern email and tell me to stop. Should that fail, I guess you'll just have to shoot me.