An unsentimental style sharpens the tale of a terrible childhood.
Literary trends may come and go, but publishers never seem to tire of the tragic memoir. Everyone from Holocaust survivors (Eli Wiesel) to drug abusers (James Frey) and Hollywood casualties (Lorna Luft) have used the genre as an avenue for expunging their sorrows – with varying success. Many such works have come off as self-pitying and sensationalist; others, like Frey’s, rely on deceit.
Ugly: The True Story of a Loveless Childhood begins with Constance Briscoe (pictured) as a little girl fronting up to Social Services to request admission to a children’s home. She’s sent back to her South London home as her mother, Carmen, is known to the authorities as a glowing example of motherhood, having adopted one child as well as bearing six of her own.
Deciding that “life was not worth living at all”, Briscoe returns home to swallow a bottle of bleach, because “Domestos kills all known germs and my mother had for so long told me that I was a germ”.
Treated like a slave in her own home, Briscoe is singled out from her siblings – they total 10 at one point, when their family combines with one of Carmen’s boyfriend’s – for being “ugly”, with “[fat] lips … to clean out the blocked sink”. That, and for being a bedwetter. No doubt her problem is the result of constant abuse – Carmen pinches Briscoe’s breasts so badly that she develops lumps, initially believed by doctors to be cancerous, that need to be removed – but the mother will stop at nothing to “cure” the problem. She makes her daughter sleep in urine-soaked sheets and nightclothes, removes all sheets and blankets from the bed, leaving her to sleep on a plastic bag, and finally removes the bed from her room altogether.
Her siblings receive new Christmas presents; Briscoe is given the same ones year after year, re-wrapped. And when her mother finally moves out with some of her children to her boyfriend’s home, leaving Briscoe and two of her siblings to fend for themselves without food or money, the 13-year-old is required to pay rent, requiring her to take two jobs while still at school.
Briscoe recounts the awful details of her childhood with remarkable economy, as though to labour over the details of each encounter would be to give them too much emotional currency. After one particularly violent beating, she says: “I felt dazed for a few moments and remained on the floor until the feeling passed. It would be good not to live with that woman. She made me dislike her and I no longer considered her as my mother.”
Her terse manner leaves the reader wondering how she coped with her environment, but at the same time prompts us to infer that beneath her calm lies an unshakeable confidence in her ability to transcend her circumstances.
She must have, for not only does she excel at school, but now, at 48 and married with two children, she is one of the first black women in Britain to sit as a judge. Safe in that knowledge, the reader is left to marvel at Briscoe’s emotional and physical resilience, rather than feel inundated with a grocery list of torture.
The book leaves numerous nagging questions unanswered. Why did none of the staff at Briscoe’s schools alert the child welfare authorities to her constant, obvious abuse? Why did Carmen pick on Constance above all the other children? (When Constance asks this of her mother, she’s told: “Oh, just the fact that you breathe.”) Why did Constance take her mother’s boyfriend, Eastman, to court for beating her (which stems the tide of his abuse), but not her mother? Is her mother dead?
Internet research relieves some of the frustration (she last saw her mother, who’s still alive, at her father’s funeral in 2003); the rest is quelled by the knowledge that reading Ugly provides a valuable reality check for those of us whose own problems pale in comparison.
There were many oppninions regarding this book, as with any other book. Most of them are positive reviews, which is not surprising at wll taking in count the amazing story and writing style of the author: