Family Issues

Misery Porn

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Frank Furedi with a long, thoughtful essay excoriating the literary trend in misery memoirs and its potentially dire cultural effects. Some excerpts:

Book publishers often claim that misery memoirs are popular because they provide life-affirming stories of survival. In truth, the reason why they sell in millions is because they give permission to the reader to enter into a supposedly private world of intense degradation, appalling cruelty and pain. These memoirs confess to so much that they take on the character of a literary striptease. They provide titillating and very graphic accounts of traumatic pain which actually turn readers into voyeurs. And, as in real porn, there is a lot of faking going on, too.

…………

If victimisation within the family is pandemic, then quite clearly we should mistrust even those who are closest to us. The focus of our angst and anxiety should no longer be the alien stranger or criminal but our family relations, neighbours, friends, lovers and workmates. This new approach to everyday life has fundamentally redefined the way we are expected to relate to those who are closest to us physically and emotionally. ……..This is the message conveyed on a daily basis through books, TV and other forms of popular culture: that the family is a dangerous institution, and thus life itself must be pretty dense with risks, fear and distrust.

Popular culture retains a strain of respect for privacy and family life – yet here, too, powerful forces continually try to 'expose' the harmful deeds of toxic parents. Increasingly popular terms like the 'dark side of family life' invoke a sense of dread about private and thus invisible relations. ………..

In line with today's prevailing cultural outlook, people are more and more expected to blame their personal failings on their parents or siblings. Stories of childhood misery continually inform us that regrettable events in our formative years determine our future destinies. Expressions such as 'scarred for life' or 'damaged for life' give us the impression that, no matter what happens to us as adults and no matter what we achieve, we remain prisoners of past events.

Worth reading in full. Via Arts and Letters Daily .

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  1. Or you can make up your own character allegedly prostituted by your mother, give yourself a two initial nom de plume, and parade your little sister around in a big hat and shades claiming that she’s the author. What could that amount to? An interview on NPR? Accolades from every culturally hip standard-bearer? Why waste people’s time with real tales of your own sad life, give yourself the JT Leroy makeover!

  2. Expressions such as ‘scarred for life’ or ‘damaged for life’ give us the impression that, no matter what happens to us as adults and no matter what we achieve, we remain prisoners of past events.

    More importantly, ideas of being ruined at a young age free us from the responsibility of improving ourselves and providing for ourselves. Even if it doesn’t give us license to be total wrecks, it at least gives us that vital safety net when we blow it: “My parents screwed me up.”

  3. Book publishers often claim that misery memoirs are popular because they provide life-affirming stories of survival. In truth, the reason why they sell in millions is because they give permission to the reader to enter into a supposedly private world of intense degradation, appalling cruelty and pain.

    Can’t it be both?

    This is the message conveyed on a daily basis through books, TV and other forms of popular culture: that the family is a dangerous institution, and thus life itself must be pretty dense with risks, fear and distrust.

    Or maybe people feel better and more comfortable with their own families as a result of the comparison. I usually hear the reaction “isn’t it amazing that a family could be that messed up?”

  4. “The focus of our angst and anxiety should no longer be the alien stranger or criminal but our family relations, neighbours, friends, lovers and workmates.”

    The number of people murdered by strangers is tiny compared to the number of people murdered by those who love* them.

  5. The number of people murdered by strangers is tiny compared to the number of people murdered by those who love* them.

    Nope.

    “Concerning the relationships (if known) of murder victims and offenders, 22.4 percent of victims were slain by family members; 25.4 percent were murdered by strangers. (Based on Expanded Homicide Data Table 9.)”
    http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/05cius/offenses/expanded_information/murder_homicide.html

    “In 1996, over 50 percent of all murder victims knew their assailants: 13 percent were related and 38 percent were acquainted. Fifteen percent of the victims were murdered by strangers, while the relationships among victims and offenders were unknown for 35 percent of the murders. (Ibid., p. 17)”
    http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/assist/nvaa/supp/o-ch16.htm

  6. P Brooks-
    I think you’re basing your logic on new stories rather than hard data–we hear more about family/friend murders because the media knows people are more (morbidly so) interested in them.

    Anybody remember that South Park episode where everyone was afraid of strangers, then friends, ect? The point kinda was that by overly “protecting” your children from these freak incidents you’re causing them significant harm.
    Sorry to employ the South Park defence, but I thought it was relevent.

  7. A somewhat relevant Oscar Wilde quote:

    When people talk to us about others they are usually dull. When they talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown wearied, they would be perfect absolutely.

    from “The Critic as Artist.”

  8. Kathy Bates and James Caan did it? I don’t remember that part. Thankfully.

  9. Sorry, this rag claims to be influenced by Marx AND John Stuart Mill? Isn’t that a ninjas versus pirates situation?

  10. People taking vicarious pleasure in pain and degradation via other people’s childhood memoirs are demented and sick. Those things should be experienced directly between consenting adults.

    YES MISTRESS!

  11. don’t forget the safe word.
    don’t forget the safe word.
    don’t forget the safe word.

    D’OH!!!!!!!

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