Childhood: Be Grateful Yours Wasn't Like These

August 21, 2012 Coming of Age, Memoirs 19

“Childhood is what you spend the rest of your life trying to overcome.” That poignant quote is brought to you by the classic Sandra Bullock movie, Hope Floats (don’t judge me!) Personally, I think spending 70 years of one’s life obsessing over what occurred during the first 18 is counterproductive, but I didn’t spend my childhood like any of the following characters. If I had, I’m sure I’d be singing a different tune. To my psychiatrist. Whom I’d see 5 times a week, in addition to group sessions and a heavy medication load. In fact, I’m not sure how some of these people/characters survived- even bodily.

I was shamed into reading Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by a coworker. It’s not the first occasion I’ve been ashamed to admit some of the things I haven’t gotten around to reading, despite my dedication to the pastime. If you’re like me and have not read this book, it’s fiction and  centers on a poor girl named Francie Nolan as she grows up in Brooklyn. The family is poverty stricken, and saddled with an alcoholic, albeit well-meaning father figure. I’m partial to coming-of-age stories as a general rule, but this book has the added benefit for me of being set in the early 1900s. Historical perspective on child labor laws, tenement housing, and lack of creature comforts aside, I related to Francie. She was a bookworm, like I am, and she was bound and determined to finish school. (I still have frequent nightmares about missing classes and failing exams. I have issues.) The moral of this synopsis is: read this. You won’t be sorry. It’s not a classic people just pretend to like, they actually enjoy it. Thanks for the public ridicule, Erin!

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls is another coming of age tale I read recently. Unlike Francie Nolan, Jeanette Walls is a real person, and she really lived through one of the most insane childhoods I’ve ever read about. I loved this book. Walls’ writing style was clear and easy to follow. She didn’t get overly sentimental or overly dramatic, which is quite impressive considering the subject matter. Her father was an abusive alcoholic, her mother was (armchair Freud here) mentally ill, and it’s an absolute marvel that they were never caught  by DCFS for child neglect and endangerment. Egads. Still, there are some funny moments out of the tragedy, and I like that Walls takes a well rounded approach to her parents. She’s not simply angry and ashamed of them, but she examines their faults and the life lessons they taught her in spite of themselves. It’s refreshing to hear the perspective of someone who lived a legitimately crappy childhood who managed to turn into a productive human being.

Speaking of crazy true life stories, I feel the need to mention Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. I may have been hyperbolic in describing The Glass Castle as the most effed up true life childhood story on record. That award might go to Augusten Burroughs for living though his own personal crazy town. First, I’ll say I didn’t like this book as much as I wanted to. It was touted as a David Sedaris-esque jaunt through a quirky life story, but it was much darker. (David Sedaris, you get your own post one of these days, because I adore you.) Burroughs is taken in by his therapist and god only knows how the therapist managed to keep his license for so long, because YIKES. Dilapidated housing, statutory rape, lack of formal schooling… All par for the course. The problem was that I had a hard time finding the humor in it. Memoirs can be hysterical or they can stray into bitter territory. I’m not sure I’d even call this one “bitter” per se, it’s just bizarre to the point where you can’t believe that it’s real. And yet, it is. Or at least, to my knowledge, Augusten Burroughs hasn’t suffered a James Frey style scandal of over dramatizing his memoir for the sake of sales, sensationalism, and manipulating Oprah. Oprah has done more for reading than… Well most celebrities. So shame on you James Frey! A Million Little Pieceisn’t nearly as shocking if you KNOW that scene about getting massive dental work done without painkillers is false. (Mom is a dental hygienist, she knew he was a fraud before Oprah did.)

So, I guess if you’re into childhood trauma, check these out? That sounds awful. How about this: “If you’re struggling with your own personal demons and unresolved issues, read these books! They’ll make you really grateful for your comparatively normal childhood! Also, for running water!” Seriously though, if you had a legitimately jacked up childhood, maybe skip these and avoid opening old wounds, k?

19 Responses to “Childhood: Be Grateful Yours Wasn't Like These”

  1. June

    I have not read any of these books, but they sound good! Is it weird that the idea of reading stories about dysfunctional childhood appeals to me?

  2. Chrissy

    Might I add to the recommendation: The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. It took 8+ years of sitting on my bookshelf, but when I finally got around to it…it totally made me appreciate my “sane” mother!

  3. Lyssapants

    I’m totally into childhood trauma. I’ve read Glass Castle, Running with Scissors, and A Million Little Pieces because I eat pain and turmoil for breakfast. I have never read something as crazy as RWS – at least that bastard got caught.

  4. eyechow

    Do you think A Million Little Pieces is still worth reading, as fiction? I picked it up at a book exchange and it’s been sitting on my shelf because I can’t decide if I should spend time reading a fake memoir. I liked Running with Scissors even though it was pretty depressing, and my best friend LOVES The Glass Castle, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet

    • wordsforworms

      A Million Little Pieces is definitely worth reading, as fiction… Or just exaggerated memoir. It is very gritty- there’s a lot of graphic withdrawl symptoms and some gross medical stuff. But if you’ve got a decently strong stomach, go for it! (The Glass Castle- totally worth it!)

  5. writecrites

    Good suggestions. Sometimes a horrible childhood makes for a great book. Take Angela’s Ashes, for example. I’d also recommend “Molokai” by Alan Brennert. If anybody had a horrible childhood, the little girl in this book did. She was diagnosed with leprosy in Honolulu and shipped off to the leper colony on Molokai at the age of 7. But it’s not a depressing book. It’s inspiring, actually. And a very good read. Good or bad, you never know what’s going to happen next.

    • wordsforworms

      Angela’s Ashes has been on my radar for a while, but Molokai is new to me- looks like my reading list has expanded! Thanks for the suggestions! 🙂

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