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.