Carla Carlisle on The Lost Child

Somethings don’t go from bad to worse. When I first heard a poem on Poetry Please that began with that idea, I scribbled the name of the poet on a scrap of paper. I liked the poem’s tremours of hope: grapes that survive the frost, crops that don’t fail, a war avoided, an honest man elected. I wish I could quote it here instead of giving you a prosaic précis, but I feel honour-bound. When I finally tracked down the poem through Google, I found the poet’s own website. Under the title ‘The dreaded Sometimes’, she wrote of her profound dislike of the poem, which ‘simply doesn’t represent the kind of poet I want to be’.

All the same, the poem has become a kind of anthem for the political and the sad. The poet insists that’s not what she intended, ‘though a lot of clinically depressed think it is’. She pulls the rug out from under her fans further by explaining that the ‘muscadel’ isn’t a mispelling, but refers to grape hyacinths, not muscatel (she got me on that one) and, in the last line, when the ‘sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow’, she’d originally written ‘field of snow’ but mistyped. She decided sorrow was better. ‘I believe in letting the keyboard join in the creative process now and then.’

I’ve been thinking about the poet’s yearning to disown her much-loved poem all week long as I’ve pored over the endless articles and reviews of Julie Myerson’s book The Lost Child, her account of her first-born son’s addiction to cannabis and eventual eviction from the family home. Like most of the people chomping furiously about the book, I haven’t read it. I’ve read everything written about it, including endless interviews with Julie the mother, Jonathan the father and Jake the wayward son. I began with sympathy for the parents. I’ve attended two funerals of young men, talented, funny, clever men who outshone their contemporaries by a mile. Until they were ambushed by drugs.

The first rung on the deadly ladder was cannabis. I don’t know if it was the genetically modified cannabis known as skunk, but I lean towards the psychiatrists who believe that the super-strength cannabis on sale today can permanently damage growing brains, can trigger schizophrenia. Making cannabis more acceptable by downgrading it was a tragedy. It’s hard not to empathise with the Myersons when you read about their beautiful, brilliant son destined to follow in their footsteps Oxbridge, writing life transformed into an aggressive boy who steals, threatens, swears, whacks his mother so hard he perforates her eardrum. I believe them both when they write about their despair, their rage, their own craziness.

I then read the epilogue. In it, Mrs Myerson describes giving the manuscript to her son in a cafe and asking him to read it. By the next day, when they meet again, I was on Jake’s side. The parents, undoubtedly loving, well meaning and desperate, suddenly seemed creepy. Phrases from other interviews ‘I write with a piece of my heart that I don’t really have full control over’ replayed in my head. Good grief.

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I hope the Myerson family’s public angst has peaked. I’d like to think their story will get the  Frankenstein version of marijuana reclassified and that Jake will retire as poster boy for skunk. But I foresee a time when Mrs Myerson will want to disown this oeuvre. Like the poet, she will plead on her website for us never to mention her name when quoting from it. Meanwhile, I would advise anyone who writes with a piece of their heart to think twice before going to their keyboard. It’s words that will melt a son in a field of sorrow. It’s when things appear in print that they usually go from bad to worse.