• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Keeping mum: Julie Myerson on her contoversial new book

IT’S AS if she’s broken the last taboo. Novelist Julie Myerson’s controversial decision to turn her teenage son’s troubles into a book – creating a clever generational twist on the misery-lit phenomenon – has seen her cast as the worst mother since Rosemary West.

Thanks to her, the world now knows every cough and splutter of Jake’s journey from star pupil to dishevelled cannabis user: how he stole from his parents to fund his habit; played his electric guitar at full volume in the garden; encouraged his younger siblings to share his joints (a claim he vehemently denies) and was finally kicked him out of the family’s £800,000 house in Tooting at the age of 17 when he hit his mother, perforating her eardrum.

Thanks to his father Jonathan – a playwright and magistrate – chipping in with his own version of events, they have a clear image of him stumbling out of the front door “looking scruffy and unkempt” and reliant on one of his friend’s parents for a roof over his head.

In all their public utterances on the subject, the Myersons have focused on the pain they have suffered at Jake’s hands. But if – by offering up her family’s ordeal up for public delectation – the Man Booker prize short-listed author hoped to elicit sympathy, she must be sorely disappointed. In the furore that erupted after news she had written it broke, Myerson has been lambasted as egotistical, manipulative and cynical, and accused of a gross betrayal of everything it means to be a parent.

Jake himself – now 20 – has branded his mother “slightly insane and naive” for being unable to tell the difference between “smoking a spliff and being a drug addict”, adding: “What she has done has taken the very worst years of my life and cleverly blended it into a work of art, and that to me is obscene.”

But many outside observers have been a good deal less charitable. “(She] is a totally self-obsessed, me-me-me individual, who has cynically used her son’s drug problems to further her own career,” said one of the hundreds of irate posters who have formed a virtual mob baying for her blood. Others dismissed her as a “moral pygmy” and implied her rampant self-absorption would be enough to drive any self-respecting teenager to drugs.

Myerson’s attempts to justify herself on Newsnight backfired when she came across as smug and sanctimonious as opposed to angst-ridden, while her insistence that she wrote the book to help other parents experiencing similar travails was undermined when it was rushed out two months earlier than planned to capitalise on all the unexpected publicity.

Setting the seal on Myerson’s image as an aberration of nature, was her eventual admission that she was the anonymous author of the now-defunct Guardian’s Living With Teenagers column, in which a mother charted every aspect of her children’s puberty, from their abusive hormonal outbursts to the growth of their first pubic hairs.

But there are two sides to every story. Drowned out by the outrage, are the voices of a handful of parents whose own families have been ripped apart by drugs, and who welcome the discussion this middle-class meltdown has provoked. Debra Bell, who got to know the Myersons because her son William was also using cannabis, said: “I know that it’s been a nightmare for Julie, but I firmly believe she made the right decision both in terms of the tough love and in writing about it.”

So was the Myersons’ decision to kick their son out of the house an act of altruism or an over-reaction born of bourgeois hysteria? And was turning a teenager’s trauma into copy a good way to raise awareness of the challenges of parenting or a cynical breach of trust?

The Myersons say Jake’s troubles started when he was 15. Up to then, he was the model pupil, easy-going, biddable and hard-working. But, in the year of his GCSEs, his behaviour started to degenerate – he became sullen and apathetic, began staying in bed for long stretches, and was prone to violent outbursts. Gradually – and this is where it starts to get contentious – his parents realised that what they had considered as the odd casual joint, was actually an addiction to skunk.

Soon Jake had given up any pretence of studying, money started disappearing from people’s purses, and the Myersons began to suspect he was “dealing” to his two younger siblings. “One morning I discover that he’s been giving his 13-year-old brother drugs,” his mother has written. “He and his friends – selling him cannabis. Teaching him to roll a joint when he still occasionally plays with Lego and listens to story tapes at night.”

The Myersons say they threatened their son, reasoned with him, tried to draw up contracts, but to no avail, so they felt they had no choice but to kick him out. Since then, there have been brief attempts at reconciliation; periods where they have relented and allowed him to come back home, only to send him packing again – but no real progress has been made. That’s the bare bones of the Myersons’ story, from their perspective.

As far as it goes, it’s not so very different from that experienced by middle-class parents across the country. Where it breaks the mould, is the way in which Myerson responded. Rather than retreating to her room to work through her maternal angst in private, or seeking solace from a parents’ support group, she turned the book she was writing about the life and early death of Victorian artist Mary Yelloly – into an examination of her own “lost child”.

Defending herself against claims she was making a fast buck at her son’s expense, the Newsnight Review panellist – whose semi-autobiographical first novel Sleepwalking drew on her own abused childhood – said she wanted to portray Jake as a “loveable, likeable boy”. She said: “It is a book about how much I love him, not a character assassination”. And some critics who have read The Lost Child have been moved by the deep sense of loss it evokes.

Others, however, remain unconvinced. They speak of Myerson’s lack of insight and suggest what she interprets as Jake’s consenting to the publication of her book, reads more like the sulky resignation of someone who knows there is nothing he can do to stop it happening. It is disconcerting too to find out that for all the soul searching Myerson claims she did before deciding to publish, she paid Jake £1,000 for the use of his teenage poems.

To sociologist Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, Myerson’s book is less a self-help manual for the guardians of troubled teenagers than an abdication of parental responsibility.

“I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t write about your children’s problems in a way which stimulated discussion, but I think this book is about self-promotion,” Furedi says. “It claims to have a message, but because of its intensely voyeuristic character all it does is satisfy people’s desire to pry. Arguing that it helps other parents deal with their own problems is a bit like arguing that books with pictures of naked ladies help people learn more about biology.”

Furedi says he believes in holding the line where teenagers are concerned, but objects to Myerson’s fatalism. “I have no problem with telling kids you can’t do this or that, but you do have a responsibility towards your children which extends to their destructive, antisocial behaviour. I feel at the root of this book is a need for self-justification and vindication.”

Relationship counsellor Suzie Hayman is someone accustomed to speaking to parents at the end of their tether. She is a trustee of Parentline, an organisation inundated with calls from mothers and fathers worried about their children’s drug use. They can be split into two groups, she says, those who are just engaging in teenage experimentation, and those who have a serious problem. Tellingly, Hayman believes the heaviest users are almost always using drugs to try to express anguish or escape trauma. “For many people, the first step in helping their child is to find out what is really going on and that may mean looking at their own lives,” she says. “Sometimes parents come to us seeking help with an ‘awful’ teenager but when they talk it through they realise they need help to change as well.”

Sadly – though Jake claims he turned to cannabis to block out his parents’ arguments – that element of introspection seems entirely lacking in Myerson’s account. As she watches her family self-combust, she seems to be asking not, “what did we do wrong?” but, “how could this happen to people like us?”

If the chattering classes were in need of their own Jade Goody, then the Myerson saga has given them plenty of gawp at. The conflicting accounts of the family’s estrangement which dominated last week’s newspapers were full of the kind of toe-curling domestic exchanges which make reality TV so compulsive.

All the flak has doubtless caused Myerson some embarrassment, but the publicity it has generated means The Lost Child is likely to fly off the shelves. But for Jake – now living in Camberwell and trying to forge a career in the music industry – its publication is likely to be the source of a humiliation far deeper than that experienced when his sneering friends told him he was the subject of the Living With Teenagers column.

“Dragging his troubles into a public arena has placed a terrible stain on (Jake’s] reputation,” says Hayman. “Even if he turns his life around he will always be that druggie kid whose mother wrote about him. It makes it extremely difficult for him ever to trust his mother again.”

The irony is that the book’s portrayal of fleeting moments of tenderness – such as when Jake moves Myerson to tears by singing a song he wrote for her – suggest that, despite his problems, he was not completely “lost” to his family. Yet the brutal way in which his parents have apparently exploited his pain may ensure its title is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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