Not My Father’s Son & Other Stories

Posted by in April's Magazine

When the film star Joan Crawford died in 1977 two of her four adopted children, Christina and Christopher, were written out of her will and left nothing. Christina memorably exacted revenge and wrote a tell-all memoir of her childhood. Behind the much-photographed image of the Hollywood star’s lucky adopted daughter – the lavish birthday parties and shed loads of presents sent by her mother’s legions of fans – was a miserable childhood. The book, Mommie Dearest, was made into a schlocky cult movie.

Although Christina Crawford’s account of her cruel mother was disputed (it was rumoured that, at the very least, Christina embroidered her story to make it more sellable) the book started a slow trickle of childhood memoirs that turned into an unstoppable torrent. Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It sparked an interest in the most awful stories of child abuse in 2000.


Suddenly whole sections of bookshops became devoted to misery literature (mis lit, although there is not much that’s literary about many of them) or, as bookstores prefer to call the genre, ‘painful lives’. The phenomenon reached its peak in the mid-noughties and has gone through numerous changes since – notably the miserable lives of rescued pets and those of celebrities who have battled childhood woes.

The most recent examples include a memoir, The Wild Truth, from Carine McCandless, whose brother’s story was captured in the book and film Into the Wild. The outdoorsman met a tragic end when his emaciated body was found months after he went missing during a trek in Alaska. According to his sister, Christopher McCandless was brought up in a ‘toxic family environment’.

Last year film and stage actor Alan Cumming published a much-hyped memoir of growing up in dreich Dundee, his childhood blighted by the figure of his terrifying father who was prone to inexplicable demands on his two sons, which morphed into rages that terrorised his family and taught the young Cumming the value of putting on an act

Billy Connolly has also come out as the victim of an abusive father. Only with the help of his wife, the therapist Pamela Stephenson, has he been able to fully deal with what he called his ‘A-levels in guilt’. Two more books followed.

It’s not just the rich and famous though. There are any number of ordinary people who have written books about surviving years of physical, psychological or sexual abuse. They often have washed-out photos on the covers and titles like the classic Daddy, Please, No.

No one can deny that the bullying, abuse and trauma suffered by children at the hands of adults is a dreadful thing that needs to be stopped. Such experiences wreck people’s lives forever. Not everyone can afford expensive therapists like Alan Cumming who has, to a large extent, overcome his childhood trauma and a father who disowned his own son.

Writing your story can, of course, be a great form of therapy and catharsis. Maybe reading about someone else’s experience and how they triumphed – or at least came to terms their experiences – might be helpful in understanding your own messed up parents. But does this really explain the fascination for these childhood stories?

Childhood abuse has reached epidemic proportions but few of the volumes in the bookstores look at what causes adults to behave shockingly towards children. The worst examples of these books are self-pityingly written or loaded with self-help therapy jargon. You have to ask yourself why these books are so popular. Not all the readers are abuse survivors. Is it plain and simple prurience that attracts readers or is there something else at play here?

Certainly film and sports stars can suddenly appear much more human – fallible people like you and me. Mis lit may be a very useful escape valve for anyone who’s stressed and whose life is getting on top of them. Is there an unspoken reason for reading stories about life-shattering, horrendous events experienced as a child and how they were survived? Psychologist Oliver James has said: “downward social comparison is a very important mechanism by which we keep ourselves afloat.”

Most of these books have a good ending. As adults the victims work through their childhood horrors and make a success of their lives despite the hardship, or maybe because of it. Some people use bad experiences as an engine to propel themselves: “I am not an It! I am not worthless and will show the world by being an extra special person.” Of course there are countless people who are forever crushed and damaged by abuse but they tend not to write books and have them published.

Perhaps it’s this: no matter how depressed I am about my crap job, my burdensome emotional baggage, my disastrous relationships or my hopeless finances at least I didn’t have a monstrous mother beat me with wire coat hangers or a father who locked me in the basement. Let me be thankful for that! Moreover, my petty problems pale to insignificance when I look at these people’s experiences and, hey, they came out the other end and lived to tell the tale. n

Info: Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming is published in paperback by Canongate in May

Picture: Courtesy HarperCollins

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