Brendan O’Neill

Another child abuse memoir. Why can’t the past be private?

Another child abuse memoir. Why can't the past be private?
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I feel torn on pianist James Rhodes’ victory at the Supreme Court yesterday. On one hand, the lifting of the legal injunction preventing him from publishing his child-abuse memoir is a great strike for freedom of speech. But on the other hand — another child abuse memoir? Really?

Rhodes had an injunction taken out against him by his ex-wife. She claimed his autobiography, which is being published by Canongate, might cause ‘serious harm’ to their son, should he read it. She went to the High Court to try to secure a ban on the more difficult stuff in Rhodes’ memoir: the parts detailing the sexual abuse he suffered as a kid. She failed, but she did secure a temporary injunction on publication of the book. For the past year, Rhodes, under the name ‘MLA’ after the court decreed that his identity, as well as his book, should be kept from the public, has been fighting for his right to publish his memoir. Now he’s won.

Good, right? Yes, mostly. Preventing a man from publishing a book, especially one so personal, is censorship. The liberty to recall our own memories is a key part — perhaps the most important part — of the freedoms of thought and speech. If we aren’t in control of our own life narrative, what do we have control over? So, yes, legal injunctions against the revelation of horrific childhood events are a very bad thing.

But you know what isn’t such a bad thing? Personal, self-willed injunctions, the freely chosen decision to keep certain parts of our pasts private. This kind of positive injunction, this refusal to offer up everything about ourselves for public consumption, is in seriously short supply today. Rhodes’ book will become part of today’s tsunami of misery memoirs, taking its place next to book after book about the beastly things that are done to children. From WH Smith to your local library, you can’t swing a tote bag these days without hitting a tome on child abuse, evil mums, wicked priests, dastardly dads and other memoir monsters.

Their titles speak volumes. Don’t Tell Mummy. Please, Daddy, No. A Child Called It. How Could She?. The True-life Terror I Experienced As A Child. On it goes. Some bookshops now have entire sections devoted to misery memoirs, usually called something like ‘Real Lives’, whose shelves creak under the weight of sad, sordid books of revelation. That these books sell in their hundreds of thousands is worrying. Who’s reading them? Why? There’s an element of moral pornography here, a weird urge to peer into other people’s screwed-up pasts. Rhodes' own book contains pornographic detail about his abuse, about how 'a 40-year-old man forces his cock inside a six-year-old boy’s ass'. 'You want to know how to rip the child out of a child?', Rhodes asks. 'Fuck him. Fuck him repeatedly. Hit him. Hold him down and shove things inside him.' What is the point of this? It seems designed both to horrify and titillate, to give misanthropic voyeurs a moral-outrage thrill. It's too much information. It feels wrong even quoting it.

This cult of revelation, this desire to peel back the curtain on every horror and mishap in our lives, is far from positive. It speaks of a serious collapse in the distinction between our private lives and public personas, so that people increasingly think nothing of sharing their most intimate experiences online, on TV, in books. And it reinforces a view of humanity as, ultimately, wicked. Families are abusive, childhood is dangerous, teachers are predatory, even mothers can’t be trusted — that’s the take-home message of the misery-memoir industry.

Let’s take out injunctions on ourselves, and keep in check this urge to tell all. We should stop defining ourselves by the horrors that befall us, and deprive the public of access-all-areas in our lives. Legal injunctions stopping people from speaking are a very bad thing indeed; but mental injunctions on ourselves, where we discriminate between that which is private and that which should be public, are a very civilised thing.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

Topics in this articleSocietychild abuse