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how tragic. - helen-louise
how tragic.
I had to pay some cheques into the bank today, so I went to the bank in the basement of the Bentall Centre and then into WH Smith to get a hot chocolate from the Costa inside (as opposed to going to the one on the top floor, or the one in the market place). While I was waiting for my drink to be made, I looked across at the bookselling part of the shop, and was horrified to discover that there is now a whole section labelled "Tragic Life Stories"!

Back up a minute here. It surprises me that there is a market for Tragic Life autobiographies in any case. Why on earth would anyone want to read about children or young adults being abused? It's bad enough knowing that such things happen, without reading all the horrible details. I can think of maybe three good reasons why a person might want to read such a book: to recover from abuse of their own, and put it into some sort of perspective; to try to understand the psychology of abusers, so that you can avoid becoming one yourself; and to realise that your own family, while fucked up, is not as bad as it could be. I can't believe that it would be useful for psychologists to read such books, because of the problems of recovered memories or unreliable narrators, and in any case they're marketed at the general public.

Now, I know perhaps five or six people who have told me about specific incidents of abuse that happened when they were children or teenagers; and things being as they are, I suspect I know another five or six who were abused but haven't told me. But what all of these friends have in common is that they want to move on from the shitty experiences and build the best adult life they possibly can. I can't imagine anyone I know wanting to wallow in their misery to the extent of writing a book about it, although I can see how some people could find the storytelling cathartic. But some of these authors have gone on to write three or four books about their abuse! And while I can see how a person might want to read one of these books for the reasons I mentioned already, the idea of deliberately reading book after book about damaged people seems like car crash TV - slowing down to look at the wreckage to make you feel more alive. And that seems, well, somewhat broken to me.

But then I mentioned this to the guy working in Costa, who I know vaguely through being a regular customer, and he told me how it was particularly awful for him because he lost a friend recently. She was 34 years old, diving with her husband in Malta, and got into difficulties. Apparently she got helium in her blood - I guess this would be the bends or an arterial gas embolism? And what I know about that is very little because I don't dive and will never be allowed to dive (asthma), but even I as a totally lay person know that you have to ascend to the surface slowly when that happens. Apparently her instructor pulled her straight up to the surface (!). One of the people she worked for is a lawyer, and he is investigating the dive company - who apparently have been responsible for 75% of diving deaths in Malta (!! Yes, I wish I knew the name of the company so I could tell my friends who dive to avoid them like the plague!). So he gets to stand there all day, making drinks for people, and seeing the books that peddle gawping at other people's misery. Gods.

So, if you are a praying sort of person, pray for the family and friends of this woman. Pray or hope also that the incompetent people get fined/prosecuted/retrained. And, spoons permitting, I will write a brief letter to the manager of WH Smith saying how utterly inappropriate I find the Tragic Life Stories section, and how upsetting it could be for anyone who's experienced a recent loss.

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Current Mood: indescribable indescribable

14 comments or Leave a comment
johnckirk From: johnckirk Date: 3rd April 2008 18:39 (UTC) (Link)
I agree with you about the voyeuristic aspect of the "Tragic Life Stories", although I can't say I'm surprised; it seems like the same target audience as the people who read trashy magazines or watch Jerry Springer ("my daughter slept with my dad and now I'm my own sister!"). Mind you, I can see how stories about triumph over adversity could be inspirational, depending on the subject matter, e.g. reading about Douglas Bader (the guy who lost both legs and continued as a pilot in WW2).

As for the diving incident, I'm reluctant to start pointing fingers without knowing the facts. As you say, the normal approach is to gradually ascend, pausing for a few minutes at key depths. However, there is a particular technique called a "screaming ascent", for use in emergencies (e.g. when you suddenly realise that your tank is empty): this involves swimming straight up to the surface, while exhaling continuously. I did one of those during my PADI training, and it feels a bit weird because you're blowing air out but you keep the same volume of air in your lungs (as it expands). When we did ours, the instructor swam next to us to make sure that we kept to the right speed, but that's slightly different from saying that the instructor pulled us up to the surface. As I say, I don't know what happened here, and if the coffee guy wasn't there then he presumably doesn't know either, but this may not be a case of incompetence (at least on the part of the instructor).
baratron From: baratron Date: 3rd April 2008 20:54 (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I have nothing against triumph over adversity-type (auto)biographies. Actually, when I was writing this livejournal entry I was thinking of a man who appeared on Blue Peter when I was a child, and was written up in one of the Blue Peter annuals (possibly the Eighteenth Book). I think he was called Eddie, and he was a severely disabled man who had lived in homes all his life. He wrote his autobiography with the help of three of his friends, who were also disabled men in the home. He couldn't speak properly but could grunt, and one of the other men could understand him. So he would grunt out his life story, the other man would translate for him, a third friend would type it in (slowly, and laboriously - one finger typing on a manual typewriter), and the fourth friend would read back the typed pages for Eddie's approval. Of course, this happened in the 80s, when a) disabled people weren't expected to have a voice or anything interesting to say and b) we were significantly less technologically advanced, so I'm not sure how the book would read now. But I'd still kinda like to see it.

I also own "Stuart: a Life Backwards" by Alexander Masters, which appears in WH Smith's Tragic Life Stories section. Except - I bought it to better understand how people end up homeless and drug addicted, rather than to wallow in his misery. And, to be honest, if Stuart himself was still alive, he'd probably hit anyone who described his life story as "tragic".

I briefly knew Douglas Bader's grandson at college. Or possibly great-grandson, can't remember which. He was in icsf during the year he was around, but I'm not sure if you'd have met him. Alec somebody, was UGM Chair of the RCSU when I was RCSU President.

Edited at 2008-04-03 20:55 (UTC)
the_siobhan From: the_siobhan Date: 3rd April 2008 21:54 (UTC) (Link)
The genre is popular enough that people are making up awful deprived childhoods just to get books sold.

I still want to turn crazy_boat into a book some day, but I really want to present it in a way that isn't all "poor me, what I went through".
nmg From: nmg Date: 3rd April 2008 22:14 (UTC) (Link)
I think he was called Eddie, and he was a severely disabled man who had lived in homes all his life.

Are you sure this wasn't Joey Deacon? He was certainly on Blue Peter at around that time, and his translator was called Ernie.
baratron From: baratron Date: 3rd April 2008 22:29 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you, that's the one!
(Deleted comment)
_nicolai_ From: _nicolai_ Date: 3rd April 2008 19:33 (UTC) (Link)
I hear that "stories of people suffering unfortunate things" sells really well to teenage girls, which surprises most everyone in the trade, so that display you saw is likely merely a response to customer purchasing trends as much as the "childrens books about magic in schools" display.
As to why people write their stories up, the money may be such as not to be sneezed at.
hiddenpaw From: hiddenpaw Date: 3rd April 2008 20:59 (UTC) (Link)
In my exsperience working in a newsagents it's the Middle aged women who seem insanly keen on aledgedly true tales of other peoples trumatic lives. I'm pretty sure W H Smiths worked noticed there would be a market for such books after noticing the incredible popularity of magazines detailing the same sort of thing. Round here they currently sell as well as celeb gossip mags.
anansi133 From: anansi133 Date: 3rd April 2008 20:00 (UTC) (Link)
Some people are dishonest voyeurs, who cluck and tut and say, "Isn't it awful? Oh my, look at that!" while never admitting that they're getting off on it. Some of the worst fundamentalist outrage here in the U.S. concerns itself with inventing elaborate satanic child abuse scenarios... all practiced by their enemies, of course. And when it turns out that it only happens in their own heads, they'll claim religious persecution.

I think it actually takes a certain skill to realistically address this kind of awfulness in a way that doesn't create more drama. It's not to be found in that part of the book industry, because sales would plummet.
tirnoney From: tirnoney Date: 3rd April 2008 20:21 (UTC) (Link)
If she had helium in her blood then she must have been using tri-mix or another technical mixture. Tech diving has become a lot more mainstream in recent years but it's still somewhat non-kosher stuff as far as the big diving organisations go. Some groups are trying to standardise it with tech diving courses, but it remains that bit more risky than regular air or enriched air diving. There is also the disadvantage that most diving computers cannot automatically calculate bottom times and ascent rates for technical gas mixtures, so you often need to work it all out before diving and anything less than an expert instructor is adding considerably to the risk.

I'm sure you really wanted to know that. ;) I really want to know who the dive company is, although it's unlikely I'll be diving in Malta.
ailbhe From: ailbhe Date: 3rd April 2008 20:35 (UTC) (Link)
I have no idea why people read them, but I used to and now I don't. I don't know whether I stopped because I got better or stopping helped me to get better.

I really, really don't understand the Dave Pelzer stuff, if I remember his name right.
hiddenpaw From: hiddenpaw Date: 3rd April 2008 21:03 (UTC) (Link)
I don't know if you saw the Mitchle and web Scetch about "The Boy With an Arse For A Face" but I think if you have it sums the whole thing up perfectly.
micheinnz From: micheinnz Date: 3rd April 2008 21:54 (UTC) (Link)
It is voyeurism, much the same way that True Crime books are. I wonder if some people read them for the same reason some people go to horror movies -- they like being scared, but they know there's going to be a happy(ish) ending? After all, the author recovered enough to write a book, things must have turned out okayish.

Personally it creeps me the heck out. Having those books available is one thing (as you say, they can be useful) but a whole Tragic Life Stories section? Brrrr.
thekumquat From: thekumquat Date: 3rd April 2008 22:54 (UTC) (Link)
I've been known to read the last chapters of a few such books, to see how it turns out.
They're generally quite nauseatingly twee - the ones written by the person themselves anyway; the ones by teachers/social workers/psychologists etc tend to be quite interesting and highlight all the problems in the care and mental health systems - would be nice if those books translated to better systems eventually.

But basically it's pandering to voyeurism on a much larger scale than the women's weeklies have been doing for years. Some people, mainly middle-aged women, love playing "Ain't it awful?" and tutting. On the other hand, if they weren't reading these books,they'd be reading the Daily Mail...
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