Perhaps best known for her warts-and-all insights into family life, Julie Myerson has been dubbed 'the worst mother in Britain'. Her latest novel, a post-apocalyptic vision of climatic chaos and social breakdown, may seem far from autobiographical but perhaps its undercurrent of emotional turmoil and maternal angst says otherwise
FOR the woman dubbed 'the worst mother in Britain', Julie Myerson seems very personable to me, with remarkably little blood under her fingernails for the Cruella de Vil of mamas. She is a Booker-nominated novelist, but is rather better known for a non-fiction book called The Lost Child, which was published in 2009 and gave an agonising account of the – temporary, as it turns out – addiction of her teenage son Jake to skunk, and his eventual banishment from the family home. The Daily Mail went into overdrive and the issue even got raised in parliament. Exposing her family's problems? Turning her son from the house? What kind of monster was she?
A regular on Newsnight Review, Myerson's one interview was with Jeremy Paxman, who did his well-worn eyebrow-raising trick and squealed like a beached whale in the hope that viewers might confuse indignation with preparation. He hadn't read the book. Before the interview, when he was being nice, he admitted he'd only skimmed it, but once on air claimed to have read it and here's the thing: Myerson didn't expose him. Now she laughs lightly – but a little painfully – and says oh well, he was a bit mean but she forgives him, which tells you a lot.
The problem with the fug of faux moral media outrage so endlessly whipped up is that it almost always conceals the real moral issues. The same papers that blasted Myerson for talking, sought interviews with Jake. Jake had been consulted about The Lost Child, asking only for minor changes that Myerson duly made, but he then criticised his mother in a tabloid interview. Myerson doesn't blame him. Who would? He was 19, was being refused money at home to prevent him buying drugs, and along came a paper well known for its largesse with a cheque book. Oh decision, decisions. What, as one of the few astute observers asked, was it doing for Myerson's other two children to have their mother so systematically trashed? Especially for a book many had judged but few had bothered to read. "People thought at least the book must have done well but it didn't. There is such a thing as bad publicity. It became so toxic nobody read it."
Myerson will visit this year's Edinburgh Festival to discuss her first book since the furore, a novel called Then. She is slim, anxious, a very young-looking 51-year-old, with barely a line under her eyes. Eager to please, a terrible approval-seeker, she admits, which perhaps explains why she didn't spear Paxman. Nervous energy steams from her, and she starts lots of different thoughts, and stops, and backtracks, and stutters forward again, and says: "Sorry, I am talking in half-sentences," and her big, blue eyes seem to tentatively seek reassurance, and then flood with relief if she gets it. She practises meditation to stem her anxiety. Things are back to normal – Jake is back home and doing well – yet there is something that stains Myerson, like water marks left behind after an overflow.
It's morning and we meet in a largely empty restaurant bar, 15 floors up, and she's drinking peppermint tea and laughing as first workmen start hammering at the lift door, then staff start hoovering. It seems a bit symbolic, all that background din, but we talk though it and a clarity emerges despite the noise. Some is off the record, which can be annoying, yet I can't help admiring Myerson's willingness to trust when experience tells her she really shouldn't.
Then is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which the earth's thermostat has broken down, engulfing London first in sporadic fires, then ice. It was inspired by a place much like this bar we're in, when she looked out over London on a summer's day and imagined it covered in ice. Society has broken down and you can sniff the trauma vaporising off the pages like pungent smoke from a charcoal fire. Told in the first person, the book's narrator is a traumatised woman, suffering blackouts and mental breakdown, who harms her children. It's a dark, harrowing, but compelling read, and the parallels with The Lost Child are obvious. A destroyed world. Betrayal. Much-loved children, lost forever because their mother cannot keep them safe. A mother whose actions are morally ambiguous, who at one point sees a child's face trapped in a puddle of ice that she cannot reach into. Then feels like a melting pot of anguish and guilt and, in a strange way, tormented love.
Myerson had started writing it before The Lost Child was published, but finds it hard to know what it would have become had the subsequent fallout about Jake not happened. She has not, she says, really spoken until now about those terrible weeks in 2009, but they went on forever and she felt so completely under attack that things began falling apart inside her. The family, after all, was already traumatised by years of difficulties with Jake.
Her daughter suspects Myerson suffered a breakdown, though Myerson says she didn't experience it quite like that. "The stages are very odd," she explains. "At first, if you are attacked by anything, you fight. The adrenalin kicked in and, although I lost weight, I fought back. Then a very good friend said. 'Just wait, it will be afterwards …' so then it all stopped and I thought I'd feel better, and I did for a week or two. And then I felt terrible. I am not a depressive person but I think I had … a bit of depression, I suppose."
It passed but after three or four months, another stage kicked in. Her confidence simply fell apart. She couldn't write. Couldn't travel by Tube. Couldn't drive. She set out to go shopping one day and got as far as the Elephant and Castle roundabout. "I just couldn't drive and I had to turn off the road and phone my husband and say, 'I don't know what to do. I don't know if I can get back home.'" She hesitates. "It was like suddenly being in control of a car was something I shouldn't be doing. I felt dangerous actually."
It's curious. What was Myerson's crime exactly? She expressed her thoughts, her feelings, her view of the world, trying to make sense of them in words. She's a writer. That's what writers do. Just as artists make sense of theirs through pictures. Who would say to a painter that painting should not exist? The emotional experience that inspired it, it cannot have meant anything to you really. If it had, you would have kept it inside, not put it on canvas. And it would be crude, like a child's crayon drawing, not a polished piece of art. Who would say that?
The Lost Child was a polished piece of work. Sad that few people read it. And even if you disagree with Myerson writing about her son, reading it makes you understand why it happened. She was actually writing a non-fiction book, about a 19th-century girl called Mary Yelloly, who died at 21 and left behind an album of watercolours. And somehow the sad trail of the lost girl became entwined with Myerson's preoccupation with her own lost boy. They both illustrated to Myerson that a parent cannot always protect a child with love alone.
Myerson discussed her dilemma with her husband, Jonathan Myerson, who is also a writer. "I said, 'I don't know what to do because I am writing this book and I keep writing about Jake, and I don't think I can.' He said, 'Look, write the book you have to write and then we'll read it, then we'll panic, then we'll decide what to do.' I wrote completely from the heart."
From the heart. In an interview with me over a decade ago, the writer Clive James described the "chip of ice" at the core of writers. His own disturbed him, seemed an emotional deficiency. The phrase has kicked around the back of my head ever since, occasionally rising out of the dust when issues like Myerson arise. Writers need a kernel of truth to weight their writing. Is it a defect to draw on things around you as 'material'? Reading The Lost Child, the question finally seems answered. The story is harrowing, exposing the dangers of skunk; wistful in the way it tries to grasp memories of Jake's childhood and make them real again. Many parents – including Myerson herself – question the wisdom of some of what she wrote, some of what she did. And yet, you would have to be almost malicious to misconstrue her intent, because the love for her son pours on to every page. Chip of ice? More molten lava.
There's another relevant story behind all this. Isn't there always? Myerson is 16. She is standing alone in her garage. Her father has sent a letter saying he does not want to see her again and she has gone there alone, to weep. Her parents divorced when she was 12, and Myerson and her two younger sisters visit their father every alternate weekend. But he refuses to allow them to say their mother's name or call their house home. Rules. So many rules. "I was frightened of him because I was such an anxious girl. When I was 14, 15, 16, my emotion round him was, 'Oh my God, if I say this what will he feel?' I was constantly monitoring my actions, everything. I was tense around him … Yes, tense rather than frightened." Myerson often corrects herself, starting with one word and ending with another, more honest or accurate. Or halfway through something, she'll stop and question herself … is that true?
Her father was challenged in court for refusing to pay her school fees. Then he cut her off. To be honest, there was relief as well as hurt. "Now, as a grown-up, I look back at that teenage girl and think, 'My God, that must have been terrible.' But I didn't experience it like that."
Her father, though, has certainly influenced how she has parented. She always wanted children, would never, ever reject them like her father rejected her. Her partner and daughter are so alike she feels slightly excluded when they are together, but she likes that, feels glad for her daughter. Besides, they both like and need the same thing in Myerson. "When I got together with Jono, I was happy that I was with someone who was the good father I never had. We had our babies quite quickly and romantically, and that was nice." It was Jonathan who insisted they take Jake to see her father. Her father refused to hold his grandson. He preferred girls. He wasn't unpleasant, just cold. They never saw him again.
When Myerson was in labour with her second child, her father killed himself. "I barely cried," admits Myerson. "I felt as if I had lost him a long time ago, so it didn't really feel like a huge loss."
But when everything happened with Jake, it all kind of rose up, kicking her in the gut. Then, about a month ago, she watched a father and son being reunited on television. The son was Myerson's age. "I was watching this and really sobbing. It was definitely about my father, and I suddenly saw things from his point of view. At 51, you don't normally have sudden insights into something, and see a whole thing differently, and suddenly I did and it made me unhappy." She laughs nervously.
"I feel sorry about him. I feel sorry for him."
The responsibility for the parent-child relationship is always the parent's, Myerson believes. Yet she has regrets. "Maybe if I'd been a bit older I would have written to him and said, 'Do you need some help?' Or, 'Come and see us.'" Her father had been told he had treatable prostate cancer but that wasn't why he killed himself. "He killed himself because he had nothing to live for. And maybe if I had been a bit older I would have taken responsibility for the relationship."
The thing that was never really said about The Lost Child was that Myerson examined her own faults as well as Jake's. "It was very self- critical," she agrees, though the tabloids seized on her words as if they had thought of them first. She accepted that Jake started smoking skunk when she and her husband were going through a bad patch, but feels responsibility rather than guilt. Who knows if he would have started anyway?
"We had a tiny glitch in our marriage, had a couple of counselling sessions and sorted it. It's good for children to see parents aren't perfect and for them to see you do your best, and we did. We mended everything and I'm quite proud of that. And this is what I like about Jon – even when he wasn't very happy with me, he was brilliant with the children."
She and Jonathan bordered on smug about their family, she admits. But they almost imploded with Jake's drug use. The rows, the physical aggression, the smashing up of their property, the stealing from them.
In the end, the couple tried 'tough love' and asked him to go, but they were in constant contact, particularly his mother. She couldn't bear not to be. In fact, she wasn't very good at tough love, was she? She smiles suddenly. "You're the first person to say that. But I said it. We had friends who had a very parallel situation at the same time, and they did real tough love, and he got better before Jake did. We did slightly tough love, which is probably the worst thing in the world. I don't think we handled it very well. So many people had not heard of tough love but the very idea that you could do it made people very excited."
The remarkable thing is that her marriage survived. She admits, for example, that she sometimes contacted Jake and didn't tell Jonathan. "Having kids … the problems … my God, it puts your relationship through it," she agrees. "I could easily imagine a situation where the problems with Jake pushed us apart but it actually didn't and I don't know why. We were very united. All credit to Jono, actually. The attacks on me, and the way he helped me deal with that, definitely made me stronger. He is very kind and morally strong and, unlike me, he doesn't care what people think of him. I loved him already but, actually, I loved him more by the end of it."
Maybe the worst thing was when that girl, who stood in the garage and wept and vowed never to reject her child, asked her son to leave the house. "It was awful. There was a particular kind of agony for me having that happen. It was like some awful ghost story where something comes back that you cannot prevent. And even though I told myself this was different, this was drugs, that was something different …" Myerson breaks off, welling up. "I haven't thought about that for a long time," she continues. "I find it quite upsetting to think about."
The morning after the interview, Myerson is going on holiday. She emails. Some of the things she said kept her awake. It's noticeable that not one of the details she has asked me not to mention are self-protective, but are designed to protect others, sometimes at her own expense. "And don't worry," she adds, "I am very happy for you to be critical of/about me if you need to. I know that's part of the deal."
Apart from the inevitable folk who spew constant bile on every subject online, Myerson only received one negative letter, ironically from a member of her own family. The whole experience changed her, strengthened her, made her slightly bigger. "I hope I wasn't a very critical person before but it has made me less judgmental. I vaguely know someone who was in trouble with the press recently, and I emailed to say, 'I'm here if you need me.' It has made me feel more generous."
Brave, given the circumstances, to write a novel about a mother harming her children. Maybe the new her is more defiant too? She laughs. "That's definitely true. My confidence went and I thought, 'I've gone as low as I can go now. I can write what I want and not care what people think. It's a novel. It's not going to hurt anyone.'" She refuses to censor her fiction. "I investigate the things that frighten me in fiction, and that enables me to feel OK in real life. I don't really know where the dark stuff comes from, and in a sense it must come from my father, but my sense is that it comes from somewhere much deeper inside me, actually, something I had when I was five."
Perhaps her darkest unspoken fear is that, like the narrator of Then, she harmed her child. Yet the children in this novel are so authentic, their voices so true, that you suspect only someone who loved children could capture them quite like that. Even now, while she regrets what The Lost Child caused, she can't completely regret it as a book. "I am quite proud of it," she says. "Sometimes I had to look at it to remind myself that what I had written wasn't what they said I had written." It was, in a strange way, a testament to her son. "The book," she says, "was about how much I love that boy."
• Then is out now. Julie Myerson appears at Edinburgh International Book Festival (www.eibf.co.uk) on 21 August
This article was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on August 7.