Mis Lit: Is This the End for the Misery Memoir?
The Magdalene Sisters
A scene from the Magdalene Sisters, which helped fuel fascination with harsh laundries
The Telegraph (U.K.) 5 March 2008 by Ed West
As two 'mis lit' memoirs destined for the bestseller lists are revealed to be works of fiction, Ed West reports on the almighty backlash against a classic of the genre
It was a childhood tale of woe that touched the public's heart. Kathy O'Beirne's 2005 memoir, Kathy's Story: A Childhood Hell Inside the Magdalene Laundries, painted a relentlessly grim picture of growing up in 1960s Ireland. Entitled Don't Ever Tell in Britain, it shifted 400,000 copies, making O'Beirne the second best-selling Irish non-fiction writer of all time, after Frank McCourt, whose Angela's Ashes had been no laugh-a-minute either.
O'Beirne told of being tortured by her labourer father, experimented upon in a psychiatric hospital, and raped by no fewer than four priests and a policeman. Then there was her spell in a Magdalene laundry, one of Ireland's notorious Church-run homes for "fallen women", where, aged 14, she gave birth to a daughter. A reviewer at the time wrote: "Her story is so horrific, it is almost unbelievable."
Which, upon reading the book, was the reaction of Hermann Kelly, a Derry-born journalist. "Alarm bells started ringing," he says. "Even in the introductory chapter, every single thing is black and white. If you were a betting man, the statistical probability of someone having so many terrible events in their life stretched credibility."
According to Kathy's Real Story, Kelly's exposé of O'Beirne's book, published in the UK next week, Don't Ever Tell is not so much misery memoir as a great work of fiction.
The key to O'Beirne's success was the public's fascination with the Magdalene laundries, which are to misery memoir writers what the SAS is to Andy McNab. Established in the 19th century and finally closed in 1996, the laundries, as depicted in the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, were notorious for Dickensian harshness and cruelty. The nuns who ran them historically, according to Kelly, were "Catholic Frankensteins, or Daleks out to exterminate all signs of life and love".
O'Beirne wrote: "I was 12 years old and I had just been delivered to hell... the Devil himself could not have dreamed up a better hell than the Magdalene laundry."
Except that the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of High Park have no record of O'Beirne; and they were certainly meticulous record-keepers. As Kelly says, their archives are "complete and so comprehensive that one woman's two-day admittance was recorded".
O'Beirne simply didn't exist in the files; the laundries did not admit girls as young as 13, or pregnant women. Even former Magdalene residents have said O'Beirne's account rings false. One former friend suggested O'Beirne had seen The Magdalene Sisters, and now "seems to think it's her".
In response, O'Beirne's co-writer, Michael Sheridan, could only say he spoke to a woman who remembers being in a Magdalene home with Kathy. "She died in a psychiatric hospital some time after we spoke," he said. "She is another victim, just like Kathy."
Nor is there any record of "Annie", O'Beirne's child who apparently died from bowel disease at the age of 10. She claims it was because the birth was hushed up. Kelly recently offered €1,000 to anyone who can find proof of Annie having existed. He does not expect to be getting out the chequebook any time soon.
Kelly's exposé could be the start of a widespread backlash against misery literature, a genre kick-started by Angela's Ashes in 1996, and which took off globally four years later with A Child Called It, Dave Pelzer's account of growing up with an alcoholic mother who beat, starved, stabbed, burnt and force-fed ammonia to him. "Inspirational memoirs", the polite term for this type of book, now account for nine per cent of the British book market, shifting 1.9 million copies a year and generating £24 million of revenue for the publishing industry. HarperCollins recently admitted to a 31 per cent increase in annual profits thanks to "mis lit".
"Mis lit" is not an entirely new invention. The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, Or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun's Life in a Convent Exposed, published in 1836, suggested that the Sisters of Charity in Montreal were forced to have sex with the priests next door, who then baptised and strangled any offspring. Unable to distinguish reality and fantasy as a result of a brain injury as a child, Monk had never been in a nunnery. She was, in fact, a prostitute who had spent her early years in a Magdalene laundry. "At least she'd been in one," says Kelly, drily.
Among the most disturbing recent examples of the genre was Damaged by Cathy Glass, which recounted the story of a foster mother and her ward, Jodie, a seven-year-old who had been horribly abused.
But even that was a picnic compared with Stuart Howarth's Please, Daddy, No, which recalled how his father repeatedly raped him and forced him to eat pigswill, among other things too hideous to mention. Stuart is then abused by paedophiles, becomes a homeless, cocaine-addicted arsonist, and ends up killing his father and going to prison. It sold 13,000 copies in its first week.
So why has other people's misery become such big business? One of the biggest factors is the impact of the rise of the supermarket: eight out of 10 misery memoirs are bought at the checkout, mostly by women (who make up 85 per cent of the market) who would not visit a bookshop but buy "true life" magazines such as Pick Me Up or Chat, which feature stories about abusive fathers, cheating husbands and distasteful diseases.
With this demand, it is not surprising that some have been tempted to stretch the truth. Hollywood scriptwriters would have pitched the Belgian writer Misha Defonseca's 2005 memoir, Surviving With Wolves, as "Schindler's List meets The Jungle Book". This yarn about a six-year-old Jewish girl searching for her missing parents on a 1,900-mile trek around occupied Europe - during which she kills a Nazi officer and is given shelter by packs of wolves - was a complete fabrication.
In a statement last week, Monique De Wael (Defonseca's real name) admitted she had made it all up. Her parents weren't resistance fighters. She didn't spend four years wandering alone across Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Yugoslavia, through Italy across the Alps to France and back to Belgium. She isn't even Jewish.
And yet the fabricated accounts keep on coming. Last week, Love and Consequences by Margaret B Jones was published in America, about growing up in gangland LA and selling drugs at the age of eight. But the book was withdrawn on Monday after Jones - real name Margaret Seltzer - admitted that while many of its details were based on friends' experiences, they were not her own.
True or not, supporters say these books inspire and help us to empathise; others say it is Schadenfreude. The psychologist Oliver James has even suggested there might be some hidden erotic motive.
"Misery literature is huge, especially in Ireland," agrees Kelly. "The public loves this description of a cold, miserable Ireland, where it always rains and priests are always around, abusing someone."
But what makes the O'Beirne saga so troubling, Kelly believes, is that it fuels Ireland's obsession with clerical sex abuse, and the abuse-claim industry. O'Beirne herself accused Fr Fergal O'Connor, founder of the homeless hostel Sherrard House, of raping her in the 1970s. The investigation took a year, during which the 77-year-old University College Dublin professor was prevented from visiting his own workplace. Yet Fr O'Connor was virtually crippled by arthritis when the alleged crimes took place, unable even to shake hands because of the pain, according to a friend. The priest was exonerated two days before his death.
Mainstream Publishing, which published Don't Ever Tell, is steadfast in its support of O'Beirne's book. "We have made our own investigations, and are convinced this is a legitimate account of the harrowing experiences endured by a young girl whose life has been embittered by the abuse she suffered at the institution in which she was incarcerated. We have no doubt about Kathy O'Beirne's account of these events. Mr Kelly's version is his own and, in our opinion, does not relate to any sort of reality."
O'Beirne's own feelings about Kelly's investigation became clear on Irish TV last November, when he pulled out her birth certificate and school records, showing she had lied about her age, education and alleged adoption. O'Beirne, furious, hit him. As he commented at the time: "She can beat my back, but she can't beat my book."
'Kathy's Real Story' by Hermann Kelly (Prefect Press) is available for £9.99 + 99p p&p. To order please call Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4112 or order online at books.telegraph.co.uk.
Misery memoirs or works of fiction?
Fragments: Memories Of A Wartime Childhood (1997)
by Benjamin Wilkomirski
A harrowing account of life in Auschwitz - except that Wilkomirski, real name Bruno Doesseker, had arrived at the camp on a tourist bus, having spent his wartime childhood in Switzerland. An ex-girlfriend publicly contradicted his protestations that he had evidence to prove his story.
A Million Little Pieces (2003)
by James Frey
Bestselling account of the life of a drug-addicted criminal and his three months spent in jail. It had everything from substance abuse to a lecherous priest - little of it true, though the author had once spent a couple of hours in a cell.
Surviving With Wolves (2005)
by Misha Defonseca
The book's subtitle, "The most extraordinary story of World War II", should have said it all; this wartime survival memoir involving Nazis, wolves and a six-year-old's lone trek across Europe to search for her missing parents was revealed last week to be fabricated.
Love and Consequences (2008)
by Margaret B Jones
The latest misery memoir to be pulled from bookstores, its story of life as a half-white, half-Native American in the ghettos of LA was revealed this week to have been faked.