This literary aphorism may have been penned by Mark Twain, but it could have very easily been said by Cady McClain, the daytime television star (All My Children, As The World Turns, The Young and the Restless) whose memoirs, Murdering My Youth, were released on Amazon in April. Unlike many similar books published by public figures, Cady does not use this as an opportunity to indulge in celebrity gossip or promote future projects in her career. Instead she confronts a number of themes that forever simmer beneath the surface of her story – child abuse, the entertainment industry’s exploitation of young stars, female objectification – that, when they do bubble up, scald everything they touch.
While Cady isn’t the first writer to touch upon many of these subjects, her book is unique because of the degree to which it illuminates the whole by coming to an understanding of a small part. She doesn’t set out to preach or globalize her individual experiences, but simply to tell her story. It just so happens that, in the process of taking us on her own journey through memories that have “allowed me to negotiate this collective awfulness that we must sometimes call existence,” she winds up offering insights that will help her readers do the same thing.
Take, for instance, this passage from the close of her book, where she summarizes the long-term effects of child abuse on its victims. Although lengthy, it deserves to be quoted in full:
“Adults from abusive homes do not easily trust others. We are very sensitive to criticism and have little confidence in ourselves. Our internal world generally vacillates between despair and rage. Joy peeks out sometimes with the help of alcohol or drugs, but it’s not a real joy—it’s a simulated one. It is a joy that can only exist because something is blocking the pain. Even in that state of manufactured aliveness, we are easily influenced by the ideas of others. We feel like freaks. We fear our own needs. We look to others: lovers, husbands, children, to help us change our lives or ourselves, and when they cannot we despair.”
There are many incidents of abuse to which Cady is referring here. The most heinous among them, of course, was the sexual abuse perpetrated by her father, who molested her when she was eight years old. This was naturally a formative event in Cady’s life, and she traces her evolving attempts to cope with the trauma – from confusion and defensiveness as a little girl and betrayal by her therapist to her struggles with her sexuality as a teenager and adult – with admirable candor. These sections are often uncomfortable to read (as they should be), but they are among the most courageous of her book.
Beyond that is the abuse experienced by a little girl who was denied her own childhood. It is here that the dark side of a life spent in show business is drawn into starkest relief. We see Cady experience a grueling work schedule (and never get to keep the money earned from it), labor every day to support her emotionally unstable mother (both as a child and then, after she receives a breast cancer diagnosis, during her adulthood), and miss out on the fundamental developmental experiences that make childhood so wonderful. Even as she describes the upsides of this lifestyle – her ability to escape into the worlds of the fictional characters she got to play, to reach out to others who are as lonely as herself – one can’t shake the sense that, as such puts it so well, “Once youth is sacrificed to the movie gods, it cannot be returned.”
Yet even many of the people most responsible for Cady’s childhood suffering aren’t robbed of all sympathy. Particularly poignant is Cady’s account of her mother’s heartbreaking ordeal after being abandoned by her father for a younger, more attractive woman. At one point, after her mother had assaulted her father’s mistress with keys in a blind rage, Cady recalls that “as my mother stood defeated and un-chosen, I had a deep pang of compassion for her. It was awful to see her so humiliated… fat and shaking and covered with blood and tears.”
It is impossible to read this without juxtaposing it with the conditions Cady describes in show business, where women find their value inextricably tied to their beauty and are so often reduced to “shark chum.” The social standards that objectify women, which had left Cady’s mother broken and alone, had also helped Cady carve out a substantial career for herself – and yet also left her, if not broken and alone, then certainly wounded and struggling to come to grips with the meaning behind her scars.
As the themes of child abuse and female objectification writhe and coil throughout Cady’s narrative, the importance of Twain’s earlier quote becomes clear: The story in Murdering My Youth may be specific to Cady, but its relevance is universal. Anyone who has been abused by their parents or other loved ones, regardless of the exact nature of that abuse, can understand what Cady means when she says “We feel like freaks. We fear our own needs.” No woman alive today can be insensitive to Cady’s determination, as well as that of her mother, to be viewed as a human being instead of the sum of her physical parts.
When Twain urged authors to write what they knew, it was because he understood that the most meaningful stories are the ones that come directly from our own hearts. Murdering My Youth, ripped from the soul of its author, is exactly what he had in mind.
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