a bookshelf full o' sorrows
August 12, 2008 6:36 PM   Subscribe

Starting with Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and Dave Pelzer's "A Child Called 'It'" "misery lit" has blossomed into a peculiar genre all its own, one especially popular with the British.
posted by freshwater_pr0n (57 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
one especially popular with the British.

I can't imagine why
posted by jonmc at 6:50 PM on August 12, 2008 [4 favorites]

Ha ha poor Irishman.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 6:57 PM on August 12, 2008

Ugh, yuck.

Imagine the fun as the one-upmanship reaches a fevered pitch in a year or two.
posted by lekvar at 6:58 PM on August 12, 2008

John Dolan on stories of suffering.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:01 PM on August 12, 2008

This is part of the bigger trend towards non-fiction and reality TV -- stuff like this used to be the mainstay of fiction, think of all the abuses poor Jane Eyre or David Copperfield survived.
posted by stbalbach at 7:02 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Imagine the fun as the one-upmanship reaches a fevered pitch in a year or two.

I remember thinking, way the hell back in the '90s, that Kathryn Harrison had to have taken the prize, that The Kiss couldn't possibly be beaten for dysfunctionality. But, like the internet, the memoir genre will always have horrors that are yet unplumbed. Yay!
posted by Countess Elena at 7:02 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was under the impression that Dave Peltzer's story was 100% bullshit. Is this incorrect?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:07 PM on August 12, 2008

One logical next step is towards the creative non-fiction mistery lit, that is, stories that are sort of real and sort of fiction. Examples include Dave Eggers What is the What?, in which Eggers wrote in the first-person voice of a Sudanese Lost Boy - the reader doesn't know, or even care, what is real and what is not. Another similar example is The Eaves of Heaven, an "autobiography" of a Vietnamese man who survived three wars (Japan, French Americans), but written by his son, we have no idea what is real or not. In a way, I don't think readers care if it's real, anymore than they care if the people on TV reality shows are "real" or not. This literature serves a function once the domain of fiction, so the whole argument of real is sort of irrelevant. It's more a desire for "truthiness", that it feels authentic.
posted by stbalbach at 7:10 PM on August 12, 2008

Meh. Angela's Ashes is no Moll Flanders.
posted by infinitewindow at 7:10 PM on August 12, 2008

Tried to read the "misery lit" link--couldn't make it pass the second paragraph.
posted by sourwookie at 7:24 PM on August 12, 2008

Have we already forgotten to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life?
posted by lukemeister at 7:25 PM on August 12, 2008

Scabby-eyed Irish kids!
posted by The Giant Squid at 8:06 PM on August 12, 2008

There is a huge strain of popular history books right now with the same approach. Let's really dwell on the pain of misery of these people, be they the Donner Party or Dust bowl residents or the survivors of the whale ship Essex. There is a sickening voyeurism to some of these works. We need a term for the phenomenon, I propose "the pornography of suffering."
posted by LarryC at 8:10 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are sub-genres. Not sure what A Child Called 'It' would class as, but Angela's Ashes is definitely "poverty porn".
posted by raygirvan at 8:12 PM on August 12, 2008

Scabby-eyed Irish kids!

"Eyes like two piss-holes in the snow".

That's all I really remember from Angela's Ashes, I'm afraid. That single, evocative, overused descriptor.
posted by padraigin at 8:45 PM on August 12, 2008

Frank McCourt is a liar. The fact that his moaning and whining passes for literature is our own fault for being such superficial and gossipy readers. We are full of shit; addicted to the stupid suffering of others. Where is actual invention ? Fiction is imagination. Lagging behind is worthless. Move on. Tale stock, you bastards.

Think about what you think and, whatever happens, do, into the sunset and as lightly as you can, succintly fuck off. Please.
posted by Old Rittenhouse at 8:50 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

This photo (scroll down to "Just Shoot Me") says it all.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 9:35 PM on August 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

Sounds like Morrisey belongs here.
posted by Eekacat at 9:36 PM on August 12, 2008

Please speak for yourself, O. R., or talk to yourself to yourself. Cheers.
posted by longsleeves at 9:36 PM on August 12, 2008

In olden times - reaching a spike during the Victorian era - true travel memoirs were the biggest bestsellers.

So opportunistic hacks shamelessly made stuff up -- describing cannibals where none existed, or finding forgotten tribes, or manufacturing lurid adventures of unprovable courage and derring-do in conveniently remote places. It sold by the ton.

I've a half-baked theory that these misery memoirs have replaced the accounts of the travel liars.

As the real world has become pretty much thoroughly explored, we look to internal voyages of discovery.

And to top the grunge of the most recent misery memoir, the hack practitioners create even more shocking accounts of themselves and their inner landscapes.

It's "here be monsters" all over again!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:00 PM on August 12, 2008 [4 favorites]

I'd think that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or perhaps Sybil (although it's not an autobiography) might be better starting-points for the history of 20th-c. misery lit. Although I Know... is nowhere near as, well, graphically miserable.

The nineteenth-century version of misery lit has to be that popular North American genre, the "escaped nun" narrative. E.g.: Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, Six Months in a Convent, Trial and Persecutions of Miss Edith O'Gorman. Or, from the male side of things, Fifty Years in the Church of Rome.

It's a little odd that the Guardian article spent next-to-no time discussing the veracity issue. They mention Kathy O'Beirne, but don't exactly talk about the controversy surrounding her book. (This sort of book does have a pretty lousy track record; all of the books I've cited in paragraph two were effectively debunked with more or less speed--by a Protestant, even, in the case of Maria Monk.)
posted by thomas j wise at 10:01 PM on August 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

This type of stuff is very popular in Australia as well - I get a lot of promotional stuff from publishers, and invariably there are at least two misery-lit-memoirs included in the upcoming publications.
The appeal of these books is meant to be the whole triumph of a survivor over horrible circumstances (usually awful abuse as a child) but really it is just porn by another name. I mean, really, how uplifting is it to read 100+ pages of how you were sold to your father's friends and then forcibly injected with drugs, and beaten, and whatever?
Hopefully it will all implode on itself soon and publishing will move onto another genre to hype.
posted by Megami at 10:59 PM on August 12, 2008

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I'd like to take a less pessimistic view of the popularity of books like these. I think everyone suffers. Let's start there. Now, some people obviously suffer more viscerally disturbing privations than others, of course. I think one reason that people read these books is because just knowing about someone else's suffering is a way of connecting emotionally, though I think that process is rather one-sided if you're reading a book and never meet the person. Still, the sense of identification can be very strong, especially if the person suffering is really pathetic, the sort of individual one would feel compelled to care for in real life.

I don't think it's really like pornography, personally. That seems like an overused term. It's more like a horror movie, or a suspense film: you voyeuristically experience the horror of suffering, but eventually resolution occurs. That's the critical moment. The reader reads these stories for the moment when equilibrium is restored and the suffering is seen to be only temporary.
posted by clockzero at 12:10 AM on August 13, 2008

This - Andrew Collins on his happy childhood ('they tucked me up, my mum and dad') - is a nice counterpoint to misery lit.
posted by rhymer at 1:29 AM on August 13, 2008

Ugh, yes, I saw an entire shelf unit full of these bloody books in a WH Smith's the other day, under the tag of 'Inspirational Stories', all with near-identical white jacket, rose-coloured lettering and soft-focus black and white picture of an unidentified child. It looked like someone had literally stamped out the same book five hundred times, just changing the title (sometimes by only one or two words) and the author. Clearly someone's reading them.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:35 AM on August 13, 2008

If any few books follow a pattern, often established by the first one that is successful, then there is--voila--a sub class of lit. One that has been around for some time is the "I was a crack/drug, booze addict"; hit bottom and lost everything; got into rehab a few times and Look at Me Now! Or: my father or mother or both abused, mistreated me and I made it on my own despite them...and on and on. A special favorite for the lit prof types: the academic novel--set at a college, belittles office politics etc. And for the would-be writer: the beginning writer and his blocks and failures till...yes! the first nolvel gets accepted and he or she is on the way.
posted by Postroad at 2:32 AM on August 13, 2008

I love the slightly maniacal misery-inflation of the titles to these things. i cackled out loud (sorry, tortured kids!) when i stumbled across this in an irish bookshop.
One could almost give them all the same title and be done with it..
posted by trulyscrumptious at 2:32 AM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had a black and white TV until I was nine. And my parents didn't let me watch it very often.
posted by rhymer at 2:47 AM on August 13, 2008 [4 favorites]

Ugh, yes, I saw an entire shelf unit full of these bloody books in a WH Smith's the other day, under the tag of 'Inspirational Stories', all with near-identical white jacket, rose-coloured lettering and soft-focus black and white picture of an unidentified child.

I think that section's normally called "Tragic Life Stories". And yes, it's normally one of the biggest and most prominent sections in the store. And the cover designs are clearly done by a bot.

The titles, however, are hilarious. Ma, He Sold Me For a Few Cigarettes is so far beyond parody that it becomes something approaching transcendent genius.
posted by flashboy at 3:35 AM on August 13, 2008

My thunder. It is stolen. Damn you flashboy..
posted by srboisvert at 3:52 AM on August 13, 2008

Ah, yes, 'Tragic Life Stories' is right, I was trying to remember what they'd labelled it, and inspirational stories was the closest I could get. I guess WH Smiths buyers are more literal than me.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:02 AM on August 13, 2008

Hah, and on following flashboy's link, it's the same WH Smiths. Small world.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:03 AM on August 13, 2008

The nineteenth-century version of misery lit has to be that popular North American genre, the "escaped nun" narrative. E.g.: Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, Six Months in a Convent, Trial and Persecutions of Miss Edith O'Gorman. Or, from the male side of things, Fifty Years in the Church of Rome.
Interesting. I see those narratives as something a little more specific than misery porn: in some ways, they were more like standard-issue porn. Only a few of them were explicitly pornographic, but they were all about anxieties about gender and sexuality. They used the convent to imagine totally deviant and salacious sexual and gender relations, and then they reasserted the dominance and rightness of mainstream sex and gender norms. They also celebrated the power of virtuous Protestant womanhood. In most nineteenth-convent memoirs and novels, the trapped woman rescues herself, drawing strength from Scripture and her Protestant upbringing. She then willingly embraces conventional domesticity. So convent narratives allowed readers to imagine lots of kinky sex but ultimately to believe that their own fairly-repressed culture was superior to one where all that kinky sex was going on.

(At least, all of that is true of the ones written before the Civil War. I've never read Edith O'Gorman, and I have a vague sense that her narrative may be a bit different.)

I don't see a ton of similarities to poverty porn like Angela's Ashes, but I think you can draw some parallels to the current fascination with polygamist breakaway Mormon compounds.
posted by craichead at 4:07 AM on August 13, 2008 [3 favorites]

Chancery Lane must be full of miserable people. Or maybe full of insanely happy people, who need to read grief porn to understand this emotion you humans call "sadness".
posted by flashboy at 4:09 AM on August 13, 2008

Is it too obvious (I don't think anyone's mentioned it), that the readership for these books is female? To judge by the blurbs on their covers, many popular women's magazines (Take a Break Magazine, for example) thrive on similar first-person tales of misery and suffering, and another precedent I'm reminded of is the 1970s girls' comic Tammy (where a startled, largely male, editorial team found that the more they made their heroines suffer, the more their readers liked it, at least according to the fascinating Comics Britannia series).

The male equivalent isn't so much porn as books by such as Andy McNabb.
posted by Grangousier at 5:26 AM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was disappointed by the lack of flamethrowers in Angela's Ashes. I was like, finally, a book about a female hero I can relate to. But no, Angela turned out to be dead.
posted by Eideteker at 5:42 AM on August 13, 2008

I remember reading a book precisely in this genre back the early 1990s; it was in our school library, but so dark we didn't dare borrow it (our Librarian was a dusty middle-aged man, and you had to sign your name beside the title) - satanism and horrific child abuse, and then multiple personalities.

And I was fascinated, and horrified, and fascinated. Was it because I'm just a pervert, enjoying another person's suffering? The fact that it was purported to be a true story (in this case by the therapist) made it all the more compelling.

Well, (since I don't think I'm a pervert, and generally don't like depictions of people getting hurt), I think it was that the reading about such suffering is cathartic, in the Aristotliean sense. The book inspired pity and fear, a real emotional roller coaster - and high emotion can be a drug-like experience, if all you experience is the emotion and none of the consequences. I read shlocky novels now to have the same effect - terribly cliched, but very emotional, and thus granting me a certain kind of emotional workout that my everyday life (which largely involves data entry) does not. But the apparent realness of these memoirs makes them that much more powerful, because they have a veracity and tangibility that a novel does not.

These days, I would feel guilty, too much like a voyeur reading memoirs for this effect. And yet, the authors of these memoirs are in most cases the persons who were abused or those who care for the abused, and they want people to read these stories. The writing of this suffering has, for them, been cathartic in a more profound sense - perhaps sharing that catharsis second hand is not such a bad thing. And, that one dark, sensationalistic book I read in the corner of the school library did teach me more about the horrors of abuse (albeit perhaps a bit extreme - for more typical abuse, the novel Don't Hurt Laurie was much more educational, especially in understanding the excuses and explanations victims of abuse often give) and also the psychological phenomenon of Dissociative identity disorder than any amount of well meaning but emotionally pallid awareness campaigns could have.
posted by jb at 6:30 AM on August 13, 2008

My dad, who had a truly miserable childhood, really enjoyed Angela's Ashes.

Me, I had a comfortable childhood, so I prefer miserablist comic books.
posted by everichon at 6:37 AM on August 13, 2008

I actually understand these books. It rains every bloody day in England. Every. Bloody. Day.

Imagine having to spend that kind of time indoors with your folks.
posted by srboisvert at 8:27 AM on August 13, 2008

Whitehouse frontman William Bennett blogged about this very phenomenon back in April.
posted by stinkycheese at 8:31 AM on August 13, 2008

David Pelzer spoke at my high school several years back. We were hauled out of class for a couple of hours to listen to him. There were giant posters at the assembly for his book, A Child Called 'It'. He described much of the content of his book for us, including the burning, starving, and stabbing. And while his story was tragic, I'm not sure what a group of high school students was supposed to draw from it. The whole thing had an undertone of "buy my book!" He spoke as if we would all go out and buy it after school.. "If you read chapter four, you'll find a tragic story about how...." "things got worse that year, but you'll discover that when you read it."

Maybe the actual book is inspirational and describes Pelzer's ability to overcome his abuse, but the assembly was nothing more than "here are the terrible things that happened to me! But here I am, so you guys need to learn to deal with your petty problems." I resented missing my Anatomy lecture for what was, at heart, a sales pitch.
posted by almostmanda at 8:44 AM on August 13, 2008

I think when it comes to us British, we're very much a culture that wants to see ourselves as both victims and extremely concerned about the well being of children. At least in the less well off section of society, there isn't much ambition, it's all about wallowing in your own misery and sounding off against those you think have it better than you (be it intelligence or money) whilst simultaneously trying to give an outwards appearance of being both tough and surrounded by a decent lifestyle. The misery porn books are often very very cheap (I've never seen a hardback version) and marketed towards people who entertain the idea that they are deserving of attention and sympathy. They'll probably keep churning out these titles for the next 100 years.

I did however, really enjoy Angela's Ashes. I'm a bit dismayed to see so much hate for it, and confused as to why it's lumped in with all the "I was beaten/molested as a kid" trash. I always perceived it as a well written biography, not particularly gratuitous or vengeful. Each to their own I suppose.
posted by saturnine at 8:48 AM on August 13, 2008

Whitehouse frontman William Bennett blogged about this very phenomenon back in April.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:32 AM on August 13, 2008

Pfft, you think you're tough? You think you know how it is on the streets? That it's glamorous? Inspirational? Reading about babies with no mamas? Not eating well? Only to persevere over it all? Well, I'm here to tell it to you straight. You don't know how deep this rabbit hole goes. Is this how you want to end up? Like this? This is just the soft stuff. Get out while you can. *I* was reading Foxe's Book of Martyrs in the 6th grade. Disembowlments. Eyes plucked out. I was mainlining misery back when you were just starting to get a taste of sadness and disappointment in life with The Poky Little Puppy.
posted by kkokkodalk at 10:15 AM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't forget captivity narratives, which were quite popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
posted by gudrun at 10:23 AM on August 13, 2008

I recently bought a book called "Jesus Land." Touted as the true-life story of two kids, one black, one white, raised as siblings in the heartland, I figured it'd be some good LOLXTIAN material, on the order of this. Yeah, not so much. After reading about the brutal beatings of the black children, the sexual abuse of the white girl, the attempted rape and murder, the scene shifts to a Christian teen boot camp in the Caribbean, a horror of another sort.

The author's website shows the covers for the US and UK editions. The US version has a picture of the two children, and a print title. The UK version is retitled "Another hour on a Sunday morning," written in script against a yellow background, and a young blonde girl crouched on the floor looking up pathetically.

I got snookered.
posted by cereselle at 12:04 PM on August 13, 2008

I don't know if putting "Angela's Ashes" and "A Child Called It" in the same category is entirely fair. You wouldn't put Raymond Chandler and Anne Rule together would you?
posted by up in the old hotel at 12:34 PM on August 13, 2008

However, there is a rather amusing antidote.
posted by specialbrew at 1:53 PM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Disclosure: I am writing the next in the polygamous Mormon series, as co-author with Brent Jeffs, who is the nephew of prophet Warren and grandson of prophet Rulon and one of 20 kids of a father with three wives. Bizarrely, this is the first in the genre to tell the story of a boy raised in polygamy. And I'm sure it will be categorized as one of these books because Brent was raped by Warren and it was his civil suit against him that sent Warren underground and onto the FBI's most wanted list.

Why do people want to read "misery lit"? I think everyone has either experienced at least one traumatic event personally or is close to at least one person who has. We want to know how these events form us, how you can overcome them, what they do to self and memory and also, I think people are curious about the nature of evil and about what happens when you encounter it. That's certainly why I read true crimes sometimes-- but I'm often disappointed by the books which just tell the story and include no analysis of why it happened. I think the fascination with polygamy has to do with our frustrations with monogamy.

I also think it's unfair to class Angela's Ashes with A Child Called It and agree with the poster who said that this genre goes much farther back than this recent burst of such memoirs.

And, I am curious as to why child abuse has absolutely fallen off the media and policy radar since the "recovered memory" scandals of the 90's. We still get media pedophile scare hype-- but virtually nothing about the kids who survive and nothing about what to do about it. We seem to have no interest in dealing with child trauma in anything more than a superficial way, despite an explosion of knowledge about its extremely dire and long-lasting effects. And of course, it hasn't stopped happening and I think the interest in these books at least in some part reflects the unmet need to come up with better ways of dealing with it.

Surely, there's also the simple sensational interest in a compelling story of triumph over tragedy, as the cliche goes.
posted by Maias at 5:47 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Maias, not to negate your opinion, but there's been a lot of hand-wringing over the past 10 years or so. The most obvious example that springs to mind is the scandal that's embroiled the Catholic Church here in the US. Sure, the coverage is on-and-off, but it has been fairly consistent. That's just one example.
posted by lekvar at 6:39 PM on August 13, 2008

Having said in a previous post that this photo says it all (WH Smith picture posters take note, as this one has a killer punchline), I'd like to retract, and say that much more needs to be said, or asked.

I'm reminded of other WH Smiths coups in cross-branding, such as chick-lit and capsule histories (the man who discovered/invented longitude, clouds, cod or whatever). I wonder how similar these books actually are - has anyone read all of them?

I also wonder who is buying them. Are the books really that popular? I suspect instead that, as with sci-fi, romance or apocalyptic religious fantasy, that there is a small group that will swiftly buy up EVERYTHING that is offered to them through that shelf-space, at least for now, before the genre gets too hackneyed or complicated by outstanding examples to be truly generic.

That makes this category highly profitable, but doesn't mean it isn't marginal. Anyhow, the subject will make a great thesis topic for a book historian at some date.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 8:01 PM on August 13, 2008

Better than Mel Gibson's torture fetish, I say.
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:04 AM on August 14, 2008

And I'm sure it will be categorized as one of these books because Brent was raped by Warren and it was his civil suit against him that sent Warren underground and onto the FBI's most wanted list.


Rest easy!

Responsible reportage about ordinary souls in grim circumstances will always have a legitimate readership.

I don't see it's remotely your fault as co-author IF your book gets grouped with - or even marketed as - a misery memoir. But it is a strike against the flood of less honest, more nakedly prurient memoirs that they debase genuine human interest stories.

Funnily enough, I admired Angela's Ashes until a smart friend pointed out what I'd missed. McCourt starts his book acknowledging the famous, easily parodied awfulness of the Irish childhood.

So the reader assumes he or she is in a safe pair of hands. McCourt seems to be a charmingly self-aware author. (From memory, this sly self-awareness begins on the very first page).

Then what happens? Slabs and slabs of exactly the same sort of weevil-potatoes-for -breakfast bog standard boilerplate you get from any old blarney author, although I do regard him as a superior stylist.

In the end, I decided I'd been wonderfully conned!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 6:30 AM on August 14, 2008

Thanks Jody! Lekvar: regarding the Catholic church scandals, I was considering that part of the 90's burst of focus on the subject. More recently, there have been articles here and there, but nothing like the collective focus that we had on these issues when every other celebrity seemed to be coming out about being an incest survivor.

That obviously had its problems, but we do seem to swing from obsession to silencing on this issues awfully fast.
posted by Maias at 10:31 AM on August 14, 2008

My old mum was a big reader of the pulpier end of the True Crime genre, and were she still alive, I'm pretty sure that she'd be an avid consumer of these books as well.

She had no higher goal in mind than her desire to be thrilled, shocked and entertained. For her, reading about the murderous lives of people like John Christie, young Mary Bell or The Kray twins served much the same function as watching a Hitchcock movie.

The bulk of these Misery Lit books really seem to be True Crime from a victims perspective, whether it be 'I got my first hit of heroin from my dad', 'Uncle Joe used to rent me out to his drinking buddies for a shilling a time', or the memoirs of Henry 'Goodfellas' Hill's kids from their lives in the Witness Relocation Program. It seems to me that when men read True Crime, they do so to spuriously identify with the protagonist (witness the drug smuggling/football hooligan/bare knuckle fighter/bouncer sub-genres) and when women read them, they tend to identify, spuriously or not, with the victims.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:32 AM on August 16, 2008

It seems to me that when men read True Crime, they do so to spuriously identify with the protagonist (witness the drug smuggling/football hooligan/bare knuckle fighter/bouncer sub-genres) and when women read them, they tend to identify, spuriously or not, with the victims.
That's an interesting theory. I'd add to it that women seem to be the major consumers of murder mysteries, in which you're supposed to identify not with the perpetrator or with the victim, but with the detective, who represents the forces of justice working on behalf of the victim, often against broader social forces that protect the perpetrator. (That latter bit about the broader social forces, though, might just reflect my personal taste in mysteries. More on that point later.)

I think the big difference between victim memoirs and most true crime books is that in general, true crime books are about murders, whereas victim memoirs are by definition by people who survived. I think part of the appeal of the memoirs is that they're survival stories: they celebrate people's ability to triumph over threats to their physical and emotional wellbeing. In that sense, the male equivalent might be war or POW memoirs or stories about survival in the wilderness. I think you're supposed to identify with the protagonist of a victim memoir not just in his or her victimization, but also in the personal fortitude that it takes to escape and survive.

Which brings me to my last point. My sense, as someone who hasn't read a whole lot of recent victim memoirs, is that they tend not to implicate the reader in problems like child abuse and domestic violence. The abuse is either caused by individual pathology or by social problems in a group from which the reader presumably feels quite removed (ie Muslims, in books geared towards non-Muslim audiences, or various weirdo religions, social movements or cults to which the readers presumably don't belong.) You're supposed to feel outrage towards those crappy parents or towards those other people's crappy culture, but you're not necessarily supposed to feel any sense of personal responsibility or to be prompted to ask any hard questions about your own society. And in this, I think they're utterly different from the priest abuse scandal, although that was also about abuse and its victims. The priest abuse scandal focused, not on the horrific details of the abuse, but on the less-salacious details of the cover-up. It provoked outrage at the social structures, both in and outside the Catholic church, that protected abusers. Much of that outrage came from Catholics, angry at institutions with which they identified. And many Catholics were provoked to take action. I'm not convinced that most victim memoirs act like that. I don't think they encourage people to think about how their society makes some people vulnerable and gives others impunity to abuse.

So getting back to Maias's book about Brent Jeffs, to me it matters a lot whether the reader comes away thinking "wow, those fundamentalist Mormons sure are freaky!" or whether American readers think "there is something fundamentally wrong with a society that allows people to abuse children because they say their religion says it's ok. This one freaky instance is symptomatic of a broader problem in which I am implicated and that I need to address."
posted by craichead at 10:26 AM on August 16, 2008

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