At the beginning of the nineties I started to receive phone calls and letters from people who wanted to write about abuses they had suffered in their childhoods. These were not people who had had the misfortune to be born in countries that were enduring brutal dictatorships, civil wars or ethnic cleansing campaigns, these were people who had been born and bought up in democratic, peacetime
Britain, a country that prided
itself on being civilised, with developed social welfare services.
Their calls seemed to be cries for help and as I talked to them I became aware of just how much courage it had taken most of them to pick up the phone in the first place. These were people whose experiences did not lead them to expect to be listened to or believed but they had the courage to keep on trying to tell their stories. Many of the things they told me tore my heart out and I felt sure there would be a readership for them if I could just get them out into the bookshops.
I wanted to find out more about their lives and I wanted to help them to tell their stories as movingly and dramatically as possible. It seemed likely that if these stories were moving me then they would move other people as well.
When, as a teenager, I read “Down and Out in
Paris and London”
by George Orwell I had been particularly struck by a scene in Paris where Orwell reports meeting a man
called Charlie, who he describes as “a local curiosity”. Charlie tells of
visiting a girl who is being kept prisoner in a cellar which had been tricked
out as a bordello-style bedroom and was guarded upstairs by an old crone.
Charlie told how he gave the old woman a thousand francs, which he had stolen
from his drunken brother.
“Voila,” the woman said, “go down into the cellar there and do what you like. I shall see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing. You are free, you understand – perfectly free.”
Orwell reports Charlie’s experiences in the cellar as if they make Charlie an interesting and colourful character, but it struck me that it was the girl whose story was actually the most mysterious and interesting. How had she got there? Who had betrayed her? What was the rest of her life like? What was she thinking? What were her dreams? What became of her? Her story seemed more intriguing than the story of the narrator, (Orwell himself), an Old Etonian playing at being a “plongeur” for a while, (a bit like an early version of the student gap year), before becoming a literary legend.
The stories that I was now hearing seemed just as fascinating, coming from a dark world that was unknown to me and that I wanted to understand better. I couldn’t understand how so many people could be getting away with abusing children and I had difficulty imagining what it must feel like to be one of those children. It seemed to me that it would be a good thing to shine some bright lights into these dark corners of the human experience, so that everyone could understand more. They also seemed to me to be perfect fairy tales; good versus evil, innocent little heroes and heroines fighting back against terrible villains.
Filled with optimism I kept listening to the stories, writing synopses and sample material and trying to persuade publishers that they should publish them. The reaction was always the same; “no one” the publishers all informed me, “wants to read such grueling and depressing stories”. Child abuse, they believed, was all too horrible to contemplate. Even among the most liberal of them I could detect skepticism; was it possible that such terrible things could be happening in our own country? Surely not.
But what, I kept asking, were pantomimes like Cinderella and Snow White about if it wasn’t child abuse? And what about Dickens’s tales from the workhouses and back streets of Victorian England? Do we really believe that the Artful Dodger and his pals were required to do nothing worse than steal a few pocket handkerchiefs and watches on behalf of their violent, thieving, drunken masters? Even the orphaned Harry Potter starts out abused by the aunt and uncle charged with his guardianship.
I truly couldn’t understand how the same publishers could produce so many books about war, genocide and murder, creating best sellers by glamorising, stylising and fetishising serial killers and rapists, mafia bosses and military leaders, and at the same time think that genuine, original stories by children who had been victimised were somehow too tasteless to be told.
Then in 1995 Dave Peltzer self-published his memoir, “A Child Called It” in America, and it became a word-of-mouth bestseller, filtering up into my consciousness via my children and their friends, who were passing it around in the school playground, much to the consternation of some of their parents and teachers.
A few years later I received another email from a man who wanted to write something similar about his own childhood with a violent and abusive mother. I warned him that my experience told me I might not be able to sell the book to publishers. He said that he was willing to take the risk and wanted to commission me to write the book anyway.
It was a good story. Once it was completed I sent it to an exceptionally discreet and gentle agent, who I knew would be sympathetic when it came time to break the bad news to the author that it was unsaleable. I had reckoned without the “Peltzer-factor”.
Within a week she had three publishers making offers and the book went for a six figure advance. It then sat at the top of the bestseller lists for weeks and eventually went on to be made into a movie. The game had changed entirely. Other publishers saw this success and remembered that I had been in to see them in the past. They started ringing to find out if I still had any other stories that could be packaged in a similar way. On one memorable day editors from three different publishing houses, all having just come from editorial planning meetings, rang within a few hours of one another with the same request. I had plenty of stories ready and waiting, all I had to do was introduce the people with the stories to the people who now really wanted the stories, and then write them.
The demand seemed insatiable. Supermarkets started to stock the resulting titles in massive quantities and kept asking the publishers for more. I was in a publisher’s office introducing one of these clients when another publisher, who we had been to see earlier in the day, rang my mobile. I excused myself and slipped out of the room to take the call.
“If you leave that building now,” the other publisher said, “I will give you quarter of a million pounds.”
I felt like Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire”. The client and I then spent a surreal afternoon taking calls from the two publishers, finally clinching the deal before putting her back on her train home. Three months later exactly the same thing happened with another client’s story of abuse. (I will be explaining later in the “filthy lucre” chapter how sums like this will soon be whittled away by reality to become far less dramatic figures, but these occasional episodes of apparent largess on the part of publishers do at least provide temporary doses of adrenaline and optimism to any writer’s life).
Books that I wouldn’t have been able to interest anyone in a few months before were now the objects of ferocious bidding wars between the publishers with the biggest cheque books. I ended up writing about a dozen of them, selling some in conjunction with several agents and some under my own steam. For a while they virtually all became bestsellers. There was one week when there were actually three of them in the Sunday Times charts at the same time. In some cases I was contracted to remain anonymous, but several of them graciously put my name on the flyleaf, such as “The Little Prisoner” by Jane Elliott, “Just a Boy” by Richard McCann, “Daddy’s Little Earner” by Maria Landon, “Cry Silent Tears” by Joe Peters and “Please, Daddy, No” by Stuart Howarth.
So, who was reading these books which the publishers had been so sure would be too terrible for anyone to bear? Initially there was the “tourist trade”; people who, like me, could not imagine what it must be like to live in such a world and wanted to understand it better. Then there were the actual citizens of this “hidden” world; the children who had suffered or witnessed abuse and were wanting the comfort of knowing that they were not alone. There is no way of ever quantifying how many people suffer some sort of bullying or abuse in their childhood which leaves them scarred in some way, but let’s take a guess that it is around ten per cent of the population. That includes those abused in the home, in care, or by authority figures like priests or school teachers. That is six million people in the
Then there are those who simply want to read scary, tear-jerking tales about little heroes and heroines overcoming monsters; the same people who want to see Cinderella go to the ball and Oliver Twist escape from the clutches of Fagin and Bill Sykes.
People who had been keeping their own stories of abuse secret due to a mixture of fear and shame, suddenly saw that it was alright to speak out. The stories I was being brought grew more and more extreme and horrific. No one was going to be able to pretend that child abuse was not a problem in society any longer. The misery memoir phenomenon became a bubble, with all the big publishers rushing onto the shelves with look-alike products. Within a few years the market was saturated and books that would previously have been given advances of hundreds of thousands of pounds were having trouble finding publishers once more.
The genie, however, was now out of the bottle and it wasn’t long before abusers and bullies were being named and shamed in any number of previously inviolable institutions from schools to churches, orphanages to mental hospitals and even the BBC, to a point where it started to look to some like a witch hunt.
Some time later I heard a highly distinguished publisher on a podium being asked by a member of the audience what he thought of the “misery memoir” genre. He was not one of those who had joined in the gold rush and I assumed that he was going to say something dismissive.
“I think they changed the art of autobiography forever,” he said. “They forced authors to be much more open and revelatory. It is no longer good enough to tell anecdotes about the day you “met Prince Philip” or “danced with Sammy Davis Junior”; if you want to capture the hearts of readers you have to open up your emotional life as well and talk honestly and from the heart. I think they did the genre a great service.”