- Contesting Childhood: Autobiography, Trauma, and Memory
The 1980s and 90s witnessed a burgeoning interest in autobiographical accounts of destructive family dynamics—accounts that ruptured conventional notions of the family as a cherished sanctuary from an otherwise threatening world. Beginning with the literature on Adult Children of Alcoholics in the 1980s, published accounts of family life veered increasingly by the late twentieth century toward the gothic. The voices were varied, but a discernible motif centered on the author’s heroic efforts to speak about the unspeakable—to give voice to horrific abuses suffered in childhood.
In Contesting Childhood: Autobiography, Trauma, and Memory, Kate Douglas gathers up a rich web of autobiographical writing on childhood trauma to tell a larger cultural tale of the search for an authentic past. Drawing on a trope common to childhood trauma autobiographies—that of lost innocence—Douglas invites reflection on what the genre tells us about cultural investments in stories about an idealized past ruptured by early trauma. As she outlines the aims of the book, Douglas first sets out to explicate links between personal and public memory—how childhood autobiographies “collectively reveal more about contemporary social, political, and cultural concerns and preoccupations about childhood than they do about the past” (6–7). Here she intends to show how cultural conventions shape intimate and highly personal recollections of childhood and the scripts available for recounting them. A second aim concerns the range of political uses of childhood memories, particularly in the fight for children’s rights. In outlining this aim, Douglas suggests that autobiographical representations of childhood “have formed part of a network of cultural texts that have impacted upon social justice initiatives for children” (7).
Douglas begins by observing that autobiography encompasses a range of works of varying literary quality, although scholarly debates over autobiography as an aesthetic form are not her primary concern. The texts discussed were published in the two decades beginning around 1990, primarily in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, written by authors from a range of cultural backgrounds. At many junctures in Contesting Childhood, [End Page 853] however, this wide reach of the project overtakes the expressed aims of the book, such that links between texts and contexts are sketchily drawn.
The factual veracity of childhood memory was hotly debated in the 1990s—an important historical touchstone in Contesting Childhood. In aligning herself with scholars stressing the fallibility and malleability of memory, Douglas avoids the moralizing tone that characterizes some critics of autobiographies later exposed as fraudulent. She notes, for example, how the trauma of war may have shaped the recollections recounted by Ishmael Beal in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier (2007). The boundaries between conscious fabrications and everyday forgetting are blurry, and Douglas offers illustrations of the difficulties that accompany autobiographical efforts to stabilize these boundaries. Further, Douglas shows how cultural conventions are as important as psychological processes in the narrative structuring of the past.
As one illustration of cultural conventions, Douglas describes the demand on the author to evidence forgiveness toward the cruelty of parents. The denouement typically centers on the author’s capacity to transcend an abusive childhood. As she wryly comments, “‘forgiveness’ is a highly valued commodity in autobiography” (146). Douglas astutely exposes the predictable scripting of this convention, and how the publishing industry promotes conventions that sentimentalize the past.
In carrying out the second aim of the book, the political deployments of childhood autobiographies, Douglas begins with the premise that contemporary social crises shape the versions of childhood that gain currency in popular culture. Drawing on the work of Foucault, she suggests that “Particular confessions are culturally valued (over others) at particular cultural moments” (108). But the book offers few insights into why some representations are valued over others, and what these autobiographies of childhood register about the readers who consume them and the societies that they inhabit. Douglas does note the importance of autobiographies of traumatic childhood in mobilizing support for the children’s rights movement in the late twentieth century, although...