“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So begins Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, a statement I believe is fundamentally wrong. The reason why is fairly simple and straightfoward. I am a prolific reader and reviewer of a genre of literature I affectionately (?) call “memoirs of crappy childhoods.” I say that this affectionate because I am not only a reader  of such memoirs but also a writer  in the genre as well, and I like to think that anything one says about an enterprise one is involved in has at least some degree of affection, even if it is said in a colorful way. Whether or not other people would agree about this, I have thought a great deal about the genre of literature I happen to read, and I would like to share some of my thoughts on this sort of memoir as a genre, thoughts that are likely to be somewhat scattered but also thoughts that I think are worthwhile to put together so that we may think of such matters together as part of a shared context.
One of the things to notice at first is that there is often no connection of these various stories as part of a genre. If one looks for books that I would consider as memoirs of crappy childhoods, one of the things that is noticed is that the genre association is very fragmented. This month, our CASA book of the month club chose to read a memoir called Driving In The Dark, and the author will be coming to talk with us and presumably sign books and all of that. This book is labeled as a book on parenting and relationships related to adoption and child abuse. Fair enough. Another book in this genre that I have reviewed is Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir of Sorts, a book that is similarly a memoir about the author’s difficult childhood, and this book was labeled under the categories of biographies and memoirs of significant people in the field of religion, Christian Living books relating to men’s issues, and books on politics and governments relating to espionage. Another book of this sort that I have read is Like Family, and that is categorized under parenting and relationships relating to adoption, teenagers, and dysfunctional families.
This suggests that there is a fuzzy understanding of a genre of literature by which generally successful children of difficult and unpleasant and even horrific childhoods write therapeutically in order to better understand where they came from and detail how they chose to avoid repeating patterns of generational failure in their own lives. Contrary to Tolstoy’s thinking, although the genre of this literature is not widely recognized as a coherent whole, there are many interrelated books that show that unhappy families are often unhappy in precisely the same ways. These authors, as children, often had parents who divorced and sometimes complicated family situations involving multiple divorces and remarriages and blended families. One or both of the parents struggled with mental illness, often related to their own abusive childhoods or the traumas of life relating to war or rape, and often some sort of substance abuse like drugs and/or alcohol was connected to the attempts of parents to self-medicate. The grinding poverty as well as the untreated mental health and addiction issues left the children vulnerable to abuse either by their parents or to the predatory people who saw in the broken family the opportunity to create mischief, and often led to frequent and abrupt relocations that isolated such children from peers. Often, though, there was some kind of positive adult role model, be it an adopted parent or teacher whose commitment to the young person and good moral example allowed the child to grasp a better way of living that put them on the right track and that left them as a generally successful adult who nonetheless had a lot of issues to work through in writing.
Now it may be true that not all of these memoirs share these same elements. For some people the family structure is more or less decent in their childhood memoirs but they live in impossible situations that destroy that family from outside, be it invasion of their homeland or the tyranny of a murderous totalitarian regime. Most of the time, though, most of the same elements are present over and over again. It should be noted that my own childhood shares many of the same patterns that I read about in the memoirs of the crappy childhoods of other people. This suggests that unhappy families are unhappy in precisely the same ways. Most people, despite their best efforts, recreate the sort of family that they know best, and for some of us that is not an acceptable option. In such families children grow up into adulthood victimized in some fashion by a set of dysfunctional aspects of their family background and then find themselves victimizing other people either actively or passively in similar ways to the ones they suffered from themselves. What we are dealing with, therefore, is not as simple a problem as simply demonizing or attacking the last abusers in the chain, but rather breaking cycles of abuse, something that requires extreme effort and considerable and painful reflection.
There are other similarities between these memoirs. Many of the memoirs explicitly make marriage the ending of the memoir, marking not only the end of childhood but also the establishment of a (hopefully successful) union that demonstrates that the cycle has been broken and that a new pattern has been established that will (hopefully) lead to a lack of need for the next generations of the family to write the same sort of memoirs. Often the state has a negative role in the memoir. Sometimes the government is responsible for the trauma in the first place (in WW2 memoirs of Nazi horrors, or cases where it is military or diplomatic service that leads to the trauma that requires a parent to self-medicate disastrously in the first place). At other times, governments are responsible for presenting barriers to the unity of the family or ways that basically decent children are placed alongside young but hardened criminals in ways that further endanger them and leave them subject to victimization, or whose ideals of reunifying dysfunctional families prevent children from being able to find an escape through adoption. By and large, though, governments are seen as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution in memoirs of crappy childhoods and end up appearing fundamentally untrustworthy no matter what they do. Either the sheer scale of dysfunction overwhelms the minimal abilities of governments to assist or the mixed motives of government agencies lead them to muddle their response to the dysfunction faced by the writers as children.
Why is parental unhappiness and the dysfunctionality of childhoods so stereotypical? It is clear that there are a few elements that will make one’s childhood crappy. Are your parents hostile to each other to the point of either domestic abuse in an intact family or a rupture like divorce or abandonment that leads the abandoned party to try to form a new family to satisfy their own longings for affection and intimacy? Do parents abuse drugs? Are children viewed primarily as ways to benefit the family whole through meeting the needs of their less than entirely competent parents rather than as beings whose needs need to be met by the parents out of parental sufficiency? Does the poverty and/or dysfunction of the family attract negative government attention that only increases the shame and burdens faced? Is the dysfunctional of the family sufficiently obvious that it draws opportunistic predatory behavior by others? Once one of these things happens, it is likely that other aspects will often follow in their wake. Certain problems make for unhappy and dysfunctional families and these problems are lamentably common. If people do not take the effort to improve themselves, they will simply pass on the burdens they face to the next generation without a great deal of improvement, and most people simply do not take the time and effort to improve themselves. This suggests that there are many millions of memoirs of crappy memoirs remaining to be written.
 See, for example:
 See, for example: