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In Contesting Childhood, Kate Douglas explores how authors of memoirs portray their early years. She is particularly interested in memoirs since the 1990s, which was when the genre came into its own with Mary Karr's The Liar's Club and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. Both these memoirs recount difficult experiences involving abuse and neglect, and these themes are common in the genre; hence the book also examines the representation of trauma. Douglas is Australian, and she includes many memoirs by Australian authors, which have some distinctive themes, particularly regarding Stolen Generations, which many readers will need to read up on to understand. However, the bulk of her book covers works by American and British writers, and Douglas shows familiarity with a wide range of books. Fans of the genre will be noting down many memoirs they want to try as they read Douglas's comparisons and contrasts of many authors.
The writing in the book is academic but approachable. Occasionally Douglas refers to theories and schools of thought that many readers will be unfamiliar with, but she never gets highly technical. Here for example is one of the more technical passages in the first chapter.
Both Karr and Sage set out to inscribe an adverse history of childhood into the mythology of the golden age. They are shaped by a personally felt need to "write back" to these myths as accomplished, educated adults and to acknowledge their origins as lower class and rural. These feminist critiques contribute to rights-of-the-(girl)-child debates. (32)
Very occasionally there are uses of theory that seems gratuitous and overblown, and she might use the word "inscribe" more than one would like. There is one reference to Michel Foucault in the text, and it didn't do significant work; there was a gesture to some poststructuralist theory rather than a thorough investment in it, and the point Douglas was making could have been made without it. For the most part, she avoids big theories and sticks to well substantiated claims based on careful readings of the texts.
The main claims Douglas makes are pretty straightforward. She locates memoirs in historical, political, and cultural contexts and identifies common themes. She also shows a strong understanding of the book as commercial product and occasion for public comment. She has a whole chapter devoted to the book covers and their meaning, which is particularly interesting and innovative; it also makes plenty of sense to address that aspect of the book, even though it is not part of the text and is not determined by the author. She discusses newspaper and television interviews with some authors, the blurbs about them on book jackets, as well as the way they portray themselves. Douglas also refers to the reader comments on books at Amazon.com at various points, as a way of investigating the public reception of books. This too is an unusual and welcome move, showing resourcefulness and a commitment to cultural studies done well.
Given that Douglas believes that memoirs not only need to be understood in cultural context, but also shed a great deal light on that context, she proceeds in Chapter 4 to discuss the culture of nostalgia. Her discussion is thoughtful and complex. However, the book becomes more interesting once she turns her focus to trauma in Chapter 5. She discusses several memoirs of abuse and trauma from Australia, Britain and the USA, and she highlights how gender and class play important roles in them. Male authors politicize show the vulnerability of boys and the existence of the sexual abuse of boys, and this challenges many assumptions about common and respected institutions. By now, we are very familiar with the fall that the Roman Catholic Church has suffered in public respect, but for many years anyone who made allegations against such powerful institutions would risk disbelief. Through such events, our understanding of the Church has changed, but so has our understanding of masculinity. We are seeing a great deal more vulnerability and weakness, and there are shared elements between the abuse stories of girls and boys.
These trauma memoirs sometimes address healing through the writing process, and also draw attention to the writing by explicitly acknowledging that the memories may be wrong. Writing becomes more than just a record of the past, and is seen more as a construction of a childhood that preserves essential parts that are emotionally true to the past while not necessarily capturing things as they really happened. Through writing, the author comes to terms with the past, understands it, and explains it. Douglas moves away from a neutral anthropological stance at the end of her chapter by welcoming the proliferation of trauma narratives as a way to enhance public understanding of childhood abuse. She argues that the diversity of narratives has enriched the perception of the ways children are hurt, exploited and neglected by their caregivers and those in a position of responsibility for them.
Douglas continues to explore moral issues in Chapter 6, where she discusses the responsibilities of memoir authors to their families and to their readers. Her main examples are Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors, Constance Briscoe's Ugly, and Dave Pelzer's A Child Called "It." Running with Scissors stands out in many ways from the crowd of other memoirs, largely because of the wit and humor of the writing, and also because the story is so bizarre, even compared to other books in the same genre. Douglas argues that Burroughs takes sides with his childhood self against his mother and her irresponsible psychiatrist who takes him in as a boy. The book's appeal lies in it being "a renegade, unethical text with unconventional heroes and wacky villains" (139). Nevertheless, Douglas disapproves, arguing that "testimony should invite informed debate upon itself" (144). She criticizes the authors under consideration precisely for closing off such debate. The one-sidedness of an adult describing terrible treatment at the hands of an abusive parent or other adult gives Douglas reason to pause. She links this one-sidedness with a lack of forgiveness of abusers. While most memoirs depict some form of resolution and even forgiveness on the part of the surviving child, some writers are distinctly bitter and angry. But those named as abusers have no ability to stand up to the charges against them, because the tables have turned, and now the author has all the power. Douglas argues that this enables a simplistic black and white morality that evades moral complexities and fails to represent the struggles of those depicted as villains.
This suggestion is particularly interesting, although she does not offer much defense of it. If one has been abused, to what extent does one have to appreciate the experience of one's abusers and give it due accord in telling one's story? Douglas says that there are limits to this, and she is not asking for equal time for all points of view. But she does insist that an ethical writer should show awareness of moral complexity, on the ground that readers will be more receptive to writers who do this. This is a strange reason, since as Douglas herself admits, people generally prefer simple heroes and villains; the success of the genre of memoirs of abused children indicates precisely that most readers do not want moral complexity. Nevertheless, Douglas has at least raised an important issue which gets little discussion beyond the need for authors to tell the truth.
Chapter 8 examines how readers interpret memoirs of childhood, ranging from professional reviewers to those who post reviews on Amazon.com. It makes a number of interesting observations about the role of reviewers and the particular difficulty of deciding on what standards to judge such memoirs. The discussion of internet book reviews is also worthwhile, given that few academics have seriously addressed the issue. Her main insight is this: "When it comes to trauma and the child, readers commonly feel ethically bound to particular modes of witnessing -- to approaching the text in ways that demonstrate their intellectual and emotional commitment, and even gratitude, in receiving this narrative." (168) This makes it difficult for readers to critically respond to these memoirs, and she argues that scholars should focus on the craft of writing and the ethics of autobiographical storytelling.
The concluding chapter addresses Web 2.0 and life-writing on the internet. It makes a number of relevant observations, but really this is a topic for a larger investigation. Douglas's focus on MySpace.com seems particularly dated since that site is long past its prime, and she mentions Facebook only once. Of course, when writing about the internet in a book, one runs the danger of becoming irrelevant before the book is published, and this chapter more than any other needs updating. It also needs strengthening; as it stands, it is more sociological observation and a repetition of the importance of life writing in the contemporary world.
Overall, this is a valuable book. It surveys contemporary memoirs of childhood, especially traumatic childhoods, and analyzes their place in contemporary culture. Douglas is exactly right: these memoirs are influential and they do deserve careful scrutiny. Even if one does not agree with all her views, this work deserves careful study and hopefully it will spur other scholars to focus on how the portrayal of childhood frames some of the most important social issues of our day.
© 2012 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York