Pubdate: Sun, 08 Mar 2009
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Camilla Long


The Author Vilified For Kicking Out Her Drug-User Son - And Writing
About It - Says Tough Love Cuts Both Ways

Julie Myerson looks like a broken sparrow. "This has been a terrible
week, today has been a terrible day and yesterday was one of the worst
days," she says tremulously, raking a hand through her pale gold hair.
Her fingers shake; she is on the verge of tears.

She has reason. Last week she set off a storm when she revealed that
her new book, The Lost Child, features a detailed account of her son's
five-year struggle with cannabis and her own traumatic decision, when
he was 17, to turn him out of the family home and change the locks.

Hardly anyone had read the book - it was heavily embargoed - but the
48-year-old novelist became an instant figure of hate. Was she the
worst mother in the world because she had barred the door to her son
or because she had then used the events for commercial gain?
Certainly, shrilled her critics, she was a vain literary cannibal, a
sloppy opportunist who had taken her habit of writing about her own
family to an indefensible extreme.

Her son weighed in. Now 20, a musician, he claimed his mother was
"insane" and "naive". His parents were "very emotional people and I
refuse to have anything to do with them".

"I've done a very controversial thing," his mother says. "If you
betray your child and throw them out, you will get flak. But I don't
care what people say about me in the press. It is nothing compared
with watching your boy walk away and not knowing how long it was for
and to know it was your doing." Tears drop. "It's really hard to talk
about it."

Until now she wanted to remain silent. "At first I thought: rise above
it, be dignified," she says, her voice high and pinched. "I didn't
want to get into a war of words." But after she saw what Jake was
saying, she felt things were getting out of hand.

She spoke to Jake a few times last week, even though he had not taken
a call from her in eight or nine months, she says. "He called me to
say, 'Have you seen what you've done?' He was cross. He'd talked to
the papers; they'd got him through Facebook. He doesn't know how to
handle the press. He said, 'I didn't even talk to them; all I said
was: f* off, my mother's insane'." She giggles, wiping her eyes.

"Oh, I like him so much! Obviously I love him. He was making me laugh:
he had this plan to talk to the tabloids and get as much money as
possible. I said, 'Darling, this will backfire'. I hate him having to
deal with this. But I've done it to him. It's my fault."

Myerson clearly dislikes this sort of publicity - denunciations, in
particular - and has been taken aback at the level of attention. "I
was in The Sun," she says. "No one's book is ever in The Sun."

Certainly her quiet corner of Walworth in south London (Jake smoulders
just down the road in Camberwell) has never seen so much action. But
Julie and her husband, Jonathan Myerson, are an interesting couple.
They have been together for more than 20 years; he is a writer, whose
animated film, The Canterbury Tales, was nominated for an Oscar in
1999; her first novel, Sleepwalking, was nominated for the John
Llewellyn Rhys prize and her Something Might Happen made the Booker

Both 26 when they met, they quickly had three babies - Jake was
followed by Chloe, 18, and Raphael, 16. They were proud of their
child-rearing skills and often wrote about them. "Julie and I are
vegetarian and we think we are doing our children an immense favour
bringing them up so they may never want meat," Jonathan wrote in 1999.

Julie chronicled their lives in articles and columns for the press.
"She's been writing about me since I was two," Jake complained
yesterday in a newspaper interview. "Frankly, I'm not surprised by
anything she does any more."

When I ask Julie now whether she thinks she's a good parent, she is
more circumspect. "People who have been parents for a while know there
isn't such a thing as a good parent. Every decision has been made with
a lot of thought and discussion," she says. "We knew our kids would
encounter cannabis but we were quite relaxed about it. We didn't say
to them, 'Don't you dare try it.' We wouldn't be so stupid. I don't
think that was a mistake."

Besides, she was perfectly open about her past use of the drug
herself. "Yeah, I've tried it. I've only had about eight tokes in my
life. But I know what the feeling is - it's very nice."

She recognises that a problem she and Jonathan were having in their
relationship may have encouraged Jake to try drugs. "Jonathan got
depressed," she says, "and we became pretty unhappy with each other.
So we spent time repairing our relationship and Jake probably used the
time to smoke. I know he found it stressful. You could say we were

By Jake's account, he had adored his mother as a boy but an "idyllic
childhood was suddenly shattered by fights, reality and talk of my
parents separating". He was bored and unhappy at his local state
school and couldn't sleep.

"Whatever emotion you are feeling, especially when you are younger,
cannabis restores that awed sense of magic in the world," he said. "It
removes you from everything that's there and then - and that, of
course, is the problem with it as well."

Julie found out that he was taking drugs one day when "we were
snooping in his room and we found a CD case with 'Keep off' on it",
she says. "A lump of cannabis. We put it straight back and thought,
'Okay, what shall we do? We have some knowledge, which is good: he's
done it. He's tried it and might take it to a party.' So we thought
we'd do nothing, because at that point he was working really hard at
school, doing incredibly well. At parents' evenings they'd say he was
very motivated, maybe a bit naughty, mouthy. Why do something? We were

They finally realised something was properly wrong "on the day of his
maths GCSE. He woke up late, normally a child who would get himself
ready for school. He couldn't be bothered to break into UKP 10 to buy
himself a ruler for the exam. We definitely questioned him; we're very
much on our kids' case, probably too much".

Their concern didn't help. The problem intensified; Jake stopped going
to school. He slept in and would come home late at night, ashen. They
consulted professionals about his worrying mood change, but "no one
ever said, 'Let's rule out drugs'. Never", she recalls.

"He would lie in bed till five," she says. "He would get up, roll a
spliff, make a coffee and go outside." She never considered physically
removing his spliff because by this time she was quite frightened of
him: "We got to a point where I'd want to lock our bedroom door at
night." They even hid the kitchen knives, just in case: "He never took
a knife to anyone. But it was clear to me that he was prepared to be
ruthless if he decided he had to."

Finally Jake hit her. One night, as the couple were preparing to go
out to the theatre, an altercation took place. As the parents went to
leave, Jake grabbed the key to the door. In lipstick and green satin
high heels, Myerson bizarrely began to struggle with him until he
cuffed her to the floor, perforating her eardrum.

The doctor who treated her in A&E told her: "You do know this was
assault? It's quite serious. Even though it was your son - you need to
think about that."

"It was . . . very difficult," she says. Jake claims the violence was
50:50 and involved both his parents.

The couple contemplated rehab but "agreed that he was so far from
admitting he had a problem that he would just say, 'F* off,' and
leave", she says. "The next week I discovered he gave drugs to his
brother and sister." Raphael and Chloe were 13 and 15 at the time. "I
thought: 'We cannot do this. I can't carry on like this every day.'
They saw us losing control. But to ask one child to leave to protect
the others? It makes you feel like you've failed as a parent."

She issued an ultimatum: " 'You have to stop this behaviour or you
have to leave the house. We can't live with you,' " she says. It was
the most difficult thing she'd ever done.

"He was pretty calm and said, 'All right - I'll go.' Within the hour
he did. As he walked away, I had no idea whether this was it. As far
as I was concerned I was saying, 'Go,' and I might not have seen him
again for a long time. The sight of him walking away . . . the back of
the head . . . it was unbearable. But the minute he had gone, the
house relaxed." It was a few days after Jake's 17th birthday.

Ten days later he tried to come back, using his own front-door key.
They had changed the locks. He came back again and, when he couldn't
get in, hurled plant pots at the door. Eventually they called the
police. "That morning was just unbearable," she says. After the police
had spoken to him, "I tried to persuade him to come and have some
breakfast, talk, sit". He didn't.

Since then they have had intermittent contact. Jake has variously
slept with friends, in squats, the occasional rented flat. "I've
missed him terribly these past months," she says. The last time she
saw him was in May to show him the manuscript of The Lost Child. She
began writing the book partly because "it was a way of spending time
with him". And besides, she couldn't help herself: "My writing comes
from a place I don't have total control over."

She had intended to write a history of a girl called Mary Yelloly, who
died from TB almost 200 years ago, and for a while she did that, but
she became sidetracked. "I was dealing and grieving. The Jake stuff
kept creeping in. I had a feeling I shouldn't write about him, but it
was what I wanted to do."

When she finished, she and her husband thought seriously about what to
do with the book. They concluded that "there were so many more people
suffering things similar to us, we felt we had to raise awareness.
People need to go public. I understand why people wouldn't do this to
their child. But I decided I would as long as Jake didn't say to me:
don't. I was terrified to do it, but I took him the

To her astonishment he said it was fine, apart from five tiny
inaccuracies, she says, and after a bit of persuasion he even allowed
her to use some of his poetry, though she admits he "wasn't wild about

Of course no one, least of all Jake, was quite prepared for what
happened next. "I was naive," she says, once again. "I thought the
book would speak for itself. Reviews would come out, good or bad, some
challenging interviews. But I thought, because I hadn't named him . .
. I never thought the press would do this to my kids. If I'd known, I
wouldn't have published. It's not fair on my family."

Jake flatly contradicts his mother's avowal that he gave consent. He
says he consulted a lawyer but was told he couldn't stop the book. "My
mother seems to have suggested I somehow agreed to this book, which
isn't really correct. The book contains some poetry that I wrote when
I was about 15 or 16, and I remember getting a call saying she'd pay
me UKP 1,000 if she could use it. Of course I took it, but that
doesn't mean I want it to be published."

"I can see why he's saying different now," she says, sighing. "He
wasn't aware of what would happen; no way. I do feel bad, that I
should have protected him."

If Jake is ill, an addict - which she claims and he denies - did she
really think he was capable of making a sensible decision, especially
with money on the table?

"Gosh. That's interesting," she says. "The thing is . . . he is
actually relatively happy at the moment. He doesn't behave like an ill
person. No one meeting him would think he has a problem. But I suppose
what you're saying is fair."

She could, of course, have given to charity if she felt strongly about
teenage cannabis addiction, and then she could have avoided all this.
"It never occurred to me. I'm primarily a writer. I started writing a
book, then thought: am I happy? Is it truthful? Am I proud? And I am.
I've felt very anxious, on and off, but nothing about what I revealed
makes me uncomfortable."

Her relationship with her son remains fragile. Perhaps they are too
alike; the more she talks about it, the more the whole episode seems
like a sad game of cat and mouse. He leaves; she publishes. He talks
to the press; so does she. Can't live with; can't live without: an
endless cycle. "I don't want to control him!" she cries. "He's a free
spirit. I have no problem with any part of him apart from the cannabis."

He is still not drug-free. While denying addiction, he says his use of
cannabis is "frequent and enjoyable". His mother thinks he should
write his version of her book: "I would be very okay with that."
Naturally, the other children don't want to be involved; nor does
Myerson's mother - they have all been doorstepped by the tabloids.

Perhaps they just see it as history repeating itself. When Myerson was
a teenager, her father told her he never wanted to see her again. He
had been obliged to pay her school fees in a divorce settlement, but
had suddenly refused. A letter from Julie begging him to let her take
A-levels was used in a court case to make him pay the fees. A short
while later he wrote to cut her off.

Apart from a short meeting when she took a newborn Jake to see him -
he refused to hold the baby - they never saw each other again. When
she was 31 he committed suicide.

"To have that at 17 and then find myself telling my own beautiful
child to leave the house . . . the parallels are painful and
horrible," she says. "It was the one thing I was never going to do to
my children. It is extraordinary. I have no answers."

What a tragically broken bunch. In context, Jake seems just another
chapter in this family's tale of woes.He complains that his mother has
"taken the worst years of my life and cleverly blended it into a work
of art, and that to me is obscene".

At least Myerson says she is happy: "I can't say I'm miserable - I'm
not." She smiles. "I love my writing, I love gardening, my other kids
. . . I find life very enjoyable. But I cry myself to sleep about him
about once every two weeks."

She pauses. "I don't regret the book, though. But I may live to regret
saying that."

The Lost Child by Julie Myerson is published by Bloomsbury this week.
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