Did anyone have a happy childhood?

Did anyone have a happy childhood?

Everyone has a story. That’s why the memoir business thrives. In recent times, it really can be traced back to Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club” (1995), a raw account of her childhood under the care of two very dysfunctional parents who happened to live right here in Southeast Texas. It sparked a memoir renaissance as knowns and unknowns decided they also had stories to tell. Karr milked two follow-ups, one of which, “Lit,” has been purchased by HBO with the hopes that it will be adapted for television. Karr has even written a book on how to write your own memoir and gives seminars on the subject.

She’s not the only one who had a bad childhood. So did Jeanette Walls, a journalist who once made her living as a gossip columnist before turning to writing her own memoir. Her childhood reminded me of another writer’s also awful upbringing captured in his memoir, “All Over But the Shoutin’.” Rick Bragg’s story is so similar to Walls’ account it feels like they came from the same family.

Bragg’s book hasn’t made it to the screen yet, but Walls’ has, and the telling is rather universal if compared to yet another memoir, “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCord. Drunk dads, long-suffering or indifferent mothers, starvation and clawing your way out of abject poverty all make for a pretty harrowing re-telling, and this one is no different.

Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts play Walls’ parents, Rex and Rose Mary, two unconventional parents stymied by his alcoholism and her lax parenting. In the first scene, a very young Jeanette suffers terrible burns when her clothing catches fire on the gas burner while she’s trying to boil hot dogs.

The movie bounces back and forth between the adult Jeanette (Brie Larson), a successful, polished reporter living in New York and engaged to a financial advisor (Max Greenfield) and her childhood of bouncing from town to town to avoid the debt collector and enduring her dad’s mercurial behavior. Sober, he was smart and engaging, teaching his children about everything from geology to astronomy. But drunk, he was abusive and conniving, at one point setting up a teenaged Jeanette with a pool player he was hustling.

It’s the kind of story you shake your head at in disgust and marvel at the way Jeanette — and her three siblings — managed to get out of West Virginia and to New York, where they made lives for themselves. And how, unbelievably, Rex and Rose Mary followed them there and lived as squatters in an abandoned building so they could all be a family.

This kind of real-life drama is the stuff you can’t make up, but how many more memoirs are on the way with the same kind of story? There’s nothing wrong with this one; it just feels so familiar. And it skips over huge sections of the book that might have given more insight into this poor family. This is built on repeated scenes of the good Rex being kind and loving to his kids as he constantly chatters about the “glass castle” he’s going to build for them and then the bad Rex, a raging drunk who lets his kids go hungry for days. While Harrelson and Watts seem really into their parts, Larson appears detached as if in a dream state she can’t wake herself from. It’s an odd interpretation, and one that leaves you wondering why her fiancé tries so desperately to save their relationship.

There must be a great catharsis that comes from writing your memoir, especially if it involves overcoming great hardship. I’m sorry Karr and McCord and Bragg, and yes, Jeanette Walls, had to endure such pain and suffering to reach their potential. It makes you wonder, did anyone have a happy childhood? I’d like to see a movie about that.

shadow