12 Reasons Why So Many Memoirs of Dysfunctional Childhood

by Jerry Waxler

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In searching through bookstores and bestseller lists, I find many memoirs whose central feature is the quirkiness and pain of dysfunctional childhood. For example,

Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls
Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt
This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff

In fact, so many big sellers seem to center on strange childhoods, I have been wondering if we should feel inadequate if we had a normal one. To answer this question I have been speculating about some of the reasons this theme of painful early life has caught the attention of so many readers and publishers.

Follow the money
One reason there are successful dysfunctional childhood stories is the success of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. The publishing business follows trends. So they are looking for other books in a similar vein.

Easy for the reader to jump into the protagonist’s shoes
Vulnerability and danger, puts us to the edge of our seats. Children are vulnerable, so a story about a dysfunctional childhood has a natural hook that pulls readers in. We want the child to be safe, and feel concerned at their crazy parents and excess freedom.

Watch in voyeuristic horror
Protecting kids seems like a basic contract all parents are supposed to sign up for. And when it breaks down, we feel horrified. Like onlookers at an accident, our disgust draws us to the next page. We watch in horror as kids cope with parents who disobey the rules.

Revel in entertaining surprises
The quirkiness of a dysfunctional childhood provides more entertaining and surprising than a normal one. These surprises and shocks keep us reading.

They offer hope
If they suffered this much and survived enough to be able to write this book, then there’s hope for the world. Resilience of individuals gives hope for resilience for the rest of us.

Someone had it worse than me
Many of us think we had difficulties in our childhood. These books are testimony to the fact that other people also had it bad, or in most cases significantly worse.

The family unit rules
The family is a unit that is precious and powerful, a crucible of human experience in which we were formed. Parents and extended family feed, clothe, teach, guide, punish, demand, coax, love, or not. Siblings stick together or not. Memoirs of extreme cases help us piece together a deeper understanding of the family unit and give us glimpses of how it worked in our own life.

Solve a puzzle: Is it nature or nurture?

For years we have heard endless debates about the impact of nature versus nurture. Did they grow to be good people because of their childhood or despite it? It’s a fascinating question, and we hope that this one book about one person’s experience will help us settle this unsolvable debate once and for all.

Solve a puzzle: where is the love?
As I read these books I easily see the dysfunction. But in the back of my mind, I feel like I’m reading a detective story. I know there must be love in this situation somewhere, but where? My curiosity to find the love draws me on.

Putting words on our pre-verbal times

We all started childhood before we could put words on our experience. Then gradually we found words, but it took years before we could eloquently advocate for ourselves or explain our worlds. Our unformed voice was a sort of muteness. Reading someone’s story of that period gives us words.

Learn about coming of age
Coming of age is a universal experience. We all went through it, but we don’t necessarily understand it. Reading about how it worked for other people helps us sort out our own coming of age.

Surviving great suffering indicates greatness
We don’t all win a Nobel prize, or an Olympic gold medal. But one thing we all did was survive childhood. If you faced adversity in childhood, now you have overcome that adversity — the greater the difficulty, the greater the achievement of having survived it. So when we read a story about someone who survived a difficult childhood, we are actually reading the story of a champion. And readers like champions.


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4 thoughts on “12 Reasons Why So Many Memoirs of Dysfunctional Childhood

  1. Only if you make it interesting, Mary Lynn! And even then…what sells is not necessarily good writing. Sigh. But we don’t do it for the money, right? 🙂

  2. The act of writing a memoir can be the start of the healing process. Nobody chooses to be born into a situation which can be loosely described as dysfunctional. When people are, they all deal with it differently. In my case, it took me 30 years before I was able to put pen to paper. I’m so glad I did. I feel better for having done so.

  3. Thanks for this comment, Patsy. Congratulations for telling your story. It does seem really strange that it takes 30 years to gain the perspective to look back. And yet, in fact, this is a common experience. We need to grow more mature to be able to put together the pieces of our younger years.

    Best wishes,

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