Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lessons In Parent-Lit

By Jennifer O’Connell

Before I sit in judgement on anyone else, let me make a confession.

I struggle with a wholly pathetic compulsion to bare my soul to strangers. I grapple with it in taxis, at dinner, in the queue for the Ladies, sometimes on the radio, and quite often on these very pages.

So – to an extent - I sympathise with you all, bloggers, confessional columnists, Twitterhea sufferers. I, too, have been so giddily intoxicated by the oxygen of an audience that I have said, and written, things I really shouldn’t.

Happily for me, getting something published in a newspaper means persuading a crack team of section editors, subeditors, editors and possibly lawyers that a) somebody might actually want to read it; and b) nobody is likely to be so offended by it that they will find themselves looking up ‘defamation lawyers’ in the Golden Pages.

Getting something published on the internet, by contrast, merely involves extending your index finger across the touchpad and hitting ‘send’.

So if you are a blogger keen to make a name for yourself, and find yourself bored in a meeting - as American Penelope Trunk did a few weeks ago – there’s nothing to stop you whipping out your iPhone and posting a Tweet which reads: “I'm in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there's a fucked-up 3-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin”. Nothing except your attachment to your personal dignity, that is.

Freedom always comes at a price. The price we have paid for all this trigger-happy publishing is the notion of ‘editorial judgement’. For all it sounds about as exciting as margarine-coloured tights, this is a concept for which I am eternally grateful.

And so in the interests of discharging that not inconsiderable personal debt, here is everything you need to know about that all-important self-edit function, distilled into one simple sentence.

Just because you can say it, doesn’t mean you should. Not even if the subject matter is too young to hire an attorney.

Just ask Joel Ronson, the 10-year-old son of The Men Who Stare At Goats writer, Jon Ronson. For several years, Ronson Senior wrote a weekly column in The Guardian depicting the often-amusing exploits of his young family. Son Joel featured so often in his father’s column that he has now garnered a considerable following of his own on Twitter.

Ronson decided to stop writing his column in the autumn of 2007, after a piece received with much hilarity, in which he recounted how, cornered by a then 8-year-old Joel who was demanding to know the worst swearword in the world, Ronson Senior came up with ‘limone’.

That was over two years ago. Since then, Ronson Senior’s career has gone from strength to strength. Ronson Jnr, meanwhile, is still living down the ‘limone’ incident.

Last week, he was forced to relive it in all its cringe-inducing glory after it reached the number 2 slot on the Guardian’s ‘most viewed’ list. “I still think it makes me look like a gullible twat,” he moaned on his Twitter page.

But embarrassed though Joel Ronson is, and may remain for a long time to come, this betrayal ranks as relatively harmless beside the actions of one of his father’s erstwhile colleagues, the Booker-nominated novelist Julie Myerson.

Myerson was the author of a long-running anonymous weekly column in The Guardian, detailing the lives and often gruesome behaviour of her three children.  The series, Living with Teenagers, stopped abruptly earlier this year after the youngest of her children, Raphael, was outed by his schoolmates as Jack, the appearance of whose first pubic hairs and frequent tantrums had been dutifully documented in the column.

The ridicule heaped on her children at school didn’t stop Myerson, not now she had discovered that there was an audience for the minutiae of her domestic travails. She went on to publish a book called The Lost Child, about the descent into cannabis addiction, violence and alleged shoplifting of her eldest son, Jake. This time, she didn’t even bother to change his name.

Even this, though, looks positively nurturing beside the actions of one Italian-American ‘mommyblogger’, Antia Tedaldi.

Tedaldi wrote a blog some time ago in which she revealed that she’d handed her adopted toddler son “David”, or “Dan” (depending on where you read it) back after 18 months, because she and her daughters had failed to bond with him.

It was a shocking and highly emotive piece, in which she recounted how “D” had been found by the side of the road, and suffered from coprophagia, which meant that she would routinely discover him eating his own faeces.

“The realization that I didn’t feel for D. the same way I felt for my own flesh and blood shook the foundations of who I thought I was,” she wrote.

Despite the heart-breaking, gut-wrenching details Tedaldi divulged in her essay, it arguably justified the intrusion into her life - and perhaps even that of her erstwhile son - because it went some way to tackling one of the great taboos about adoption.

Unsuprisingly, the piece was picked up by media outlets around the world and made Tedaldi, a journalist and author of an upcoming book about - of all things - parenting, an overnight celebrity.

However, the entries concerning Tedaldi’s other children on her blog rank as even disturbing. She has also written about the ‘weight issues’ suffered by her 3- and 9-year-olds, accompanying the piece with several photos of a chubby toddler in a leotard. (“Luisa feels terrible when someone makes a comment and tells her that she’s fat,” Tedaldi writes, adding tactfully that Luisa “is a bit overweight.”)

Julie Myerson could tell Tedaldi what happens when you use your children as fodder for your work.

Her son, Jake, who provided 100 per cent of the material for The Lost Child, got revenge by selling his story to the tabloids. “She's been writing about me since I was two, and, quite frankly, I'm not surprised by anything she does any more. What she has done has taken the very worst years of my life and cleverly blended it into a work of art, and that to me is obscene,” he told the Daily Mail, going on to reveal a few dirty little secrets of his own about his parents.

Joel Ronson shows promising signs of a more healthy kind of retaliation. At just 10, he has already established an audience of over 850, with whom he gets to share his passion for online gaming, Jedward – and, when he feels like it, accuse his father of having locked him in the basement.

First published in The Sunday Business Post on November 29, 2009


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