Child misery lit gives parents a bad rap

My Sister’s Keeper, a movie that opens in the United States this Friday, brings to the big screen the pessimistic view of parenthood that has made writer Jodi Picoult enormously popular and rich. In this dark narrative a couple with a delinquent teenage son and a daughter who has an acute form of leukemia conceive a third child to serve as her bone-marrow donor.

New York Times reviewer Ginia Bellafante writes in an overview of Picoult's work: 

“Multiple operations on both girls follow over the span of many years, until the donor child, victim of a sort of abuse that is passing itself off as godliness, rebels at 13, devastating her mother by initiating legal proceedings to ensure her own corporeal autonomy.”

Parental inadequacy and misfortune culminate in a shocking end, which seems to be par for the course in Picoult’s sub-genre of misery lit: children in peril. Her novels, says Bellafante, “have the effect of questioning the redemptive value of motherhood. Really, why would anyone bother?”

Then again, why would anyone bother reading books (she has written 16 of them) in which parents are either responsible for, or too incompetent to stop horrors such as the sexual abuse and murder of their children or their suicide; in which children are afflicted with fatal or deforming diseases and their parents make a complete mess of dealing with it? Aren’t the majority of people in the world parents? How can a writer get away with such defamation?

Here’s what Bellafante suggests:

“The endangered or ruined child has emerged as a media entity within a culture that has idealized the responsibilities of parenthood to a degree, as has been exhaustively noted, unprecedented in human history. The more we seek to protect our children, the more we fear the consequences of an inability to do so. Increasingly over the past decade, writers of crime fiction — Harlan Coben and Dennis Lehane among many others — have made a recurring subject of children violated by predation, abandonment, neglect…

“At the same time, dramatic television routinely subjects children to gothic brutalities. “House” does nothing to spare them gruesome operations and heinous diseases. “Law and Order: SVU” plucks practically every other victim from the ranks of infants or 12-year-olds; the criminals are often still in high school. A glance at the episode summaries on the show’s Web site reveals entries like: “Detective Benson goes undercover as a Madame to investigate the murder of a child prodigy living a double life.” On “Medium,” a series about a psychic in the employ of the Phoenix district attorney’s office, children are hurt all the time.”

Partly this obsession arises from the sexual abuse of children which became evident by the 1980s, and the (distorted) impression given that such things happen “not so much in the wilderness of strangers and poorly vetted caregivers as it is within families, churches (Picoult’s book “A Perfect Match” deals with clerical sex abuse), schools and other narrowly circumscribed communities, in which insularity proves an ineffective mechanism of protection.”

Partly, also, one would think, from the new birth technologies and the weird bioethics that goes with them, justifying “saviour siblings”, eugenic abortions and wrongful birth suits. A morbid interest in medical drama also feeds into the trend.

Oddly enough, when one thinks of the role the law has played in abortion and the breakdown of the family, but according to Bellafante, Picoult “shares with various crime writers the idea that the law is the child’s greatest advocate. Often it is some representative of the legal universe who emerges to express the compassion families cannot.”

Child protection laws may be multiplying, but so is child abuse, including the most readily accepted kind -- divorce.

Bellafante seems a little sceptical of Picoult’s work, but in the end seems to buy into her dim view of parenthood:

“Picoult’s books and the whole cultural machine devoted to maniacal worry about children often seem like a reflection of our collectively sublimated ambivalence about having children to begin with. “Harvesting the Heart,” one of Picoult’s early novels, deals with this explicitly, imagining an overwhelmed young mother leaving her newborn. In so many of her books children seem like more work than most ordinary people can handle. If Picoult’s fiction means to say anything, it is that parenting undoes us perhaps more than it fulfills, and it makes a thousand little promises it can never keep.”

Watch MercatorNet for our review of the film.


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