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63 Writing about Abusive Mothers: Ethics and Auto/biography | by kate douglas 3 Introduction In the prologue to her autobiography of childhood, Ugly: The True Story of a Loveless Childhood, Constance Briscoe describes a visit she made to Social Services when she was 11 years old. She asks the woman at the reception desk if she can book herself into a children’s home. The woman replies, “You cannot refer yourself to a children’s home, luvvie. You need to get your parents’ consent first. Why don’t you go home and think about it?… I can’t book you in just because you feel like leaving home. Do you want us to contact your mother?” Constance replies, “No thanks … I’ll handle it myself” (1).Afraidthatshewillreceiveanotherbeatingfromhermother,Constance goes home and drinks a glass of diluted bleach. She writes, “I chose Domestos because Domestos kills all known germs and my mother had for so long told me that I was a germ. I felt very sick, happy and sad. I was happy because tonight, if the bleach worked, I would die” (2). Briscoe survived to write her autobiography. She went on to become a barrister and one of the first black women to sit as a judge in the United Kingdom (Meeke n.p.). Briscoe’s autobiography describes the physical and emotional abuse she endured from her mother during her childhood. Ugly is one of countless autobiographies recounting childhood abuse to have been published during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Significantly, a number of recent 64 kate douglas autobiographies have tackled the matter of abusive and/or neglectful mothers or stepmothers. This is a difficult subject, particularly in relation to sexual abuse by women, which remains a taboo topic. It has long been established that the majority of child abuse is perpetrated by men, and as a consequence, the issue of female perpetrators of abuse has been largely unexamined . Obviously, feminist issues are at stake here. Labelling women as abusive redraws the boundaries of gender and power, and may take the attention away from long-fought battles to place gender and male power at the centre of analysis of abuse. These issues considered, then, how are abusive mothers represented in contemporary autobiographies of childhood by women? In this paper I primarily look at two examples of autobiographies of childhood abuse: Constance Briscoe’s Ugly (2006) and Rosalie Fraser’s Shadow Child: A Memoir of the Stolen Generation (1998). These autobiographies are necessarily relational ;theybecome“auto/biographies”conveyingthelifenarrativesofboth the authors and their mothers. They are also what G. Thomas Couser refers to as “intimate life writing—that done within families or couples” (xii). Couser writes, “the closer the relationship between writer and subject … the higher the ethical stakes” (xii). Whom is the auto/biographer responsible to in constructing life narratives, or, as Couser asks, “What are the author ’sresponsibilitiestothosewhoselivesareusedas‘material’”(34)?And do the stakes shift if the author is writing about abuse? I compare and contrast these two auto/biographical depictions of abusive mothers and suggest the different ideological concerns and ethical dilemmas that underlie these different auto/biographical projects. I argue that in these auto/biographies we can see the tension between the weight of traumatic life writing, or the need to write, and the ethical and cultural responsibilities that relational auto/biography summons. Auto/biographies of Child Abuse As previously suggested, countless examples of autobiographies of child abuse are currently in circulation. A cursory search of the ubiquitous Amazon .com reveals a plethora of these types of autobiographies dating back to the mid 1990s, and the trend has continued with many notable autobiographies of abuse being published in the early 2000s. Like Briscoe’s aforementioned autobiography, U.K. author Donna Ford’s The Step Child: A True Story (published in 2006) and U.K. author Sandra Crossley’s Friday’s Child: What Has She Done That Is So Terrible? (2004) each recount experiences of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of a stepmother. Jenny 65 abusive mothers Tomlin’sBehindClosedDoors(publishedin2005)recountsTomlin’sexperiences of abuse by her father and neglect by her mother growing up in London .Sara Davis’sRunningfromtheDevil(2006)andToniMaguire’sDon’tTell Mummy: A True Story of the Ultimate Betrayal (2006) tell a similar story of an abusive father and a mother who was unable to offer any escape. Why is there such an interest in these autobiographies? Much has been written about the cultural significance of the autobiographical “boom” that has occurred in...


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