Childhood: A Memoir
by Shannon Burns
Published October 2022
In Childhood, Shannon Burns quickly turns to speculation about why he, ‘a child of the welfare class’, managed, after his tumultuous early years, to find an exit route into the educated middle class, especially where many of his family members have not. I know for a fact that this is a question that plagues many people who grew up in similar circumstances to Burns, and it’s a question that I have posed and attempted to answer myself. It is precisely this analytical bent that drives us to have written these kinds of books, often clumsily dubbed trauma memoirs, in the first place.
Burns gives a conditional answer:
I attribute [my] dazzling upward mobility to luck, mostly, but my luck had many dimensions. Among my great, unearned riches was an obvious social defect – family members typically called it shyness, timidity or stupidity – which served to distance me from my immediate environment. I was an unusually inward child who lost himself in imagined events, or in recollections or other ruminations.
He goes on to narrate some of these recollections, spanning the age of five through to nineteen, years of Burns’ life that featured multiple removals from his mother, inter-cut with short periods in foster homes, time under the care of his maternal grandparents, and finally painful years under his father and stepmother’s roof, as Burns cuts a path towards independence. Much of this time Burns spent hungry, on the receiving end of beatings and other forms of abuse, and the witness to daily traumas, including racist attacks, bashings, and sexual assaults.
In the book’s second part, the author, now writing in third person, poses the question again, this time when reflecting on why other boys at school find themselves drawn easily into fights, where Burns does not. ‘Why is he different?’ he asks. This time, Burns provides another, partial answer, speculating that unlike the others, his own mind works differently: he possesses the ability to calculate risks and employ good sense.
This question, ‘Why am I different?’, is one I have had cause to sit with too, and sometimes Burns and I answer it in similar ways. Our books are companions in some regards: both finalists for the 2022 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in Non-Fiction, both reflecting heavily on the role that literature has played in saving us, or helping to distinguish us from our traumatic circumstances. Although our backgrounds and life experiences differ significantly, like Burns, I was often left to my own devices as a child and, like Burns, turned to isolating myself and devouring fat books, unable to put them down, reading as if powered by a motor, and to writing relentlessly in an attempt to become someone great. When reading Childhood, I joke to a friend that our books are so similar that we both describe in some detail how literature is our mum or dad. Perhaps we shared the same therapist, because I also answer this question – Why am I different? – as Burns eventually does, by concluding that it was some combination of privilege, talent and luck. Neither of us is unable to definitively say how each of these factors – luck, privilege, talent – should be weighted, or how we arrived at our results. Burns writes that he has ‘intelligence and linguistic talents’, and is therefore in possession of a ‘good fortune that cancels out some of the other troubles. … [A]t least he can read and write and argue persuasively.’
The book’s blurb and marketing materials take up one strand of this narrative: that it is reading and writing that offer salvation, solace, hope, a way out. I think such framing – reading saves us! – is the kind of thing that sells books to keen readers, interested in aggrandising the act of reading, or attributing it with more moral value than it inherently possesses. But it is too easy, too neat, too twee, and it’s not the answer that Childhood itself proffers, exactly, despite the frequency of literary allusion in the text, indicative of the debt that Burns feels he owes to literature as a productive force in his life, and despite the appraisal offered by a handful of other reviewers, who interpret the book in such a light.
The quest to identify what got us out, and helped us to overcome dysfunction, is so common for survivors of trauma because it is a symptom of it. Survivor’s guilt drives the desire to make sense of what is mostly senseless, to rationalise what would otherwise be an incomprehensible injustice. The other day, for example, I was in conversation with a friend, who lamented a scenario similar to one from Burns’ childhood, occurring in his life. He asked me, half-joking, ‘Why are our families like this?’ and I responded, quipping back, ‘I guess we are cursed.’ Another friend, overhearing, commented, ‘Don’t say that, don’t blame yourself.’ Forcing myself to be serious for a moment, I answered, ‘Well, the other option is to say, “It should never have happened and it’s fundamentally unfair,” but that’s the kind of thing that brings a tear to your eye.’ My eyes did water in the moment. Sometimes, servicing survivor’s guilt looks like discovering in what ways we are different or maybe even special. Burns writes of his schoolteacher discovering one day that he has higher-than-expected literacy levels: ‘Being a good reader, I discover, is to be a different kind of student. It makes you special.’
This is a question that I am grateful both Burns and I have put down with the passage of time, because it is suggestive of a measure of healing. Burns’ sense of his own inner richness fades as he ages and, more importantly, the book does not lean on tropes common to other ‘white trash memoirs’, another clumsy term: instead of rhapsodising about the importance of hard work and merit, Burns describes the drudgery of back-breaking physical labour, and the trap it sets for working class folk, forced to work ten-hour days in gruelling heat, only in order to just barely scrape together rent and barely-adequate meals, and which leaves them too tired and incapacitated to work on their escape plans. Neither Burns or his co-workers at the recycling plant, where he works from the age of fourteen, bootstrap their way out of these dead-end jobs. Indeed, Burns never actually accounts for how he got from point A to point B, from welfare class to middle class: Childhood substantially concludes when Burns is nineteen, still largely directionless and living in poverty, and the Epilogue picks up when Burns has already finished university and has formed his own family, mostly contented. The middle part, however, is not filled out. The book, as suggested by the title, terminates when Burns’ childhood does. Burns returns to the reader from the other side, with cause to reflect only because he now has children of his own. No explanation about his crossing-over is offered. This is a radical instinct, and the right one, because in resisting doing so, Burns does not capitulate to the cliché-generating demand that he explains why or how – that there is a coherent why or how.
I admit that I read books like this voraciously because I am desperate to know what the explanation is, on some level still questing for this answer. I suspect that there isn’t one, as I have said, but the trouble is that writing often forces us to produce one. Any attempt to tell the story of one’s childhood requires the author to pick a way to tell it. Perhaps it is my goodness or my kindness; because I am so giving, it has bought me access to good people. If I am never selfish and always good, then I get to know the best people. They say that water finds its own level. Or perhaps it is something else: my innate sensitivity, which enables me to recognise the beauty in the everyday, and produce great art that everyone else cannot help but be moved by. This is a narrative that pervades the mythology that crops up around many artists, from Jimmy Barnes to Tupac Shakur: they say that roses can grow out of concrete. Burns’ decision not to provide an explanation – not to supply the reader with a coherent bridge that explains how the boy from the text becomes the man from the Epilogue – on one level frustrates the reader’s expectations. Although the book’s blurb suggests that an ‘affair with the mother of a schoolfriend offers a way out’, this turns out not to be the case, particularly because the affair, as it is represented in the text, involves the exploitation of Burns’ age and vulnerability, and does not lead to any substantive benefits for the author apart from temporary housing. Childhood does not allow us to say that Burns was saved at the final hour by a concerned adult, or that he diligently saved his money by waking up earlier than everyone else, going to sleep later, working harder, and dreaming bigger.
The literature on early childhood adversity emphasises a few, much less romantic factors, as important. Two of the most significant ingredients for improving children’s outcomes are exogeneous: positive attachment figures and access to environments where stressors may be reduced. Individuals outside of the parent-child relationship, such as coaches or teachers, may help to supplement a child’s sense of safety, offering vital lifelines: Burns’ drama teacher, in one scene, offers him valuable encouragement after a performance of Hamlet. But, in other words, artistic (or academic or intellectual) talent means little in the absence of being honed by somebody else, and these lifelines are often randomly and unpredictably available. Additionally, although the child’s endogenous traits may play a role, the most important one is not profound sensitivity, inner richness, or empathy learned from stories, but rather the possession of a strong internal locus of agency. For Burns, and myself, a love of literature may have been a symptom, not a cause, of an independent temperament.
I read Jenny Valentish’s Everything Harder Than Everyone Else at the same time as I read this book, and in its pages Valentish goes on a journalistic quest to understand why some of us are attracted to extremes and are willing to push our bodies to the limits of their endurance. This journey takes her through the worlds of BDSM, ultra-marathon running, body-building, and other worlds largely predicated on athleticism. The book asks whether trauma and other kinds of adversity, such as poverty, draw us to greatness in these fields. Valentish offers a qualified answer, suggesting that adversity can attract individuals to such endeavours, and improve resilience and tolerance of discomfort. Although Valentish cites some convincing data that demonstrates that elite athletes have a higher-than-average experience of adversity, I worry that this finding risks exceptionalising trauma. If we are to understand trauma as something that is both routine and mundane (as Childhood demonstrates that it is: a daily fact of life for entire communities), then to argue that trauma yields greatness suggests that we may be sampling on the dependent variable. In other words, I suspect that there are just as many athletic, literary, astute, artsy kids who stay in as there are that get out.
The challenge for books like Childhood – or, more importantly, the discourse that they trigger – is that only the people who get out write them. We are a self-selected group of individuals who already enjoy literature, who go on write memoirs about how good literature is. I keep wondering, lately, about the array of traumatised figures who don’t speak, or don’t speak much, or don’t speak in this format. I wonder what they would say about why they have not completed a passage into the middle class. I suspect their answer would not be that they lacked sufficient interest in books. Part of the puzzle is that many of the people I’d like to hear from in my own life are too busy tending to the business of survival to pore over events from years ago, and narrativise them. When I read Childhood, I realise that I wish I could read Burns’ – or my – mother’s diaries. But they don’t exist. And if they did exist, they may lack sufficient insight. So I end up circling that question once more: How is he different? How am I different? Why am I different? It must be my love of books! Fuck, maybe.
These questions are a little abstruse, given that we know that intergenerational adversity and trauma are driven by poverty, racism, and patriarchy, and that the best way to end these cycles is to tackle these problems head-on. Childhood is, of course, a book about class, one that sketches, with anthropological precision, the lives of the poor. And Burns also succeeds at drawing our gaze to the material world with some occasional consideration of the role that gender and race play in perpetuating adversity. His maternal grandparents, Greek migrants who speak limited English, are prevented from full participation in society, and often wonder if moving to this side of the world was the right decision: Burns describes his grandfather as appearing ‘half here, half elsewhere’. Burns, whose father is Anglo, lives between two worlds: he is a ‘wog-dogga’ or ‘dogga-wog’, too aggressive and not respectable enough to live in the world of his migrant school peers, whose lunchboxes are stuffed with exotic treats, or among the ‘migrants and “intelligent” kids who wear glasses’ (a not-bad description of me), who labour diligently over their homework instead of rough-housing in the schoolyard. This rendering of what it means to live in diaspora is limited and, in my view, resorts to the kinds of tropes Burns had been so careful to dodge in his discussions of class. The roughness of the sketch that Burns offers may be precisely the result of the instability of his childhood, which estranged him from the Greek side of his family despite his wishes.
Any first-person account will be bounded by the extent of the understanding afforded by the narrator’s own subject-position. Sometimes this is used to great effect: Burns rarely narrates through the eyes of the adult, preferring to tap the perspective of the vulnerable child, and this helps him to capture the unique terror and confusion of circling back to the attachment figure who keeps harming and violently rejecting him. Other times, the child is limited by his subject-position, particularly when it comes to the women in his life, notably his mother and step-sister. In one section of Childhood, Burns reflects on the differences between himself and his step-sister, whom he has grown up with, and concludes that she is less intelligent than him. The victimisation of women and girls, and how the masculinity of the boys and men in the book is shaped around it, forms a steady thrum throughout the text. However, Burns considers how gender colours disadvantage and trauma only as much as the perspective of the child is capable: his mother’s sex work, the near-rape of a relative, the rape of a friend, his step-sister’s eating disorder, and the abuse of his step-sister, all filter through the lens of the boy. He writes, of the rape:
This is exactly the kind of thing that happens to all the girls in his life … everything and everyone he loves is destined to be injured or defiled. He thinks of a time years before, during school camp, when the girl who was raped was upset for a time and he suspected that it was because he pinched her on the bottom in front of her friends. She denied that this was the reason for her unhappiness, but the thought lodged in the boy’s mind.
Where Burns considers, in important scenes, his guilt and complicity with both racism and misogyny, he sometimes, with the grandiosity of the child, who thinks everything is his fault, attributes himself with excessive agency, and thus blame. This tendency recurs when Burns enters into that sexual relationship with his schoolfriend’s mother, two decades his senior: ‘that she is seducing him does not enter his mind.’
I said above that writing forces us to produce explanations where none may be readily available. Writing is productive in more ways than this, not only in the sense that it is a creative act, but also in the sense that sometimes it can generate what it sets out only to describe. If you handed a pen to someone in active crisis, it is possible that they may be unable to produce a book. On the other hand, journaling and diary-writing are employed as one of the modalities for the treatment of trauma precisely because reading and writing can in fact be healing. Although Burns and I grew up differently, we came out similar, and it is possible that this is because we selected the same coping mechanisms – apart from reading and writing, we both dissociate readily, and forget easily, another reason that may factor into why we have resorted to documenting our recollections through memoir – and they turned out to be helpful ones. This, in itself, confirms the hypothesis that it is in finding books and literature that we find redemption. But still, I must insist that this is both true and not true: on one hand, I often tell the story of reading Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs when I was twelve, and how momentous it felt to discover that there was a way to write oneself through and out of dysfunction. On the other, it figures that someone who writes and reads a lot would credit writing and reading with their liberation.
Towards the end of Childhood, Burns quotes Agamemnon, also quoted in the text’s epigraph: Aeschylus writes that we must ‘suffer into truth’, and Burns the adolescent finds this compelling because it makes him believe for a time that suffering has value. Such a reflection re-affirms the human tendency to seek meaning in, or make meaning of, suffering, through attempts to diagnose its causes, or identify what brings it on or causes it to cease. Aeschylus speaks of suffering as that thing which brings on wisdom. This is baked into the form of Greek tragedies, the notion that we may find some lesson in such stories. But Childhood, like other texts that engage the reality of suffering, help us to suffer less not because they contain lessons, but because they engage the reality of suffering.