Voyeurs of Suffering (May/June 2006)

Friday, 01 April 2011 17:57

Openmind May/June 2006  

'Misery memoirs' is the latest catchphrase in publishing. Ever since Dave Pelzer's book A Child Called It became a best seller publishers have been keen to publish personal accounts of horrific childhoods. But why are these books so popular? Writing about this in the Observer Tim Adams listed 11 such books and commented, 'Since Pelzer sold many million copies of his books, there has been a kind of arms race of this kind of extreme confession.' Adams went on to point out how Oprah Winfrey in the USA and Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan in the UK have promoted such books on their book shows. The talk shows Oprah and Richard and Judy purport not just to entertain us but in some way do us good. Reading books is good for us. Reading books about other people's extreme misery not only informs us about the terrible things that can happen in the world but it allows us to run through the gamut of emotions from shock and horror, through disgust, to the heart-warming happiness that comes when we discover that the narrator has survived such terrible suffering and is doing well. Feeling emotions does us good. 

Or so we are told. But does feeling emotions make us better people? An account of another person's suffering can lead us to feel the empathy which takes us out of our own small world and into that of another person, but this doesn't always happen. We can tell ourselves that we are feeling empathetic, and thus we can enjoy the glow of being virtuous, but at the same time the subject of our empathy can be feeling greatly misunderstood because we haven't bothered to take the time to inform ourselves accurately about what is going on in his life and what he is feeling. Accurate empathy requires the hard work of thought and observation, and an understanding of our own limitations in being able to imagine another person's world.  

Then there is the seductive emotion of feeling superior to the person who suffers, a feeling which often comes under the guise of pity. Pitying someone you see as inferior to you has more to do with vanity than it does with genuine concern. Straightforward pity is a painful emotion, especially when there is nothing we can do to help those who suffer. Many people protect themselves from the pain of pity by blaming the victim, something that those who believe that we live in a Just World are prone to do. In a Just World good people are rewarded and bad people punished. Since nothing in a Just World happens by chance, it follows that those who suffer deserve their misery. Women who are raped were asking for it: naughty children provoke their good parents into beating them. 

I have found that even in a rather irreligious country like Britain a great many people believe that they live in a Just World. A misery memoir allows such people to test their belief. As they read the book they can be looking for evidence that the writer is intrinsically bad. However, publishers like happy endings, and so each book ends with the author winning through, and thus showing that, if you are good, your rewards will follow as night the day. Dave Pelzer's royalty cheques confirm that. Yet in real life there is often no recompense for suffering.

Important though it may be for these authors to tell their story, their books can have a deleterious effect on those whose suffering is not on such a grand and obvious scale. Readers may come to overlook such suffering. Most people can agree that a child who is beaten and starved is suffering greatly. It is much harder to imagine ourselves into the silent suffering of those who, on the surface, seem to be leading ordinary lives. It is even harder to hold in our minds the differing viewpoints of all the people involved in the lives of those who suffer and see how we all suffer and we all inflict suffering, however unwittingly. Jonathan Franzen's great novel The Corrections tells the story of a family comprised of two elderly parents and three adult children. Franzen tells the story through the eyes of each member of the family. He shows the damage they did to each other, and the pain which each one felt. Franzen based his novel loosely on his own family, and so Oprah saw the book as a natural for her programme. Getting your book on Oprah's programme is every author's dream, but, when Franzen came to realise that Oprah expected him to turn his deep understanding of the complexities of human experience into nothing but an emotional roller-coaster for Oprah's audience, he withdrew his book. He knew that when we read we should do more than be just voyeurs of suffering.