The five most controversial memoirs

Setting Peter Mandelson’s “explosive” autobiography in perspective.

As details of Peter Mandelson's forthcoming autobiography, The Third Man, begin to emerge in this week's papers, his former cabinet colleagues, perhaps anticipating the worst, are queuing up to condemn its timing and contents.

"Peter fell in love with himself at an early age," claimed David Blunkett today in the Daily Mail. "His tragedy is that he rarely heeds the wise advice he gives others."

But though the memoirs, which will be reviewed in the New Statesman next week, will cause consternation within the Labour Party, they are unlikely to match the following selection for public scandal. Below is our pick of the top five most controversial memoirs of recent years.

Which autobiographies have we missed? Tell us in the comment thread below.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (2003)

Thanks to its recommendation by Oprah Winfrey, this tale of its author's vomit-caked years as an alcoholic, drug addict and criminal sold more than 3.5 million copies, sitting on top of the New York Times non-fiction paperback bestseller list for 15 weeks. But in January 2006, large sections of the books were exposed as fake. In his crassest flight from reality, Frey had even invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students.

My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem by Debbie Nelson (2008)

On his 1999 debut album, The Slim Shady LP, Eminem rapped: "my mom smokes more dope than I do/I told her I'd grow up to be a famous rapper/Make a record about doing drugs and name it after her." Debbie Nelson responded by filing a lawsuit against her son, claiming the lyrics had caused hardcore fans to spit at her in the supermarket. She was awarded $25,000. In her memoir, Nelson took the opportunity to undermine her son's austere pop persona, claiming he had an imaginary friend named Casper, that he was heavily bullied by classmates, and that he used to charge friends in his neighbourhood a quarter to watch him breakdance.

Speaking for Myself: the Autobiography by Cherie Blair (2008)

Published in May 2008 and roundly trounced in the press, the book contained unbridled criticisms of the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, who Blair said repeatedly put pressure on her husband to step down, as well as details of how her youngest son Leo was conceived only because she was too embarrassed to take contraception with her to Balmoral. The author was also heavily criticised by the family of David Kelly, the government expert at the centre of the Iraq war dossier row, for writing about his suicide.

Don't Ever Tell by Kathy O'Beirne (2006)

In a harrowing tale of childhood brutality and sexual abuse, Kathy O'Beirne claimed of her upbringing: "The Devil himself could not have dreamed up a better hell." She was, her book claimed, repeatedly abused by her father and incarcerated in Ireland's Magdalene laundries. But shortly after publication, the writer was sued after five of her eight siblings claimed she had been unfair to her family, and that their sister's "perception of reality has always been flawed".

L'Innocente: an Autobiography by Lucie Ceccaldi (2008)

One of the biggest literary controversies of recent years involves the French novelist Michel Houellebecq. His international bestseller, Les Particules élémentaires -- translated as Atomised in 1999 -- included an barely disguised parody of his mother, Lucie, painted as a selfish nymphomaniac called "Ceccaldi". In public, Houellebecq accused Lucie Ceccaldi of abandoning him to his grandparents as a baby so she could travel across Africa with her husband; in his book, "Ceccaldi" leaves her young son in an attic in his own excrement so she can enjoy a life of free love as part of a bizarre hippie cult.

So enraged was the author's mother at the book that, in April 2008, aged 83, she hit back with her own memoir, L'Innocente, in which she wrote of her son: "This individual, who alas! came out of my tummy, is a liar, an impostor, a parasite and especially, especially, a little upstart ready to do anything for fortune and fame."

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Florence Foster Jenkins shows the delight of love's delusions

This new film about a notoriously bad singer, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, is an unsually honest portrayal of how relationships work.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice is all very well. The real-life heiress and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) practised her whole life. “An hour a day!” she boasts in Stephen Frears’s marvellous film. “Sometimes two.” But it isn’t talent that enables her to reach that prestigious venue in 1944. She is wealthy enough to be able to hire it on a whim and to give away a thousand tickets to servicemen returning from the war. Some might wonder if those soldiers hadn’t suffered enough.

What packs the place to the rafters is her reputation. Florence is still known today as the world’s worst singer. Reaching for a note far beyond her range, she would launch herself at it in the manner of someone trying to dislodge a ball from a tree by lobbing a boot. It’s possible that some of the shrieks she emitted were audible only to dogs. The poor blighters.

In a clever, clinching decision by the screenwriter Nicholas Martin, it is Florence’s uxorious husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who provides the dominant point-of-view in the film. His glasses are not merely rose-tinted, but heart-shaped. The couple’s domestic arrangements may be unconventional – St Clair slinks off each night to see his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), at his own apartment, paid for by his wife. But it is with Florence that his true loyalties lie. He is a master at coaxing favourable reactions from those in her orbit. When the young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) comes to audition for Florence, the sound of her voice wipes the inno­cence from his eyes; he emerges from her drawing room with something resembling post-traumatic stress disorder. But St Clair conducts the young man’s reactions with a nod, a tilt of the head and a widening of the eyes to produce a response that will be broadly flattering to Florence.

In a rich and nuanced performance, Grant radiates warmth. He indicates to others the delighted expression he wants them to adopt for his wife by first adopting it himself, then watching them follow suit. Listening to a reporter filing copy over the phone about Florence’s concert, he makes his presence felt after hearing the phrase “appreciative applause”. The journalist hastily amends the adjective to “thunderous”. Contented, St Clair moves on.

It could be argued that the script deprives Florence of agency in her own story, so that she exists merely through her husband’s eyes. Then again, there is every danger that, without the prism of St Clair’s devotion through which to filter that story, Florence would have been left as cruelly exposed on the screen as she is when she takes to the stage. A similar insurance policy was taken out in Isn’t She Great, in which Bette Midler played the trash novelist Jacqueline Susann. Any scorn or snobbery from the audience was absorbed before it could reach Susann by the device of putting her husband, ­Irving, in charge of the storytelling. There was no question mark in that film’s title because it was rhetorical. Irving wasn’t asking.

It was to be expected that a director as humane as Frears would not mock his subject. What is magical is the way he modulates our reactions to Florence just as St Clair does on screen. We are still laughing when a recording of the real Florence Foster Jenkins is played over the end credits, but our laughter has become even warmer. The question of whether the title character is oblivious to her own flaws is left moot, as it was in the case of Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s film about the legendarily dreadful director. But then most of the people around her are harbouring delusions. Even St Clair isn’t entirely self-aware. The movie opens with him indulging his thespian tendencies with excruciating results. There is only one full scene in which he doesn’t appear but it’s an important one: Florence confides to Cosme that St Clair can’t act. It is her little secret.

This is an unusually honest portrayal of love as a system whereby two people can maintain one another’s delusions to the point where they almost cease to be delusions at all. If you don’t tell me I’m a prize ham, I’ll keep secretly replacing the champagne flutes that shatter when you practise your scales. That sort of thing. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred