In Defence of Misery Memoirs

Foster carer Cathy Glass, whose misery memoir Damaged was a no 1 in hardback and paperback and whose second memoir Hidden has just been published, responds to critics of ‘mis mems’ showing how they highlight terrible stories and can galvanise a public response.

Drunken mothers, bestial fathers, paedophilia and incest. They're the titillating popcorn of publishing today. So began an article in the Daily Mail (9/10/07) by Danuta Kean; titled The Pornography of Misery Memoir. It was a furious attack on inspirational memoirs and I read it on the same day that The Bookseller had announced: ‘Cathy Glass’ Damaged remained at number one for a sixth week. Only Toni Maguire’s Don’t Tell Mummy has topped the chart for longer this year.

I was greatly saddened to read Kean’s words, particularly as the journalist had interviewed me for nearly an hour over the telephone, when I had detailed, and quoted from, the overwhelming (and completely positive) response I had received from readers after the publication of my first memoir, Damaged. All of which she chose to ignore. Apparently the journalist’s remit (from the Mail) was to write about misery memoirs in a negative light, and her opening statement to me was that this genre was pornographic. I should have guessed at that point that the article was preordained, and nothing I, nor anyone else interviewed could say, would alter that. The Daily Mail, for whatever reason, is notoriously anti this type of book; and will not be tempted to look at the wider picture. I know, I have offered more than article, or an interview to show the other side of the story.

In writing her article I feel that not only has the journalist done herself a great professional disservice – having ignored the views of well-respected authorities working in the genre of inspirational memoirs - Andrew Croft and Carole Tonkinson to name two of the interviewees. But that she has also tried to undermine and negate the views of millions of people world-wide who have genuinely empathised and become better people from reading the memoirs of the survivors of abuse.

In Damaged I told the story of my relationship with a girl I fostered - Jodie, who had been horrendously abused at the hands of the very people who should have loved and protected her. Far from obtaining any voyeuristic pleasure from reading of Jodie’s abuse my (quarter of a million readers, to date) have been so incensed that they have been shocked into action, wanting to know how they can help change the system that allows abuse to go on undetected and fails to protect the vulnerable. Through my website I have been putting readers, who are desperate to help, in touch with campaigners and action groups. I have also been putting victims of abuse in touch with counsellors – the victims finally able to ask for help after years of silence because something in my book touched a chord and made them brave enough to speak out. One of the many positives coming out of this genre. The same has been true of my second fostering memoir – Hidden.

And what is the alternative if we do not write openly about abuse? - that abuse remains taboo, and behind closed doors, which allows exactly the right climate for it to perpetuate. Recent estimates show that one in four males, and one in three females, will have survived some form of sexual abuse before reaching the age of eighteen. In the UK that accounts for almost 21% of the population. At any one time there are upwards of 60,000 children in care in the UK, and, as I wrote, in the preface to Damaged – ‘they are the lucky ones. Concealed behind this figure are countless others; defiled, abused, and undiscovered by Social Services, often until it’s too late.’ Unpleasant though it is, abuse has to be in the public arena where it can be acted on, and vulnerable young people will not be left in a living hell for years. What better medium to raise public awareness than the commercial end of the book market? And if the victim receives some remuneration for their story, why not? They surely deserve it. If the journalist has problems with this (which clearly she does) then she can view it as compensation – and it didn’t come out of the common purse.

I was shocked when the journalist first suggested to me that inspirational (or misery) memoirs were pornographic. I was doubly shocked, and saddened, when I read her article, as I am sure the millions of readers world-wide who read this genre would have been. Danuta Kean classified us all as closet paedophiles, taking vicarious pleasure from others suffering, which is clearly perverted nonsense. A scroll down the hundreds of entries in my blog show the real reason people read inspirational memoirs, and this is are only fraction of the huge number of readers who felt compelled to write:

…thank you for bringing this to our attention…

…thank you for opening my eyes to all the bad things that go on behind closed doors…The general public’s collective conscience wants to know what is going on in our society, and wants something done to right the wrong.

I haven’t spoken out before, but after reading your book, I intend to.

I’ve always wanted to work with disadvantaged children, and now I will.

One social worker wrote: I am aware the system does not always look after all the children in the way that it should. I am returning to my fostering team on Monday and will be recommending they all read Damaged and Hidden.

Readers found the book therapeutic in rationalising their own problems – My husband did some reverse psychology. He hoped that by reading your amazing book, it would help me realise that I am not a failure, and that I am a good parent. It has worked!

And others suddenly realised how lucky they were – I thank god for my own loving family, was repeated time and time again.

Then there were the emails and letters from adults who had been abused as children and had identified and found comfort in what they had read:

Reading this book has made me want to speak up again about the abuse I suffered.

This book touched my heart… it gave me permission to allow the child in me to voice her sadness and I am now seeing a therapist. Thank you for the gift of the words from this book. I am truly grateful…I have a tear again in my eye as I write to you.

So did I.

These are the real reasons people read inspirational memoirs – a genuine, heartfelt empathy for one’s fellow human beings, and the desire to help those who have suffered and change society for the better. The journalist does the reading public a grave disservice, and I think her article says more about shock-tactics used for selling newspapers than it does to advance the cause of good literature.

About article author

Cathy Glass

Cathy Glass

Cathy has been a foster carer for over 25 years, during which time she has looked after more than 150 children, of all ages and backgrounds. She is a specialist foster carer, also referred to as a level three carer, which means she often looks after children with complex needs or those with very ...More about Cathy Glass