Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Consider the nerve hit

How timely! The notorious "Vogue mom" is back, selling a memoir about putting her 7-year-old on a diet. (To the nitpickers: At least I think that's what the memoir is about - I haven't read it and don't have plans to do so.) From a NYT parenting-blog post that also appeared yesterday:

KJ Dell'Antonia: Can we get the elephant in the room out of the way first? I think a lot of my readers will want me to ask you why you would write an entire book about a subject that’s so personal to your daughter. 
Dara-Lynn Weiss: I felt like this was something she should be proud of. This was an enormous accomplishment for her. The book is a celebration of her. Why would she ever need to feel bad for being a part of it? And I thought it was an important story to tell.
Weiss goes on to confuse criticism of her parenting decisions regarding her daughter's weight with ones of her decision to publicize them. When it could perfectly well be that she was on the one hand right to intervene (or that those who haven't been in that situation on either side can't really say) and on the other, wrong to write about it for a mass audience. One commenter takes that approach: "I don't think Bea's story should have become a public essay and now a book, but I'm 100% in favor of how her mother handled this." And another: "It's all great—a mom helping her kid lose weight—but why does everything have to become a blog or book deal?"

This is a tale for Bea to tell, when (if) Bea is ready to tell it and not her mother.
Personally I would be horrified if my mother published *any* kind of book about me--even if it was about sports activities or successfully overcoming a challenge. Perhaps Bea was consulted and gave her blessing, though I am not sure what 8- or 9-year-old understands how a memoir or biography can follow one through life.

I do think that the message, if the writer deemed it an important one, can be brought to the wider world without sacrificing her daughter's privacy--one can use pseudonyms or other kinds of anonymity. I hope Ms Weiss makes sure to keep her desire to publish stories that are not her own in balance with her young daughter's inability to understand how having her name and story all over the Internet and on bookshelves might affect her in a few years.
Another commenter, meanwhile, points out a practical problem with parenting-memoir-as-success-story, namely that when the kid's still a kid, the story isn't over. What if this miracle weight loss isn't sustainable? I know, a radical thought, because everyone who goes from fat to thin stays that way. But especially with a girl who hasn't yet hit puberty, it seems odd to announce a body transformation as a fait accompli.

Yet another commenter - at long last! - addresses the temptation to sell one's kids' stories, expressing an admirable amount of concern, especially given that the kids in question are apparently now adults:
For me, the issue here is not what Weiss did, which all sounds very reasonable and on target [...]. The issue is one's motivation in writing about one's child, which is something that I struggle with as well. It has been my lifelong dream to publish something, but I have never had any success. My kids are a RICH source of narrative material; I could very easily turn aspects of our lives together into something that might well be marketable.
And another responds, and it's like, I have your answer!
I wish KJ would bring this topic up more often here in Motherlode. I know she tried to approach it with that recent column by the writer who "pulled a knife" on her mother -- but the sensationalistic detail about the knife and the author's notoriety for having previously written elsewhere in the Times about some sort of fetish sidetracked the conversation and ultimately obscured the point she was trying to make.
Precisely, precisely, precisely! Keenan's post was great, but there was too much Keenan-specific material distracting readers. This commenter and I both used the verb "obscure," even! (Had this commenter seen the post? The date-stamp makes this not impossible.) But more importantly, yes, the time has come to question the ethics of selling your kids' story. Which is, to repeat, a separate question from whether the parenting depicted or promoted in a story is worth emulating. Also to repeat myself ever-so-slightly: the issue isn't whether parents have the right to seek medical care for their kids, or to confide in friends and family about their private concerns. It's not that parents should suffer in silence. It's that the alternative to "silence" isn't Vogue.

Anyway. There's also, unsurprisingly a defense of overshare: a child's feelings must be sacrificed for the greater cause of The Conversation:
Most people need to chill. Worry a little less about how Bea is going to react when she's a teenager - I'm sure she'll address her feelings with her mother and her therapist - and focus more on the conversation about childhood obesity. Then we might actually get somewhere.
Isn't this "conversation" more about high-fructose corn syrup and kids not being allowed to play outside because stranger-danger, and less about individual struggles? Isn't any approach to childhood obesity that involves being a glamorous Vogue writer with the resources that implies not all that widely applicable? But I digress.

Another defense of the approach basically says that if you can't point to the specific kid it happened to, it didn't happen:
I am someone who would/does ignore all those advice-givers/"professionals" with anonymous "Jane Doe" stories and go straight for the first-person account. Anyone can lie and make up a patient. But I know Ms. Weiss isn't lying about her experience with Bea because her name gives the story authenticity. That's why I prefer first-person parenting resources.
As though people never lie about their own memoirs? Have we learned nothing?


caryatis said...

Imagine how much pressure the child is going to feel to stay thin forever. Puberty will be hell for her. Or maybe she'll come to see being fat as a way to push her mother's buttons, which it obviously does.

Phoebe said...

I think that follows from what that one commenter said re: the danger of writing this up when the girl is still so young.

Moebius Stripper said...

But I know Ms. Weiss isn't lying about her experience with Bea because her name gives the story authenticity.

...and that right there is why the pro-overshare camp will never come around: the antis' arguments lack authenticity and thus credibility. Thus, the only value arguments against parental overshare would themselves have to be of the overshare variety, eg, "My 7 year old, Betty Jones, was morbidly obese and I put her on a diet, which was controversial in my family because my sister-in-law, Alice Smith, is a recovering anorexic who spent 2005-2006 as an outpatient at St. Jude's, and complicating these matters was the fact that my husband Roger had just lost his job and we were worried about how we would pay for the medication he took for his schizophrenia, and yet I DIDN'T WRITE AN ARTICLE ABOUT ANY OF THIS, because I think it would damage the parties involved. Signed, Millie Jones." Which is the sort of anti-overshare one will never see made, for obvious reasons.

Upon reflection: I suppose a first-person account along the lines of "I was overshared-about, and think that that was a bad thing" might hold water. I'd be interested to read what the children of mommybloggers and such have to say for themselves, ten years hence.

Miss Self-Important said...

Maybe if you (and also 10 of your closest friends) write really compelling fiction on the subjects of "how we live now" targeted at women, it will illuminate the shortcomings of realism and memoir and shift the cultural appetite away from them. You might have to make demonstrating the virtues of fiction over expose a conscious but subtle purpose of the work, admittedly, but I think this has been a longstanding goal of modern art, so you have some support there.

If you do this, I'll review it and emphasize this point very overtly, since book reviews need not be as subtle as books. I hope my saying this now won't make my eventually doing it a conflict of interest.

Phoebe said...


"I'd be interested to read what the children of mommybloggers and such have to say for themselves, ten years hence."

Indeed! It was frustrating writing that post and wanting to be able to point to evidence for how the children of online overshare felt as adults, but realizing that these children are basically still children. Obviously there were memoirs back in the day, but without Google, how many people read any given memoir and therefore knew who some kid was? I did find one really spot-on account of pre-mommy-blog overshare in the comments to the Keenan post, though.

Re: authenticity, it seems like part of this is well-meaning, i.e. parents who are themselves going through whichever crisis are comforted knowing that others will speak out using their own names, even if they, the readers, likely would not. But I completely agree that it then becomes tough to address without in turn revealing one's own name. Meanwhile, this whole topic is of course tough to address - to give examples of it means highlighting real cases. The way I see it, though, these are already prominent overshares, and maybe what I wrote will somehow stop new ones from being published. After that, yes, a pig will sprout wings.

Phoebe said...


Can't speak for any larger cohort, but consider me on the case.