The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

March 8th, 2009

Her son was betrayed because she’s a writer first, mother second

A family into which a writer is born is a ruined family. That, or words to that effect, is something Philip Roth said many years ago. I have never forgotten it, since it captured so mercilessly the problem of being (or wanting to be) a writer. Writing is about betrayal. Betrayal is what writers do. In the name of the art of fiction, writers ransack not just their own experiences but also the private moments of their parents and siblings and the confidences of their friends and lovers. They listen, they watch, they remember and then they kiss and tell for money and fame. It’s a dirty trade, and I say this as someone who has always felt born to be a writer. Contrary to what many people think, most writers don’t make much up. The curious thing about fiction is that it usually isn’t. Perhaps most writers can’t invent very much – it is, after all, difficult, and a great imagination is much more rare a gift than a lucrative way with words. Not surprisingly, those close to writers often feel furious about the betrayal of their private lives for the writer’s gain. Even the greatest writers have outraged their families with their disloyalty. This is something I have thought about often, while busily not writing novels because of it. Not to write, or not to betray – this is a real dilemma for the writer. And I was reminded of it forcibly last week when Julie Myerson, the novelist, gave an interview explaining that her new novel, The Lost Child, is in fact about her own teenage son. According to Myerson’s account, when her son was just 17 she and her husband threw him out of their house, changed the locks and told him he was not welcome. They took this painful decision, she explained, because he was addicted to skunk, abusive, sometimes violent and a threat to their younger children. She and her husband felt the only solution, if he wouldn’t change his ways, was to cast him out altogether. Fortunately he was taken in by the parents of a schoolfriend. Although my opinion of novelists is not high, I was astonished by this. This isn’t even an understandable case of the writer’s dilemma; there is no dilemma here. For a woman to cast out her adolescent son and then to write a novel about it, and then to announce to the world that the troubled, destructive boy in her so-called fiction is in fact her son, is a comprehensive betrayal. It is a betrayal not just of love and intimacy, but also of motherhood itself. Unsurprisingly, the son’s account is very different from his mother’s and he – now 20 and still estranged – has responded with angry interviews of his own. “There is a very big difference between smoking a spliff and being a drug addict,” he says. “Basically, my parents are very naive and got caught up in the whole US anti-drugs thing . . . They are very naive people and slightly insane. They overreacted.” Whatever the truth in all this, however, it is not important. What’s important is that Myerson’s son firmly denies he gave his mother permission to publish this book about him, whatever she may say; he feels she has exploited his personal life to make her book sell. Even more important is the fact that Myerson gave herself permission to write about him; even if he had agreed, even if she thought he had agreed, she as his mother should not have let herself give in to what she herself called her “guilty impulse” to expose her own young, vulnerable and needy child. A mother should above all protect her children, not least from her own ambition. All writers, good and bad, want to reorder the world by imposing their own narrative upon it, in the process distorting other people’s. That’s hard enough for an adult to accept, even in a great novel. To a young son it must seem monstrous. In writing about her son at an age when adolescent boys struggle most to establish their own identity, she has superimposed her story on his for as long as her book is read, exercising a form of maternal control. There are several standard lines of defence that writers use when under attack. The first is that the novel is fiction. Any resemblances in it to real people and real events are coincidental. However, Myerson has jettisoned this defence by choosing to come out in public and explain that her novel is indeed about her son. She has resorted instead to the public-interest defence, which in her words is that “people need to know”. I cannot imagine how a mother could persuade herself that any needs of unknown strangers in WH Smith could mean anything at all in comparison with the obvious needs of her own child – a boy who by her own account was terribly troubled, disturbed and under the influence of drugs, who needed help then and who now, presumably, needs to recover from this trauma on his own terms. “People need to know this happens to families like ours.” But we all know that already. Everybody knows that terrible things such as drug abuse, psychological abuse and madness happen all the time to families just like everybody else’s. It is the characteristic narcissism of a writer to assume that her experiences are highly unusual, or indeed that the public imagines her family – insofar as anyone has heard of it – to be above such common problems. Myerson persists in her attempts at justification by public good works. “When we were in our darkest, loneliest place,” she said, “it would have been helpful to have read a book like this.” Actually, there are quite a lot on the market already. What’s more, if her plan was to write a helpful how-to novel – a curious genre – it would have been every bit as helpful if she had not outed her poor boy, but just not so much of a bestseller. Another defence is the one hastily offered by Myerson’s publicist: “Julie hopes people will refrain from making any judgments until they have read the book, from which they will see that she loves her son very much.” I don’t doubt that she does, but clearly she doesn’t love him enough not to publish – the real test of the heart for a writer. Writers are often as loving and kind as anyone else, except when it comes to writing; when the muse calls or when they taste the drug of literary success, they turn from Dr Jekyll into Mrs Hyde, from woman into werewolf. It is an intermittent professional deformity. Writers may not always be wreckers, but I think people should be very wary of them. Of us.