Pain Can be Funny . . . but Denial Never Is

Here’s something that’s really difficult to talk about, when it comes to memoirs. When people recount their childhoods, often events and attitudes come up that turn out to be controversial. Usually the memoir subject thinks these situations are perfectly “normal,” since this is, after all, the story of his life. I, as the ghostwriter or editor, however, might see the event as child abuse or neglect. (It’s often still “normal” in the sense of being relatively common, but it isn’t “normal” in the sense of being something not worth discussing).

I relate to this situation because this exact thing has happened to me. I sent a story from my own memoir to an editor. I thought it was really funny, but she came back saying it wasn’t funny at all. In fact, she thought the story was about a type of child abuse. I was stunned! After that, I was really able to understand what some of my memoir ghostwriting clients go through.

Just like them, I really did think the situation I wrote about was funny, and I still do, but now I also realize that, as a kid, there was a hurtful element to the situation, of which I was in total denial. In order to make that story funny to readers, I’m going to have to face the whole story–the funny parts and the parts others might consider hurtful–and really explore both sides of the story.

Now, some of my memoir ghostwriting clients, when faced with this type of situation, absolutely deny that a childhood situation (one that might raise the hackles on readers) was hurtful. They want to portray the entire situation as “just an unusual family.” Coming from an unusual family myself, I relate to that instinct, but you can’t control what the reader perceives. You can tell the reader this is just the story of an unusual family, but when readers see children in situations where they learn to deny their feelings, cover up for parents’ behavior, or raise themselves due to neglect, readers feel sad, naturally.

The parents in the book don’t have to burn you with cigarettes in order to make the reader feel sad, instead of amused. Inappropriate behavior or child neglect can distract the reader from what’s supposed to be funny. So, to communicate the funny aspect of a story like that, you are, quite simply, going to have to work a little harder.

The first roadblock you face in trying to bring out the humor in something like this is the fact you can’t write as a psychologist. Analyzing the situation as a psychologist would do, will ruin the story, as readers are still expecting to read a story, not a professional analysis. So do the analysis in your head, but what comes out on the page should acknowledge what an analyst would see–the potential for hurt that’s there–without using any professional-type language.

Then your character, which is usually you, of course, describes exactly what about the situation allowed him or her to push aside the hurtful part in favor of the funny part. What aspect of your personality enabled you to not get hurt by this? That’s a question that needs to be answered before the humorous part of the situation can emerge, for most readers.

Child abuse just plain isn’t funny, but kids view the world completely differently from adults, and that disconnect, sometimes, is where the humor of any childhood story lies.

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