Parents, children, and the wages of betrayal.
A sad truth: Christopher Robin hated Winnie the Pooh. OK, not really. But Christopher Robin Milne came to loathe the fictional world that his father, A. A. Milne, based on his son and the boy’s teddy bear. When Christopher was in his 20s, he let the original Pooh, and friends, immigrate to America, where they ended up in the New York Public Library, an ocean away from the school where he was taunted over the tales written by his father. “It seemed almost to me,” Christopher wrote in his autobiography, “that my father had got to where he had filched from me my good name and left me with the empty fame of being his son.” By the end of his life, he had developed an aversion to teddy bears.
Ouch. And that was before blogs, or Facebook. Thanks to three of the hallmarks of our age—oversharing, overparenting, and narcissism—the intimate details of the lives of many little ones, from toddlers to teenagers, have been pasted in public forums by their mothers and fathers. Soiled nappies, tantrums, mental illness, meth. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes comforting; sometimes it touches on something important.
And sometimes it just seems wrong. Some broadcast the exploits of their offspring in a way that violates not just their privacy but their trust. I can’t be the only one who is very glad my parents never wrote about my formative years.
The critical question is one of consent: who owns the story of a child? British author Julie Myerson has had to face this question twice, and has been savaged both times for claiming she does. First she wrote a popular column for The Guardian, Living With Teenagers, under a pseudonym but based on her children. Once their identities were uncovered, the teasing began: her son was nicknamed “Mr. Three Hairs” after a piece about her kids sprouting pubic hairs. The column was stopped.
Undeterred, Myerson went on to write a darker, more dramatic and awful book about her teenage son’s drug use, Lost Child, just released in the U.S. In it she claims that her son Jake became addicted to skunk, a particularly potent form of marijuana. She was forced to kick him out of the family home when he was only 17, she writes, after he lied, stole, got a girl pregnant (his parents paid for the abortion), and hit his mother so hard that he perforated her eardrum. The subtitle is A Mother’s Story.
For this, Myerson has become one of the most vilified women in Britain. Her son says he feels betrayed, and told one reporter he wants to change his last name to Karna, after a Hindu warrior who was rejected by his mother. Although he read the draft and told Myerson he understood why she felt compelled to write it, he claims he consulted lawyers to try to halt publication. He insists his drug use is casual and that his parents are naive.
It’s awkward, messy, and ugly.
Myerson is optimistic that what she did will be good for her son—and others, who will learn of the dangers of skunk. She told me it was an intervention, a form of public shaming: “It made him face himself, big time.”
What will this publicity mean for Jake, now 20? A few days ago, President Obama warned students to be careful what they post on the great résumé killer, Facebook (where you can find a Jake Myerson Support Group). “Whatever you do,” he said, “it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life.” But what if the person putting out images of a teenager smoking a bong is not a stoner friend but a disappointed parent?
In an era of self-revelation and incessant documentation of every stage and age, it’s easy to lose track of what is tawdry, self-serving, and mortifying for those either central in, or peripheral to, our own stories. Because children are more vulnerable, there is a far greater onus on the parent writing about the child than the child about the parent.
This is why her decision to lay bare her unhappy home is baffling. Still, reading the book, you can’t help but have some sympathy for Myerson, who ached and wept and was bewildered by her gentle son’s dramatic transformation. She cannot be the only parent to hanker for the infant it was so much simpler to care for: “his baby body—pale smudges of nipples, the warm fatness of his arms on my bare shoulders, the smell of his baby skin against my face.”
But surely the most fundamental, un-spoken pact you make with your children is that you will shield them when they are weak. Surely Myerson too must have also whispered the quiet promises mothers make to wrinkled newborns: I will walk barefoot on the sun to keep you from harm, I will circle you with wool and steel, I will never abandon you.
Kids mess up; parents do, too, when they forget that their only real obligation is to protect the child from the world, not offer him up to it.