The Pornography of Misery Memoirs
The Daily Mail 9th October 2007
You may remember the story of Dana Fowley.
She came to public attention after declaring that she still loves her mother, Catherine Dunsmore, even though Dunsmore “supplied” Dana, now 27, and her sister to a 15-strong paedophile ring, which systematically raped and molested her from the age of six to 15.
She made this statement of forgiveness outside the Edinburgh court in which her mother had just been handed a ten-year sentence for her astonishingly wicked acts.
On seeing one of her abusers less than ten years after her ordeal ended, Dana tried to kill herself with an overdose of insulin, before fully revealing her secrets to her husband Paul.
As a result, after Dana had kept what happened to her hidden for most of her life, her mother and the gang were brought to justice.
That was in June. So what has Dana done in the short time since then? Well, she’s been talked into selling her story to a publisher for a staggering £200,000, through Susan Smith at literary agency MBA.
Am I the only one to think that the gaggle of publishers who bid so high so quickly have more than a whiff of ambulance-chasers about them?
This is a young woman only now coming to terms with the appalling suffering she kept hidden for most of her life. Hers was the kind of experience that takes years to overcome in the gentle and confidential surroundings of the therapist’s room.
But, judging by the current trend for ever more graphic tales of sexual abuse, just months after seeing her mother incarcerated Dana will be expected to perform an emotional striptease and deliver up every graphic detail of her abuse for public consumption.
Every molestation, every forced depravity and every betrayal by her mother is likely to be demanded in full colour for readers who will revel in the pornography of misery.
If Dana’s book follows the disturbing wave of recent misery memoirs, it will read as if you were there: as if you were the victim – or the perpetrator.
Even among the ghoulish world of misery memoir publishing there is a sense of shock at the haste with which Dana has been pounced on.
“I think it is going to be the most horrible yet,” says one ghostwriter, with a hint of relish at the detail it may reveal.
“I have heard it described as ‘the book to end all books’ on the subject.”
Well, I wish it were. Because the slew of such memoirs pumped out at the behest of supermarkets – which sell these books in the kind of quantities normally reserved for The Da Vinci Code – have crossed a line this year.
Rather than inspire, they risk titillating with the intimate detail they provide: members of religious cults rape young girls, fathers rape sons.
The descriptions are vivid and explicit as publishers fall over themselves to provide increasingly shocking accounts to take a chunk out of a market that is now worth £24 million.
In Please, Daddy, No: A Boy Betrayed, Stuart Howarth provides relentless detail about repeated rapes by his father. He was even forced by the brute to have sex with pigs.
David Thomas in Tell Me Why, Mummy provides a lurid account of his drunken mother forcing him to “pleasure” her.
In Damaged: The Heartbreaking True Story Of A Forgotten Child, Cathy Glass not only tells us that Jodie, a seven-year-old placed in her care, had been abused, but that within days of moving into the Glass home, the little girl was masturbating on the sitting-room sofa and smearing her face with excrement.
In each book you will read how children are abused, tortured and coerced into keeping Daddy’s, Uncle’s or Mummy’s “little secret”.
No wonder that some claim these uninhibited accounts offer paedophiles tips on how to groom children and ensure their foul activities remain closeted.
Not that the publishers and ghostwriters responsible see it that way.
“A lot of those readers are women with children,” insists Carol Tonkinson, non-fiction publisher at Harper-Collins, the market leader in misery lit – though the publisher prefers the name “inspirational literature” (like fairy tales, a happy ending is compulsory).
“Eighty-five percent of these books sell in supermarkets,” she replies, when I tell her about the unsavoury men I have seen hanging round the “abuse/incest” section in the Borders bookshop chain.
So why do they sell so well? I suppose that in the same way a horror film gives us a vicarious thrill by allowing us to be terrified without any risk to ourselves, so reading stories of abuse from the comfort of our sofas means we can experience the chill of fear and disgust as voyeurs, without ever having to confront such nightmares in our own lives.
Apart from anything else, they inevitably make us feel better about ourselves even if we have only vaguely functional families.
Carol Tonkinson is adamant the books serve a worthy purpose: they show victims how to escape abuse and warn those in its proximity about the symptoms. “The authors often say that writing the book has given them closure.”
Like many making money from this market, she is messianic in her zeal for misery lit and the importance of victims to put across their side of the story, although even she has qualms about what may be demanded of Dana Fowley. “We felt it was just too extreme for us,” she admits.
The “King of Misery” is Andrew Crofts, one of the ghostwriters of Jane Elliott’s The Little Prisoner (the story of a woman who was kept prisoner by her violent and sexually abusive stepfather); Stuart Howarth’s horrifying tome; and a book by Tom Wilson called Tears Before Bedtime, about the abuse he suffered in a children’s home, which is out this month.
“I feel strongly that these books need to be as open and frank as possible,” he insists. “Only by shining a bright light into the very murkiest of corners do we stand any chance of robbing these abusers of at least some of their power over their victims.”
But Crofts’ claim of empowering victims is not the whole story. The intimate exposure involved leaves every gruesome fact of a vulnerable person’s life in the public domain where they have no control over how it is used – or abused – by readers.
No wonder that therapist Barbara McKay, director of the Institute of Family Therapy, is sceptical about how helpful these books are to victims.
“In years and years of working in therapy with victims of abuse I have never come across one client who has chosen to write a book about their abusive experiences as a means of coping with them,” she says.
“Your future can define you as much as your past, but if you write about your suffering for public consumption, you are in danger of being defined only by your past, by the very thing you are trying to overcome.”
In other words, it makes it even harder to escape a terrible past when it is writ large in stacks in the aisles at a supermarket.
An argument repeated by publishers to me when justifying the harrowing detail is that “the readers of these books are less well educated and need graphic detail to make them understand the impact of abuse”.
Oh, please! How stupid does a person have to be if they don’t understand the terrible impact of sexual abuse without having to read the horrific detail?
The chief reason to include detail that borders on pornographic is to entertain a prurient readership which would otherwise be reading about Fred and Rose West in the kind of True Crime books upmarket publishers like to sneer at.
Publishers churn out these misery tales for one reason: they sell.
The phenomenon began when Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It raced up the charts in 2000. Publishers sat up.
When his follow-up books were equally successful – how many misery memoirs can one man write – selling 3.5 million copies in the UK alone, publishers did what they always do when they sniff a lucrative new market: they jumped right in. And they have been rewarded.
Toni McGuire’s Don’t Tell Mummy: A True Story Of Ultimate Betrayal, about a six year old abused by her father with her mother’s complicity, has sold a whopping 235,669 copies in paperback since publication in March.
The paperback of Stuart Howarth’s book has sold 107,168 since May, having sold a similar number in hardback.
Judy Westwater, meanwhile, who was “discovered” by John Peel on Radio 4′s Home Truths, has sold 204,743 copies of Street Kid: One Child’s Desperate Fight For Survival since it was published late last year.
One publishing editor confides with a grimace: “We hadn’t published misery memoirs because we felt they were distasteful – there are things you should tell your therapist, not the whole world.
“But these books dominate the bestseller lists, so we had to get our hands dirty. So,” he takes a deep breath, “last year we bought a book that had been sent in for a low advance. We stuck a picture on it of a little boy curled up crying in the corner of a white cover and gave it a one-word title.”
The book, published with none of the brouhaha usually associated with launches, was snapped up by the supermarkets, which have more power than anyone to make a book a bestseller.
“In the first week it reached the top ten,” the editor recalls, amazed. “It was the most cynical piece of publishing we have ever done.”
For agents, finding an author with a juicy tale to tell is lucrative. Advances for disturbing memoirs have passed into six figures.
Fowley’s £200,000 pales in comparison to the £500,000 paid for Mark Johnson’s Wasted, in which the former drug addict described how his father’s beatings drove him to a life of crime.
With money like that changing hands, the pressure is on to deliver not just the “great writing” publishers like to boast about, but a story that will shock enough to get the author on the This Morning sofa on TV.
The editorial director of one house admits: “When these books come in for consideration, whatever anyone says, you are looking at how shocking the story is, and the marketing team is asking: ‘Is she promotable? Can she squeeze out tears on Richard and Judy?’”
As to the claims that authors and agents are performing a public service, he says: “If that’s true, why do the books always go to the publisher paying the most money?”
Even celebrities are under pressure to dole out graphic abuse. TV cleaner Kim Woodburn’s Unbeaten: The Story Of My Brutal Childhood rode high in the bestseller charts after her revelation that she secretly buried her stillborn baby.
Susan Lamb, of Orion, which published Dave Pelzer, says: “People want the author’s heart and guts hanging on the washing line.”
But just because readers want it does not mean the trade should supply it. A line needs to be drawn. Claiming that explicit stories of sexual abuse benefit abused people everywhere is wishful thinking.
Yes, there are victims who will recognise what they went through. And yes, the victims of abuse who “write” the books may find catharsis (it’s amazing how much a six-figure advance can help with that).
But presenting sordid detail after sordid detail so that it is imprinted in the mind of readers is not healthy for anyone.
It may plant a seed in the minds of some unsavoury readers over whom no publisher has control. For victims exposed to the prying eye of the public, it may make them more vulnerable, not less, and on some deep emotional level, it risks making us all an accessory to their abuse.
For publishers to claim a moral high ground about books whose contents would be better off kept between client and therapist is disingenuous. It is all about profits – especially when they come from supermarket-sized sales.