Saturday, 26 March 2011

Not sure if I should read this book

UK cover
Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso is a memoir of the abuse she suffered from the age of eight for the next fifteen years at the hands of a man called Peter.

I'm in two minds about it: on one hand, it's supposed to be quite literary and apparently deals with difficult issues head-on and with a sense of clarity. On the other hand, I'm not sure if I can bring myself to read it.

It's already attracted quite a lot of controversy, and there are reviews posted on Amazon (some of them bad) before the book has even been released. It's attracted attention due to it's style. As I said, it's supposedly quite literary, which is demonstrated in part by the cover and title. It lacks the usual aesthetic of 'misery memoirs', which I absolutely loathe.

In Waterstone's for a time there was a separate section next to the biography section called 'Painful Lives' which was full of these kinds of books mainly dealing with childhood abuse. They all have slightly sickening and overly dramatic titles like, Daddy's Little Earner, This Must Never Happen Again and Don't Tell Mummy. They usually all feature a white background with a black and white photo of a child looking forlornly at the reader with big, sad eyes. Sometimes there will be a doll with only one eye, or a teddy lying on its side - in any case, something which symbolises a broken childhood. The cover text is usually always in some kind of script font.

I can't understand why these books sell. I can't understand the people who buy them. For me, they seem so gratuitous, voyeuristic, exploitative, sensationalist. Trashy. And yet they do. A quick glance on Amazon shows that they generally have positive reviews, and quite a few of them, at that. There is clearly a market for these kinds of stories. Maybe I'm being cynical - perhaps I should be celebrating the fact that there are stories like this widely available. Perhaps for the public it decreases the taboos surrounding sexual abuse. Perhaps some victims need stories like these to be comforted and come to terms with their own pasts.

US cover
I have read only one misery memoir. When I was a teenager, Dave Pelzer's A Child Called 'It' was released, and it was the first book of it's kind that I had come across. I picked it up and read it, and was surprised by how difficult it was to read. Not the style - that was fine. But the parts describing the abuse at the hands of his mother was incredibly hard to read. As it should be, I guess. I mean, that's an appropriate reaction, right? Nobody reads about a child being forced to eat their own vomit without flinching a little bit inside.

These books are problematic, too. On more than one occasion I have come across reviews where people have expressed doubt over the author's credibility. There are usually suggestions across the spectrum from slight exaggeration to outright lies. In The Adderall Diaries, Elliott even describes how his own father goes onto Amazon to post bad reviews of his books because he doesn't like the portrait his son has painted of him. Tiger, Tiger is no exception. It's said that Fragoso recounts conversations she had at age eight with a high level of accuracy, which some people have said is unlikely to be a true reflection of what took place. Others have defended her by pointing out that she kept a diary throughout her childhood. I think this doubt in part stems from the fact that readers are so repulsed by the terrible capabilities of human behaviour, that it is a reflex reaction to think, 'that can't possibly be true'.

Just last week a friend told me that a friend of theirs had been abused by a previous partner. What they had been through was so dreadful and unimaginably horrible that my first instinct was, 'that's bullshit'. Not because I didn't believe the victim, but that for a split second I couldn't believe that anyone could commit the actions described to me. Of course, I know better. I feel terrible about that small moment of doubt, but I like to think that doubt came from a place of naivete and hopefulness that one human couldn't do that to another, rather than malice towards victims of abuse.

(I hope it goes without saying that I think that children should ALWAYS be taken at their word if they're saying they've been abused. With other groups, it can be a little more complicated, but I don't really want to get into that here.)

However what sets Tiger, Tiger apart is the lack of misery memoir aesthetic and title, which points to something different here, and perhaps something more complicated than the standard narrative that this genre of books tends to follow. I'm not sure yet what it's trying to do, but part of me wants to find out.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting dilemma. I've never read any of the 'misery memoirs', and never want to. But I do wonder if that's a kind of cowardice - I too have problems crediting what human beings are capable of.