Contesting Childhood: Autobiography, Trauma, and Memory

Contesting Childhood: Autobiography, Trauma, and Memory

Contesting Childhood: Autobiography, Trauma, and Memory

Contesting Childhood: Autobiography, Trauma, and Memory


The late 1990s and early 2000s witnessed a surge in the publication and popularity of autobiographical writings about childhood. Linking literary and cultural studies, Contesting Childhood draws on a varied selection of works from a diverse range of authors from first-time to experienced writers. Kate Douglas explores Australian accounts of the Stolen Generation, contemporary American and British narratives of abuse, the bestselling memoirs of Andrea Ashworth, Augusten Burroughs, Robert Drewe, Mary Karr, Frank McCourt, Dave Pelzer, and Lorna Sage, among many others.

Drawing on trauma and memory studies and theories of authorship and readership, Contesting Childhood offers commentary on the triumphs, trials, and tribulations that have shaped this genre. Douglas examines the content of the narratives and the limits of their representations, as well as some of the ways in which autobiographies of youth have become politically important and influential. This study enables readers to discover how stories configure childhood within cultural memory and the public sphere.


Childhood—a temporary state—becomes an emblem for our anxieties about
the passing of time, the destruction of historical formations, or conversely, a
vehicle for our hopes for the future. the innocent child is caught somewhere
over the rainbow—between nostalgia and utopian optimism, between the past
and the future

—Chris Jenks, Childhood

The most notable and perhaps most infamous publishing trend of the 1990s was the autobiography of childhood—a piece of autobiographical writing concerned with the narration of childhood experiences. Autobiographers such as Mary Karr, Frank McCourt, and James McBride burst onto the American literary scene in the mid-1990s, paving the way for a plethora of similarly styled texts to follow. These autobiographies were distinctive for their depiction of challenging, often traumatic childhoods—characterized by abuse, poverty, discrimination, and identity struggles.

A search on reveals that over a thousand autobiographies of childhood have been published in roughly the past fifteen years—and this only considers mainstream forms of publication. This literary trend shows no signs of abating; the form is merely shifting to consider new voices and representations of childhood. Many autobiographies and biographies of childhood have been published in the United States and beyond during the 2000s, ranging from narratives about child abuse or family dysfunction, such as the autobiographies of Dave Pelzer, to “bad girl” autobiographies of fraught adolescences such as Koren Zailckas’s Smashed: Growing Up a Drunk Girl. the genre has spawned autobiographies about childhood health and illness such as Judith Moore’s Fat Girl and biographies of crimes against children such as Girl in the Cellar—a biography of the kidnapped Austrian girl Natascha Kampusch, who was found in 2006 at age eighteen after being . . .

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