Literary genre of about painful, tragic stories, usually, but not always memoirs. Usual topics include Abusive Parents
(or lack of parents
), sexual abuse, drug/alcohol addiction, prostitution, growing up in terrible poverty, or historical horrors such as living through World War II
. As autobiographies, these are marketed as non-fiction, but lawsuits may occur if people mentioned in the book disagree with the author's version of events. Such a tale will usually have a bleak white cover
, often with a picture of a wretched-looking child (although flowers and broken picture-frames are also popular) on it, and a dramatic-sounding title like Wrecked
or Please, Daddy, Stop!
in curly writing.
Incredibly profitable genre over the last decade, although in recent years the demand has slowed down somewhat. Some bookstores now devote an entire section to "Tragic Life Stories" or "Painful Lives." Among publishers, the genre is euphemistically termed "inspirational lit" or "inspi-lit." The more cynical among us suspect that people actually get off on the horrific events described in such books (see Do Not Do This Cool Thing
), leading to the term "misery porn".
May be related to True Art Is Angsty
. Sometimes turns out to be Based on a Great Big Lie
. If it gets turned into a film, it's often Oscar Bait
. Not to be confused with the Stephen King
Real-life (or purportedly real-life) examples:
- The ultimate example: The Diary of a Young Girl, about a young Jewish girl who lived in hiding with her family from the monstrous Nazi regime. Unlike many other examples on this page, it has the distinct advantage of actually being true. What also distinguishes it is that, perhaps rather surprisingly given the circumstances, it's not all unremitting bleakness and misery and in many ways simply reads like the thoughts of a rather ordinary and at times quite optimistic and cheerful teenage girl adapting to rather unusual circumstances. But that said, the Foregone Conclusion makes it hard to place this book anywhere else.
- The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk is pretty much 19th century misery lit, with bonus anti-Catholicism.
- A Woman In Berlin is a diary written by Anonyma, a German journalist who preferred keep her identity a secret till her death. The diary tells about the mass rapes suffered by German women at the hands of Red Army soldiers after the fall of Berlin and how the protagonist and other women managed to survive starvation, rapes and abuses becoming the mistress of a Soviet officer.
- Dave Pelzer is the best known modern-day pioneer of the genre for A Child Called "It" and sequels, which center around his "true-life" story of suffering horrific abuse from his mentally unstable, alcoholic mother while his father stood by and did nothing. A good part of his family has stated that he was lying through his teeth, one of his brothers agrees, the other one says it was all true and that he became the scapegoat in the family when Dave was finally removed. David's reply to the disagreements is calling the brother who disagrees "a retard"
- A Piece of Cake tells the story of "Cupcake" Brown, whose mother dies and is taken from her loving stepfather to her uncaring cold biological father (whom she refers to as The Sperm Donor). Thus begins misery porn to end all misery porn. Sent to live in a wildly abusive foster home run by a crazed tyrant, Cupcake is violently raped by said foster mother's brother at age 11, begins prostituting and using drugs the very next day after the rape, becomes pregnant at 13, and joins a gang at 14. Her story ends happily, with her becoming a lawyer.
- Angela's Ashes.
- Ugly by Constance Briscoe, about life with her abusive mother. The mother sued but lost over reported factual inaccuracies. This may be reexamined after Briscoe was convicted of lying to a court and faking evidence about an unrelated situation.
- My Godawful Life by Michael Kelly is a parody of the genre
- Cathy Glass (pseudonym) has written several of these about her experiences as a foster parent of horribly abused children
- A Million Little Pieces is the most infamous example, although the author admits it's mostly untrue.
- Another controversial example: Don't Ever Tell by Kathy O'Beirne, about the author's experience of growing up in Ireland's Magdalen Laundries. So heavily contested that at least one other book has been written to directly refute her story.
- Wild Swans, to a certain extent: pre-dates the boom of the genre, and is told in a more literary style
- British TV presenter Gloria Hunniford wrote one about the struggle with breast cancer and eventual death of her daughter, Caron Keating (also a TV presenter).
- Mommie Dearest by Christina Crawford, depicting her physical and mental abuse at the hands of her adoptive mother Joan Crawford. Likewise the more famous Film of the Book ("I told you! No wire hangers, ever!")
- The Glass Castle: Unusual, in that she never describes her childhood as miserable or even damaging, refuses to vilify her parents, and is really more a memoir of total dysfunction than abuse. A notch above most?
- Andrew Collins wrote Where Did It All Go Right?, about his perfectly happy and normal childhood, as an antidote of sorts to the misery lit phenomenon.
- My Pet Virus by Shawn Decker — Decker recounts his life dating back to when he was an 11 year old hemophiliac who gets a blood transfusion, and gets AIDS from it. His drug regimens and general ill-health made him unfit for an eight-hour workday, and finding a woman who was comfortable enough with his HIV status was less than easy, and others with AIDS die all around him. Meant to be a comedy, according to Amazon.com.
- Fearless Living by Rhonda Britten — Though mostly an inspirational self help book on how to live fearlessly, Rhonda Britten spends a great deal of time detailing how, at the tender age of 14, she saw her father shoot her mother and then himself, and how badly it messed her up, leading to alcoholism and other miserable situations, and climaxing in a suicide attempt and catatonic collapse in a friend's guest bedroom.
- Asparagus Dreams by Jessica Peers is more light-hearted than other examples, containing humorous cartoons by the author, but details her misery and being bullied by staff during her many years in a residential home for autistic children.
- They Cage the Animals at Night by Jennings Michael Burch. It's pretty similar to A Child Called "It", albeit not as graphic. It's about a boy and his problems with foster homes and orphanages from the late '40s to the early '50s.
- Three Little Words is an odd example, as the author only focuses on her own misery as a foster child for the first few chapters and during her stay with the Moss family. Most of the other chapters deal with the issues that the system has in general, with her brother's struggles as a foster child, with the loving family that adopts her when she turned twelve, or with her helping to put away abusive foster parents like the Mosses.
- Traci Lords, former underaged porn star, wrote a book about herself as the victim of child abuse at the hands of the porn industry that fits this trope. Growing up in terrible poverty? Check. Abusive Parents (and lack of parents)? Check. Sexual abuse? Yes (before the porn). Dashed hopes? Yes, of becoming a legitimate model when she posed for Penthouse at 15. More sexual abuse? Yes, porn as sexual abuse in and of itself for 3 years. Prostitution? Yes, "prostitution" in the form of pornographic movies. Drug addiction? Yes. Victim Blaming? Yes, in that anti-porn people dislike her for being in porn despite age, or pro-porn people who view her as a traitor who knew what she was doing the whole time, though no lawsuits due to the book by itself. Complete with the bleak white cover in the revised version. Averted, in that rather than a mournful title, it has a punny double entendre "Underneath It All."
- Vera Christiane Felscherinow (a.k.a. "Christiane F.")'s autobiography Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo about her teenage years as a drugged prostitute was awfully successful in Europe.
- Miserable childhoods and horrendously abusive upbringings seem de rigeur for charismatic preachers and televangelists. It sometimes seems from the outside that there is an informal competition to claim bragging rights for the worst childhood ever - reminiscent of Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch. It isn't hard to see why: establishing that the power of Christ saved you from misery is an accepted part of the script and the worse the misery, the greater the redemption. The very conservative evangelist and political lobbyist Dr Mike Evans is a typical example. A theme of his past few books has been the horrendous abuse he suffered at the hands of his drunken father; Evans repeatedly stresses that his conversion happened at age eleven after being beaten and left for dead, locked in a cold cellar. He had a vision of Jesus, and movingly relates that Jesus Christ was the first to call him "my son". All very moving and heartstring-plucking. Except... when you go back to Evans' earliest books, such as Young Lions Of Judah, there is no mention at all of beatings, abuse, neglect and misery. In the earlier version of his autobiography, Mike Evans tells of being happy, successful, eighteen, and owning a fast car with lots of money in his pocket. Yet something seemed missing, so he started attending church to see if he could pull Christian girls... and he stayed. No mention of an abusive drunken dad, beatings and dark cold cellars in which he was visited by Jesus at age eleven. (Though you'd have thought face-time with Jesus was significant enough to put into a book). He may just have repressed the bad memories and they emerged later... at a time when his ministry needed lots of money.
- Ten Thousand Sorrows by Elizabeth Kim. Kim was the result of a brief fling between an American GI and a Korean woman after The Korean War. Her being of mixed race gave her a lot of grief both in South Korea (which led to her mother getting killed by her own family), and later on in America during the 50s and 60s when she was adopted by a childless couple (who themselves were abusive fundamentalists). Her husband was abusive in every way, and she finally found the strength to leave him after their daughter was born, and through help from actual friends and hard work, she finally manages to make something decent out of her life. The book's authenticity has been called into question by Koreans and the Korean-American community (some of whom have stated to have undergone similar experiences as Kim herself). The title itself is taken from a Buddhist saying that one's life is filled with ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.
- The Spanish cartoonist Carlos Giménez's work Paracuellos is about his own horrible childhood in an Orphanage of Fear in Francoist Spain.
- Not My Secret to Keep recounts Digene Farrar's recovery after her mother hired nothing but child rapists as babysitters, most likely on purpose. There is a bleak, white cover in the form of what appears to be an iceberg.
Openly fictional or proven-hoax examples
- The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks was published as a real book "tie in" by author Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David Lynch, the creator of Twin Peaks). It details Laura's downward spiral into sex, drugs, violence, insanity and, ultimately, death, all due to her continual rape from an entity named BOB who turns out to be her father starting at the age of 12. It's written as a real diary, starting off with some happy shenanigans involving a pet horse as a birthday present after eating some pancakes, with some poetry, and some blunt descriptions of underaged sex, rape, and prostitution, torture, violence, drug use, schizophrenia, despair, depression, and murder of more people than just Laura. The diary was found by the killer before the police could confiscate it, and so some of pages state who the killer is, therefore some of the pages simply read, "PAGE RIPPED OUT (as found)".
- Go Ask Alice tried to pass itself off as this, but is now widely agreed to be a work of fiction.
- Similarly, Jerzy Kozinski's book The Painted Bird was at first interpreted as an autobiographical account of his experiences in Poland during the Holocaust. Not only did it become clear that the book was a work of fiction, but he faced accusations of plagiarizing the book, derailing his career as an author. He committed suicide after enduring ill health as well as his literary damnation. In spite of the controversy, the book is regarded today as a masterpiece of Polish literature.
- David Copperfield is told from the point of view of the protagonist writing about the adversities in his life many years later.
- There's a lot of fake examples of this that try to pass themselves off as the real thing too, such as The Angel at the Fence by Herman Rosenblat, Love and Consequences by Margaret Selzer, the works of JT LeRoy and Forbidden Love/Honor Lost by Norma Khouri note . All purport to be about tragic lives of individuals and what not, and all are fictional hoaxes along the lines of Go Ask Alice.
- Angel at the Fence has an even more damning element: it was written by an actual Holocaust survivor, who added to his true and terrible experiences a romantic plot about a girl helping him out and later turning out to be his blind date. Other Holocaust survivors (including Rosenblat's brothers) and some Jewish scholars started digging in, then started pointing out the holes in the story...
- Monique de Wail aka Misha Defonseca wrote a bestselling memoir about her life during the Holocaust (where she escaped from an abusive foster family, went to search for her Jewish parents, was literally Raised by Wolves, killed a rapist at age 9, etc.), later exposed as a hoax. She admitted the story was a fake but claimed that "rewriting" her past was her way of coping with the genuine tragedies she had experienced (her parents were La Résistance members who were captured, tortured and killed; she was ostracized for this for years), by "feeling Jewish" and fantasizing about going off with wolves.
- Push by Sapphire.
- Parodied in I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan, a mock autobiography by Alan Partridge, who desperately tries to make his childhood sound like it belongs in one of these books by trying to paint his parents as abusive monsters and his schoolmates as vicious thugs. In fact, it's nakedly obvious that he's only trying to cash in on the Misery Lit craze and dress his actually rather boring childhood up a bit so that it seems more interesting to his publishers; his parents in fact appear to have been rather stereotypically dull Middle-England types (if perhaps not the most pleasant people, judging by how their son turned out) and while he was legitimately bullied at school it doesn't appear to have been to an abnormally cruel degree, being mainly fairly typical stuff like playground name-calling and childish pranks.
In-canon examples within other works