Saturday, August 04, 2007

No, Daddy, No

It was probably Christina Crawford who started the genre of Horror-Childhood autobiographies with Mommie Dearest, her book about her mother, the actress Joan Crawford.

More recently, the whole genre was reinvented again by Dave Pelzer in his autobiography A Child Called It, about the terrible abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his mother. It's a gripping and horrifying book.

But now they're everywhere. On the shelves of one supermarket recently, Emily and I counted eight separate horror-childhood titles all with titles such as Please, Mummy, Please, and No, Daddy, No. They have cover drawings depicting sobbing, bewildered children. They're all about abused-by-father, or beaten-by-mother, or beaten-and-abused-by-nuns - lots of variations on the same theme.

They make me uneasy. Supermarkets don't generally have a wide range of books - they're usually of the kind of Jordan-and-Peter celebrity autobiographies, or the Beckhams, or badly-written romances or thrillers.

So why the current vogue for these horror-childhood books? A quick glance through shows that the most recent ones are not very well-written: it's clearly a case of bandwagon-jumping. One of the abused-by-nuns ones was recently held to be a fake.

They are published because they appeal to the same "ooh, isn't it terrible" feelings that led the whole country to get itself in a state over the death of Princess Diana, or the Ian Huntley murders, or the abduction of Madeleine McCann. It's one step further than enjoying a horror film - these are horrors that we can wallow in: they're real, but they're not real to us and after reading the book we can feel glad that at least our lives aren't like that.

I don't think it reflects very well on us as a society. Of course, that's not to dismiss the genuine vileness of the experiences written about in these horror-childhood books: but I think that for every one of these genuine horror stories, there are dozens of children who are having childhoods, not of sensationalist horror, but of deep, dreadful, dull every-day awfulness.

You don't need to look too hard to see them every day: children who are continuously being slapped for every minor misdemeanour: children who are constantly stuffed in front of the television-babysitter: children who are constantly bullied at school in many apparently minor ways: children who aren't fed properly in a land of comparative plenty: children in genuine poverty: children from middle-class houses who simply aren't given enough love or attention by their parents.

That's the sort of thing that we should be addressing, if we want the whole of society to improve. In a way, we should lower the levels that shock us, and stop putting up with it all. We shouldn't be so accepting: we should be more easily shocked, not less. Then we might start to do something about it.


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