A further thing that gets brought up regularly when discussing misery lit is the issue of ethics – I get asked about them a lot. Am I not breaching confidentiality with the stories I tell? How fine a line do I walk between reality and fiction? And these are fair questions.
Most misery lit is written by the survivors – the people who actually went through the experiences and came out the other end. I’m writing as a professional who was involved with the cases, so my role was a little different.
But protecting the identity of the people I write about is paramount and I am very, very careful.
I change details likes names (obviously), family details and locations. Remember, the two or three stories I tell in each book as if they are happening together did not actually occur at the same time, so the narrative I create gives a different aspect to events, making them almost impossible to recognise. Everything I describe did happen, I just hang some window dressing on it to enable me to tell the story while keeping the subjects of that story anonymous.
I am regularly approached by former clients who want to be featured in one of my books, and I choose stories I want to tell based on a particular theme or aspect I find interesting. In these instances I always seek permission and have gotten the blessing of those involved in most cases. Where I haven’t it is because they are no longer living or have been impossible to track down. For Wednesday’s Child, for example, I could not trace Connie (the subject of the main plotline in the book), and we considered not putting her story in at all. The lawyers went through it with a fine-toothed comb, and decided it was okay. A month after publication I received an email one day: it was from Connie and contained two lines: Thank you for telling my story. It means a lot that you cared enough to do that. For once, the lawyers were right!
Some critics have said books like this should not be written, as they belittle the children and their families, or appeal only to voyeurs or those wishing to exploit the unhappiness of others. Only recently I was accused by someone of making money from the misery of those less fortunate than myself.
Obviously, I disagree.
My books have, I feel, shone a light on the struggles, victories, challenges and day-to-day tribulations of people who work in child protection and the children and families who are forced to endure its attentions. There are no good guys or bad guys – sometimes the system works, and sometimes it doesn’t. There are not always happy endings, and sometimes the children are much worse off for my having gotten involved. I make mistakes, sometimes serious ones, and I try to own up to that as much as I can.
I always do my best to show that the efforts of children and families within the system are heroic, and where failure occurs, it is down to an ineffective system not the lack of determination on the part of the people involved. I don’t, and never have, believed my books focus on human failure – they are, if anything, celebrations of the human spirit.
And I think they’re well-written. I put a huge amount of time and effort into making sure my books have a pace, an atmosphere and a style all of their own, and I choose each and every word with great care. I’m proud of them.
I’m a little amused (and a little disappointed too) that it’s only since I started to write fiction that the literary world has sat up and taken notice. My first novel was my tenth book, and it felt like my first.
But then someone will contact me from some far-flung part of the world and tell me how they found one of my ‘inspirational memoirs’ on a book shelf in a café in Vietnam, or in a lending library in a pub deep in the Australian outback. They’ll tell me how that book made them feel a little bit less alone, because it made them realise other people have been through terrible experiences, just like they have, and came out the other side.
And I’ll be glad I wrote that book, and all the others.
And I’m okay with the term ‘misery lit.’ It’s the term the publishers use when no one else is listening, anyway!
(c) Shane Dunphy
You can read the first part of this article here.
About The Boy They Tried to Hide:
The Boy They Tried to Hide is the startling, true account of how truth is sometimes stranger than fiction …
Shane Dunphy was working as a resource teacher in a rural town when he was approached by the mother of one of his pupils, seeking help. She is worried for her troubled young son, who has been found leaving the house late at night to go deep into the woods near their home. He has spoken of meetings with a friend, Thomas, but no one else has seen him or knows who he is.
As Shane tries to discover what’s going on, a sexual predator he helped bring to justice years before reappears. The man is looking to settle a score, and has picked someone close to Shane as his next victim.
In The Boy They Tried to Hide, Shane Dunphy revisits cases he encountered during his time as a child protection worker and journalist and, in doing so, once again discovers that leaving the past behind is harder than it seems.
Order your copy online here.