Tag Archives: Brendan O’Neill

The memoir police

2 Jun

Derrida Quote


A couple of years ago, British concert pianist James Rhodes succeeded in his efforts to have the English Supreme Court overturn an injunction granted to his ex-wife that prevented him publishing his memoir of a childhood in which he was sexually abused.

Hs ex-wife was granted the injunction on the grounds that the book would upset their son, should he ever read it.

Rhodes’ memoir has since been published.

Spectator journalist Brendan O’Neill thought this was a just outcome, however, as he argues in this piece titled Another child-abuse memoir: why can’t the past be private, the injunction should have been a personal one, applied by Rhodes against himself, because people should simply not write “misery memoirs” whose “take-home message is that humanity is ultimately wicked.”

A few days ago, SMH journalist Kath Kenny published this piece titled Our insatiable appetite for women’s tragic stories, in which she expresses her frustration with what she calls a “first-person traumatic complex” or as O’Neill would have it, the misery memoir industry. Apparently it’s virtually de rigueur to disclose traumatic events if you want to get ahead in reality TV or the published world, and people who don’t have anything traumatic enough to relate are being discriminated against.

Then Helen Razer published this piece titled Writers and artists your personal pain is not a blow for justice, in which she argues that the personal is no longer political and, puzzlingly, that we don’t need any more personal stories, we need more bulk-billing, as if one has any effect at all on the other.

Like O’Neill, Razer states her belief that some traumatic tales are too horrifying to be publicly told, and it would be better for everyone if they were kept private. There is, she argues, no longer a possible political outcome from  the writing of the self: that ship has sailed. Whether or not you agree with this statement depends entirely on your definition of the political.

Razer’s piece is more interesting than either of the others, and I believe that out of the three, she is the only one to have written her own memoir of surviving suicidal depression. I learned this from someone who took her on in the comments with barely disguised accusations of hypocrisy.

While none of these journalists have the ability to silence those who choose to write or speak about traumatic events they’ve survived, it is interesting that all three are making a bid to prescribe what our public narratives should and should not accommodate, and to determine what is suitable for public consumption and what ought to remain private. None of the journalists offer any evidence to substantiate their views: apparently they just feel it’s all gone too far, or to be specific, it’s gone too far for their comfort.

I’m not entirely sure how to respond to these complaints from the privileged about there being too many published accounts of private trauma. I think, certainly for women, it has only been possible to write the self at all for the last three decades or so, which in the scheme of things is barely a nano second so it seems a little premature for cultural critics to be telling us we ought to shut up about it.

There is also an enormous amount of scholarly literature on autobiography and memoir, that reveals the genres to be rich and complex. Indeed I wrote my Honour’s thesis on that very topic. For example, who is the “I” who writes? “I am spacious, singing Flesh, onto which is grafted no one knows which I…” exalts Hélène Cixous.

“Writing so as not to die,” observed Foucault “is a task as old as the world.” There are trauma survivors who write so as not to die, either metaphorically or literally. I find it extremely difficult to speak about my childhood trauma. Writing is my liberation, my mastery of what once governed me.

Nobody is forcing anyone to read our work.

To claim that work isn’t political is ridiculous.

To be sure, there’s some bad writing in the memoir genre, as there is in every other genre but that’s a matter of aesthetics and taste. I’m about to read Nick Cave’s The Song of the Sick Bag and after that there’s Patti Smith’s The M Train waiting on my bookshelf. There’s some memoir I wouldn’t go near, which doesn’t mean it ought not to have been written, but that this is a question of interest and personal taste.

It is, I think, mean-spirited and not a little ignorant to complain about others writing memoirs of trauma.

The division between public and private has always worked in favour of the powerful and the abusive. It’s not a little chilling to find our cultural critics calling for a withdrawal of traumatic stories back into the private from which they have so recently been liberated.










Why tough talk won’t stop London burning: look to Johnny Rotten

10 Aug

Predictably, British PM David Cameron is talking tough, threatening anarchic marauders with the full force of the law, promising terrified residents that the government will defeat the masked and hooded teenage hoodlums with the toughest possible action. He will jail them. He will put them in juvenile detention. He will teach them not to burn and loot, by God he will.

Meanwhile, the bizarrely opinionated Brendan O’Neill of Spiked, recently in Australia where he earned a reputation for thoroughly irritating an astonishing cross section of people, has decided that the entire responsibility for the chaos can be laid at the door of the bloody welfare state. The offending yobs have suckled at the state’s tit for their entire lives, and so have their parents, and as a consequence none of them have the slightest idea about standing on their own two feet and behaving decently like their working class grandparents did. By God, the English aren’t what they used to be.

A brief aside: I was brought up by working class grandparents for a few years, and the difference was they really were working class because there was work for them to do. My granddad was never unemployed: the coal mines or the gasworks gave us food on our table and a Saturday drink at the club. Very different times, Brendan.

Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian alleges that the rioters have the “opportunistic desire to steal and get away with it.” Which, come to think of it, also describes the motives of many of those financial types who got away with ruining untold investors and still managed to reward themselves. Or the British MPs who stole taxpayers money to build moats around their castles, and swimming pools, and pay for illicit sex and exotic holidays and extra houses near Hampstead Heath.

Or even the police and politicians who fell on their knees before the Murdoch empire and turned a blind eye to vile illegalities that empire was busily engaged in perpetrating. These same police and politicians are now claiming the high moral ground in their shocked outrage against the raging youth, and in their self-righteous determination to get these delinquents who’ve had the nerve to behave really, really badly. But where are the leaders with any moral compass? Who’s setting a moral example? The rot starts at the top.

That the rioters have trashed their own neighbourhoods has been the source of much bewilderment. It’s not rocket science. These kids don’t consider themselves as part of any community. They don’t perceive themselves as having a stake in any neighbourhood. Alienation at this level comes with enormous and inarticulate rage. They don’t belong. They can’t belong. They’ll never belong. How did a society let this happen?

This isn’t a social movement designed to challenge the status quo and bring about change. This is pure destruction, and self-destruction. These kids don’t care, and they especially don’t care about themselves. Incarcerate them for a few years and they’ll likely come out worse. If David Cameron or anyone else is kidding themselves that tough talk is going to even touch these youths, they’re dreamin.’ The time for tough talk is long gone. When you ain’t got nothin’ you got nothin’ to lose, and like Bob, I’m not talking about material possessions.

The nihilistic lyrics of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols pretty much sum up the mindset:

When there’s no future, how can there be sin?
We’re the flowers in the dustbin
We’re the poison in the human machine
We’re the future, we’re the future…God Save the Queen

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