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Misery Lit

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Literary genre about painful, tragic stories; usually memoirs, but not always. Common topics include Abusive Parents (or lack of parents, and dealing with foster homes and terrible orphanages), sexual abuse or sexual assault, drug addiction/alcohol addiction, prostitution, growing up in terrible poverty, or living through historical horrors such as World War II, particularly the Holocaust. As autobiographies or memoirs, 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 grainy picture of a wretched-looking child on it amidst a scorched or impoverished landscape. Sometimes, this will be the author as a child, but stock images are often used, particularly if there is a need to protect the anonymity of those involved. Expect to see a dramatic-sounding title like Wrecked, Tormented or Please, Daddy, Stop! in cursive writing. Subtitles which talk about the author's childhood being "lost" or "stolen" are also common.

It been a profitable genre over the early 2000s, with the rise in interest in "heart on sleeve" confessionals, although in recent years the demand has slowed down. Some bookstores devote an entire section to "Tragic Life Stories" or "Painful Lives." Among publishers, the genre is euphemistically termed "inspirational lit" or "inspi-lit." More cynical people may suspect that readers actually get off on wallowing in the graphically-described horrific abuse described in such books (see Do Not Do This Cool Thing), leading to the term "misery porn".

The readership is 80 to 90 percent female, making this a subgenre of women's literature ("Chick Lit", or for film adaptations, a Chick Flick). The misery lit titles are more likely to be sold at drugstores or grocery stores, rather than bookstores. May be related to True Art Is Angsty and gritty Kitchen Sink Drama about impoverished people.

Sometimes turns out to be Based on a Great Big Lie, when an author with weak morals senses a big potential payday from inventing a sad backstory for their life. Some well-known misery lit books, such as Go Ask Alice (1971), a lurid purported diary of a teen who faced drug abuse and sexual assault, have been revealed as literary hoaxes (they are fictional). If it gets turned into a film, it's often Oscar Bait.

If misery lit is turned into a Very Special Episode for TV, it's likely that there will be some degree of Narm. That is, scenes about the person heroically overcoming their Dark and Troubled Past that are supposed to be serious, but due to either over-sappiness, teary hugging sequences, or excessive melodrama, the drama is lost to the point of surpassing "cheesy" and becoming unintentionally cringy. A gritty Kitchen Sink Drama about a person's impoverished life will avoid this by focusing on the grim realism of their life in a dirty tenement in an Industrial Ghetto, struggling with unemployment and addiction.

Not to be confused with the Stephen King novel Misery. Also not to be confused with the band Lit or their song Miserable.

Real-life (or purportedly real-life) examples:

  • The ultimate example: The Diary of a Young Girl, about a young Jewish girl in WWII who lived in hiding with her family from the monstrous Nazi regime, which was rounding up and killing Jews as part of the Holocaust. Unlike some 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 horrific 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 during WWII 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 Soviet Red Army soldiers after the fall of Berlin and how the protagonist and other women managed to survive starvation, rapes and abuses by 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 alleged 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 is the 1996 memoir of Frank Mc Court (1930—2009), an Irish-American child growing up in poverty in Ireland. It is a collection of various anecdotes and stories of his impoverished childhood and early adulthood in Limerick, Ireland..
  • 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. The account was so heavily contested that at least one other book has been written to refute her story.
  • Wild Swans, to a certain extent: it 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
  • 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 rigueur 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.
  • First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung is the author's account of her childhood in Khmer Rouge era Cambodia. She lost four members of her immediate family during this period, three to mass executions, one to an illness which might not have proved fatal had the Khmer Rouge not killed off all the doctors and nurses.
  • The first half of J. Michael Straczynski's autobiography Becoming Superman is this, describing his jaw-droppingly awful upbringing at the hands of an alcoholic, sadistic, psychopathic, abusive, unrepentant Nazi collaborator father who may well have actively taken part in a massacre of Jews in what is now Belarus during the Third Reich occupation; a frequently-suicidal mother who tried to kill him at least twice; and a paternal grandmother who molested him and may have done the same to his father. When he starts to break away from his family, he is sucked into a religious cult and then expelled from it after catching one of the leaders engaging in sexual misconduct, and finally is beaten almost to death by a street gang in an apparently random assault. After that, things at last start getting better for him.

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.
  • 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 a.k.a. 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. The teenaged protagonist is poor, illiterate, morbidly obese, and subjected to physical and sexual abuse by both parents, becoming a two-time teen mom as a result of being repeatedly raped by her father.
  • 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. He gets back into it later when dealing with his television career's swift collapse by trying to dress up what was clearly just a mild eating disorder where he began over-indulging on chocolate and gained a lot of weight as if it were a gritty heroin addiction.0
  • The Creepypasta's I Caught My Grandfather Talking to an Air Vent (the protagonist's mentally-challenged twin sister was kept locked in the attic, and they communicated by talking through the vents) and I Did Something Bad Last Halloween (the protagonist poisons Halloween candy as a way to act out against her abusive family).
  • Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Honeyman admits that the title character is not based on her or on anyone she knows. Most of the book follows Eleanor as she does her best to get through life day by day while at the same time revealing her many past traumas. Her mother, long abusive to her, harasses her over the phone every single week. When Eleanor was 10, her house burned down, leaving her with facial scarring that she still has 20 years later. She spent the rest of her childhood shuffling from foster home to foster home. She also had an abusive boyfriend. After all that, it's no surprise that anything better than just OK seems too good to be true to her. Eventually, she suffers a massive, vodka-fueled, near-fatal breakdown. Her concerned coworker sends her to a therapist, who helps her turn her life around. During the healing process, we learn that her mother and sister died in the aforementioned fire and that the phone calls have been all in Eleanor's head.

In-canon examples within other works

  • Parodied in The Bojeffries Saga, in which Reth Bojeffries gets disowned and eventually murdered by his relatives for writing a highly-exaggerated one of these about his childhood.
  • Also parodied in Adrian Mole — The Prostrate Years, where Adrian's mother tries to write her own (faked) memoir entitled A Girl Called "Shit!"
  • Parodied in Date Night with the book Phil is forced to read for Claire's book club, about a girl who gets her first period in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
  • The short story "Tragic Life Stories" by Steve Duffy is based around a writer trying to cash in on the genre by faking the memoir of a child abuse survivor.
  • On Six Feet Under, Brenda Chenowith was discovered to be a genius, and, as a result, was the subject of a study by Dr. Gareth Feinberg, PhD. He began documenting her odd behavior. Brenda, realizing she was being observed, began studying mental disorders and would fake symptoms to spite the doctors. Feinberg published his account and it eventually became the best-selling book Charlotte Light and Dark, the book that would repeatedly haunt Brenda throughout her life.
  • The "Books" episode of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle mentions these, presenting the parody The Teats That Wept Tears by Paddy McGinty's Goat.
  • Dara O'Briain mentions them in one episode of Mock the Week: "there's the Top 10 at Tesco all called Daddy, No!"
  • Referenced in How NOT to Write a Novel with "A Novel Called It", advising the reader not to use Abusive Parents as subject matter since they're generally as fun to read about as they are to live with.
  • A one-off joke on Parks and Recreation had Chris reading a book called Limb-itless, about an armless and legless woman who swam the English Channel.
    April: That's impossible.
    Chris: Oh, she drowned immediately. It's kind of a sad story.
  • Bleak Expectations: At one point, main villain Mr. Benevolent kidnaps the protagonist's wife, and makes her read this kind of literature as torture.
  • Twin Peaks - A teen girl named Laura Palmer writes two diaries, a boring diary for people to find and read (which is discovered in the first episode), and another, secret diary (which is found later). From the small snippets that can be gleamed, the secret diary is seemingly similar to the tie-in written by Jennifer Lynch, in that it contains passages suggesting that she had been a victim of continual child abuse, and how it sent her spiraling painfully out of control to her doom.
  • Kevin Shapiro, Boy Orphan a series of stories written by the Wild Dada Ducks in Daniel Pinkwater's Young Adult Novel is somewhat of a parody of harrowing YA novels like Go Ask Alice. The stories chronicle Kevin's unrealistically tragic circumstances up to and including his frequent, violent deaths, all played for Black Comedy.
  • That Mitchell and Webb Sound parodies it in one sketch with Thomas Hardy speaking with a fan complimenting him on his latest book, Hardy wondering if it wasn't depressing enough. He's assured that it is easily as depressing as his other books.
  • For Better or for Worse: Michael’s first book, Stone Season is this: Loosely Based On A True Story from his college landlady about a young British woman who marries a Canadian solider right after WW 2 and ends up in an unhappy and abusive relationship in a failing remote farm, slaving away along with her children for years until he drinks himself to death. It’s a smash hit in the strip, but many readers thought it was over the top.
  • Disco Elysium: Sixteen Days Of Coldest April is a parody of Russian classical literature, a Doorstopper of a book that damages both your Health and Morale just by reading it. Your Pain Threshold skill loves it.
    CONCEPTUALIZATION – Real art is dense and difficult. If it didn't feel like you had to wrestle a suicidal bear to get through it, you weren't really reading.