When Is It Okay To Write About Your Family?

Illustration for article titled When Is It Okay To Write About Your Family?

Julie Myerson wrote what she thought was an illuminating story of her son Jake's drug addiction, but Jake calls the book "obscene." When is a family member's pain fair game for memoir?

Myerson's book is just one of two familial addiction memoirs reviewed in yesterday's Times. The other is a review of Kaylie Jones's memoir, Lies My Mother Never Told Me. Jones is the daughter of James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, but her memoir focuses on her alcoholic, "histrionic" mother Gloria. Reviewer Janet Maslin says Jones "exposes her mother's cruelty, narcissism and heavy drinking, reeling off story after story about her mother's scorching wisecracks and bravura displays of malice." "Kaylie is at her fieriest," she continues, "in describing the step-by-step souring of her dealings with her mother and the ghastly decline of her mother's physical and mental health." A memoir that takes a mother's "ghastly decline" as it own aesthetic apex sounds potentially distasteful, but Maslin praises Jones's candor, saying, "she doesn't let propriety blunt her memories."

Gloria Jones is dead now, and can't be harmed by anything her daughter writes. But Jake Myerson, son of Julie Myerson and subject of her memoir The Lost Child, is very much alive — and only twenty years old. When Julie Myerson chose to write about her son's teenage marijuana addiction and her eventual decision to kick him out of the house, her British readership was outraged. The Times's Patricia Cohen says Myerson "was pilloried in her home country this spring as cruel, selfish and manipulative." Myerson elaborates: "a bit of a witch burning was what it felt like." Myerson feels that both memoir and drug addiction are less taboo in America, where she's releasing the book this week, and she hopes "Americans won't rush in and judge me."


But the harshest judgment may have come from the subject of the book, Myerson's son Jake. In a March interview with the Daily Mail, he vented his anger not only at the book but at his mother's anonymous column Living With Teenagers. Earlier in March, Myerson had confessed, "I wrote Living With Teenagers. I did so anonymously because I wanted to write truthfully, and that meant my children's identities had to be obscured." But, Jake says,

The thing is, it wasn't really anonymous; not to the people who knew us, those who matter. Having grown up with this, being written about in an arbitrary way since the age of two, I have always said to my parents 'Please don't do this, I hate this.' I was made to feel I was wrong for being offended by it.

He also accuses his mother of repeatedly denying she was the author of the column, even after his school friends worked it out and began to tease him. Of The Lost Child, he says,

What she has done has taken the very worst years of my life and cleverly blended it into a work of art, and that to me is obscene. I was only 17, I was a confused teenager, I was too young really to know who I was or what was happening.


He adds that before its publication, "she gave me a copy of the manuscript of The Lost Child and told me to read it. She wanted my approval; the problem is she would have published it regardless." Somewhat distastefully, Jake's comments to the Daily Mail caused Julie Myerson's publisher to rush the book out two months early in order to take advantage of the controversy.

Jake Myerson has lots more choice words for his mother, calling her a "pseudo New Labour socialist" who greatly exaggerated her son started action and "couldn't survive" without writing about her family. But Jake himself is very young and not exactly restrained — he talks about his siblings, one of whom is still a minor, and says his parents should have gotten a divorce — and it's hard to believe his side of the story is the unalloyed truth. The image he paints (with eager assists by the Daily Mail) of Julie Myerson as unrepentant fame-whore is probably oversimplified. That said, Myerson does sound like a piece of work. In her last Living With Teenagers column, she wrote,

There was no way I would or could continue writing with them knowing what I was doing. Over those two years, as our teenagers bloomed and matured and softened, and became so much more vulnerable, so the column began to feel less like some kind of benign, semi-comic revenge and more like a betrayal.


Getting back at your "ghastly" mom is one thing, but should you really be using your column to get "revenge" on your children, no matter how benign? And does "the importance of publicizing the nightmare of teenage drug use" — the justification Myerson and her husband use for publishing The Lost Child — really outweigh a young man's desire to keep his painful adolescence private? In the Times, Susan Cheever basically says: totally! Author of two addiction memoirs, one of which describes her assignations with two men while her daughter was sick, she explains, "I strongly believe everybody has the right to their own story." But everyone's story includes other people's, and artistic autonomy becomes a lot less admirable when those people are your children.


Cheever may be working out some of her own revenge, since her dad wrote "very, very thinly" veiled novels about their family. Perhaps she's so adamant about her right to her own story because, as a child, she was deprived of control over it. The same thing, it seems, has happened to Jake Myerson. Of his parents, he says, "They are writers, they are published, they have a voice. I don't." But the Daily Mail has been only too happy to give him a voice — unfortunately, his mother hasn't set a very good example of how to use it.

A Mother's Memoir, A Son's Anguish [NYT]
A Daughter's Memoir, A Mother's Anguish [NYT]
'You're The Addict, Mum!' Son Of Julie Myerson Says She's Hooked On Exploiting Her Own Children [Daily Mail]
Mum, What You Did Is Obscene: The Son Julie Myerson Kicked Out For Smoking Pot Tells His Side Of The Story [Daily Mail]

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Hmm. I've been toying with this sort of thing lately as I gingerly dip a toe into the world of memoir/creative non-fiction. It's so complicated I don't think there is one general rule. But as much as I love David Sedaris, I felt for his family in that essay he did about how he was always trying to write crazy stuff down.

I think if you poke fun at yourself just as much or more as you do your family, that's something. But that may not be appropriate in the case of writing about a family member's addiction.