Issues Of Trust Between A Mother And Her Child

Posted at 16:59pm on 11th March 2009

“Can it ever be right for a mother to expose her child in the name of literature?” I asked on an online forum. It was a question which has provoked an impassioned response. But it was, itself, a response – my answer – to a recent news story which has spread itself across the pages of broadsheet and tabloid alike, and into the hearts and minds of the nation. Because at its heart lies the most fundamental of human relationships: the sanctity of love and trust between a mother and her child.


“A family into which a writer is born is a ruined family.” So said Minette Marrin, quoting Philip Roth. “I have never forgotten it,” she continued, “since it captured so mercilessly the problem of being (or wanting to be) a writer. Writing is about betrayal. Betrayal is what writers do.”

The Marrin piece was written as a rejoinder to a new novel by Julie Myerson, which is being rushed out by Bloomsbury to optimise the publicity stirred up by its controversial subject matter. Myerson's plot is, actually, not fiction but non-fiction, and is said, by its author, to be based on the story of her son’s addiction to skunk, and her decision to evict him from his parental home at the tender age of seventeen. The son, Jake, however, is said to have described his mother's decision to write his story as 'obscene' and refutes much of what she has written.

It seems to me that much of the revulsion felt by critics of Myerson’s book centres – not on her having pulled the plug on her son (though many, like me, feel that a boy of seventeen, still legally a child, is too young and vulnerable to be cast out) – but on her having made his story public. Yet I have followed a similar path – hence my question: Is publication ever justifiable?


My novel, A Painful Post Mortem, is the story of my daughter's thirteen year drug addiction, which began on cannabis and rapidly progressed to heroin. At least, that is the sub-plot! The main storyline actually follows one of the seven timeless Plots – which I’ve written of before – that of the Quest : in this case, a Quest for truth. Because the ‘tough love’ I had to practice, when she was in her mid-twenties, produced a successful result. Within months of being ‘shown the door’, my daughter succeeded in kicking her habit, and went on to live a happy and fulfilled five years.

Then died in suspicious circumstances!


So does that make publication acceptable? The opening chapter of A Painful Post Mortem begins: “A copy of the Pathology Report – promised, and ambivalently awaited – has arrived in my absence. For some reason, the timing upsets me, though I can’t think why. What possible difference can it make? By its very nature a Post Mortem is posthumous. And death brings an end to influence and change. Doesn’t it?” The question at the end of that first paragraph raises the possibility that some sort of change – of attitude, perspective, belief – just might be on the cards.

Does it also, I would ask, bring an end to the trust that exists – or should exist – in a relationship between mother and child? It certainly ends any risk of a libel action (as occurred when Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell sued her daughter, Constance Briscoe) because you can neither libel nor slander the dead.

But does that justify a tell-all story? And what if that story is not simply dishing the dirt, but is an inspirational story? Does publication then become more valid?


In my book, the main character, Claire, goes on to reveal that the Post Mortem conducted on her daughter states that she was “a known drug addict”. Hence the Quest for truth upon which Claire embarks. Because she knows, as I knew with my daughter, that if she allows this statement to stand, then the victory, the triumph of a battle, hard fought and won, is negated.

I remember the anger I felt at the thought of my daughter being written off in this way. She'd fought for years to overcome her addiction and I was determined to prove that she was not an addict at the time of her death.

Relationships of trust are precious. One of the most damning criticisms of the Myerson book, is that the mother did not seek permission from her, then, adult son, for publication of his story. Is this, then the criterion upon which publishing issues should be based? I’m not sure!

During the five years after kicking her heroin habit, my daughter re-built not only her own life – she enrolled in college and graduated, settled down with a young man and had a baby – she also re-established family relationships. So much so, that she wanted me to write a book about her: the sordidness of the half-life she had lived, and the repeated trauma of turning her life around. I refused! I was too afraid that it might rebound on her. But I did, eventually, agree to collaborate on a magazine article with her. Even then, when the magazine insisted upon photographs, I made our agreement conditional upon the fact that there were to be no full frontals to identify mother and baby.

My daughter, full of pride in her achievement and wanting to shout it from the rooftops, disagreed. Identifiable photographs were taken. The article was published. And within weeks my daughter was dead, victim of a spiked drink. It is my belief that she was targeted by would-be-dealers. The police, who urged us to prosecute, thought likewise.


You will have to read the book for the conclusion. It’s intended as a tribute to my daughter – but is also, I hope, a means of bringing hope to the hurting: parents whose children have gone off the rails; those who have to watch friends and family members on a course of self-destruction; those who have lost loved ones.

My daughter’s father and I (estranged) both made mistakes, and though he knew I'd written the story, I didn't want to expose him to criticism. Consequently, I delayed publication until he, with his second wife, had died of their addiction: alcohol. Even then, making money out of this story was abhorrent to me. So I set up a company (Cumcaritas - Latin for With Love/Charity) with the intention of giving all monies received to charities. One which educates teenagers about the dangers of drugs; the other which helps HIV+ mothers and babies in the 3rd world.

I'm so grateful that my grandchild - born to my daughter eighteen months before her death - was healthy and whole. And I want my grandchild’s mum’s death to bring good to others in more ways than one.

Mel Menzies is a Bestselling author, and an accomplished Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV.



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Photo: Dagger Before Me by Follystone at Flickr

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