Could Jake Myerson sue his mother?

A barrister wonders if Julie Myerson, in writing about her son’s drug-taking and bad behaviour behind closed doors, may have crossed a legal line as well as a moral one.

Barbara Hewson

Topics Books

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‘The same old story: my son the drug addict… Well, I’m sick of this story of yours, this idea that it’s about drugs. If you want that to be the story then go away and write one of your fucking novels about it, OK?’

Julie Myerson did not take her son’s advice, though she repeats his words to her, above, in A Lost Child: A True Story. In this semi-autobiography, she seeks to justify her painful decision to evict her elder boy Jake from the family home, aged 17, for using skunk. The book’s dedication is: ‘For him: he knows who he is and I love him.’ But is the book an act of love, or of getting even?

In it, Myerson complains at length about her son’s ‘destructive and chaotic presence’. Jake shouted, kicked in his parents’ bedroom door, stole money, bunked school. His room was a tip. When a girl he dated became pregnant, he said: ‘She’s done so many drugs, isn’t there a good chance she’d miscarry?’

Many a parent might decide not to go on living with someone like that. But surely a professional writer could confine herself to writing a novel about the experience? Myerson found herself immersed in public controversy, after the Daily Telegraph published extracts from A Lost Child on 7 March 2009.

Jake, now 20 and a music student, branded the book ‘obscene’. He responded to his mother’s claims in a Telegraph interview, in which he alleged that a breakdown in his parents’ relationship had been the catalyst for his ensuing issues with cannabis:

‘I can’t talk about what caused the breakdown, because it would be wrong to do so, but this rough patch lasted about a year…. The crisis affected me very badly. Up until then everything had been beautiful and suddenly I became aware of tensions that hadn’t been there before… I was just a very confused, unhappy teenager who was too young to know who he was and the cannabis all became tied in with normal teenage rebellion.’

Myerson told BBC2’s Newsnight that she wanted to help other parents in her situation, and that there was a chance her book could make her son face up to his problem. A Lost Child was rushed into the shops, two months early.

But Myerson has repeatedly used her children as a subject for her writing, rather than as muse. Her 2004 book Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived In Our House blends investigative reporting, as she delved into the history of their Victorian home, with vignettes of family life, and imaginary retellings of incidents in the lives of former inhabitants. The front cover shows a picture of her children.

Myerson reported her young daughter Chloe asking in Home: ‘Will you put every little thing I say in the book?’ Chloe also told her mother: ‘I know the way you write. You’ll put anything in for effect.’

Myerson’s Guardian column on life with her teenagers, re-named Eddie, Becca and Jack, was written anonymously on a weekly basis, during 2006-2008. It was so accurate that Jake’s friends recognised him. Its picture of family life is bleakly off-putting: the Myerson adolescents are depicted as foul-mouthed, oafish and disruptive, who repeatedly reduce their mother to tears. It has been re-published in book form, anonymously, as Living with Teenagers.

Myerson’s 2008 novel, Out of Breath, is a story of children on the run. Its narrator, Flynn, is a girl of 13. Her teenage brother is a ne’er-do-well named Sam. His jeans are torn and his eyes glitter. Sam steals. He lies in till late in his squalid bedroom, bunks school, swears, and kicks doors in. He is a ‘horrible selfish son’ who is ‘out of control’. Life with Sam is ‘a bit scary’. Sam says he is going to be a famous poet one day.

Myerson told Danuta Kean of the Independent on Sunday on 10 February 2008: ‘We have been losing our eldest child to drugs and have had a terrible, terrible time for exactly the two years I have been writing this book .’ Kean observed: ‘It doesn’t take a shrink to recognise in Flynn’s story Myerson’s ambivalent feelings towards her eldest child.’

A Lost Child complains of identical bad behaviour by Jake. When the storm over it broke, Myerson initially denied that she had also written the ‘Living with Teenagers’ column. But on 10 March 2009, she issued a statement confirming authorship. The Guardian has now removed ‘Living with Teenagers’ from its internet archive, to protect the family’s privacy. This may be shutting the door after the horse has bolted, however.

Increasingly, the courts have been getting tough on privacy, following the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 8.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees the right to respect for one’s private and family life.

Indeed, long before the Act, judges would grant injunctions to stop intimate revelations (Argyll, 1967; Stephens, 1988). So if your ex-girlfriend can’t spill the beans on your private life together, why should your mum?

Jake said he consulted a lawyer after his mother gave him the manuscript of A Lost Child, but was told there was nothing he could do. This is surprising. Under the law of defamation, he was probably up a gum tree – because his parents would say what was written was true, including his perforating his mother’s eardrum during a row.

But under the law of privacy, truth is not the issue. What matters is whether you have waived your right to keep your private life private. If you haven’t, you can prevent publication.

The European Court of Human Rights, in Van Hannover v Germany (2005) 40 EHRR 1, defines private life broadly: ‘Private life, in the Court’s view, includes a person’s physical and psychological integrity; the guarantee afforded by Article 8 of the Convention is primarily intended to ensure the development, without outside interference, of the personality of each individual in his relations with other human beings.’

That case concerned Princess Caroline of Monaco’s complaint that photographers were harassing her. The Court considered that the public had no legitimate interest in knowing where Princess Caroline was and how she behaved generally in her private life. This reasoning applies with infinitely greater force to someone in Jake’s position.

Drug-use is widely agreed to affect one’s health and wellbeing, both physical and mental. By definition, it concerns private life. Baroness Hale said in Campbell v MGN [2004] UKHL 22 , para. 145: ‘It has always been accepted that information about a person’s health and treatment for ill-health is both private and confidential.’

In that case, the UK Mirror had pilloried the model Naomi Campbell for lying about her drug use, having published secret footage of her leaving an Narcotics’ Anonymous (NA) meeting. Campbell, who won at trial and again on appeal to the House of Lords, argued that this kind of revelation could harm her recovery, by deterring her from attending NA.

In a landmark case, McKennitt v Ash [2005] EWHC 3003 (QB), a Canadian folk singer sued successfully after a former friend, Niema Ash, published a memoir of their life and times together. Mr Justice Eady said at paragraph 77: ‘If a person wishes to reveal publicly information about aspects of his or her relations with other people, which would attract the prima facie protection of privacy rights, any such revelation should be crafted, so far as possible, to protect the other person’s privacy. This is important particularly, of course, in the context of “kiss and tell” stories. It does not follow, because one can reveal one’s own private life, that one can also expose confidential matters in respect of which others are entitled to protection if their consent is not forthcoming.’

And he went on at paras 135 and 137:

‘To describe a person’s home, the décor, the layout, the state of cleanliness, or how the occupiers behave inside it, is generally regarded as unacceptable. To convey such details, without permission, to the general public is almost as objectionable as spying into the home with a long distance lens and publishing the resulting photographs…

‘[T]he right to “respect” for one’s privacy at home would cover not merely the physical descriptions of the building or contents but also conversations, communications or disagreements taking place in the home environment. People feel, and are entitled to feel, free in their homes to speak unguardedly and with less inhibition than in public places. Accordingly, it will be rare indeed that the public interest will justify encroaching upon such goings on. Naturally if criminal acts are committed, such as child abuse or the cultivation of illegal drugs, there would be a public interest to override the normal protection, but nothing of the sort is alleged here.’

The one incident which might conceivably justify revelation, then, is Jake’s assault on his mother; but at the time his parents chose to keep the matter quiet.

The only formal consent, it seems, that Jake gave was to the first publication of some of his poems in her book, for which his mother paid him £1,000. One of them, ‘Cyclone’, suggests insight coupled with despair (‘I’m a cyclone / Making trouble wherever I go… Why won’t you please leave me behind?’). Whether he signed a formal waiver of his privacy rights is not known. But, to be effective, a waiver has to be clear and unequivocal.

In her concluding chapter, Myerson explains how she showed her son the manuscript, and that he only objected to a few passages, on grounds of inaccuracy. He later told her that he had been ‘very merciful’, adding: ‘Don’t you go thinking I approve of what you’ve done.’ This is ambiguous, to say the least.

Jake now maintains that she presented the manuscript to him as a form of fait accompli. This is troubling, because the book that Myerson has written would only be acceptable, both morally and legally, if its youthful subject had given it his unconditional and fully informed consent.

Barbara Hewson is a barrister at Hardwicke Building, Lincoln’s Inn, London.

The Lost Child: A True Story, by Julie Myerson, is published by Bloomsbury Publishing. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Books


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