At last month’s reading, someone asked how you protect siblings when writing memoir. It’s a good question and I didn’t feel I had a great answer. When you write about your life in essay or memoir, you naturally lean toward things that have some emotional weight: the people, places and events in your life that have had enough heft to have left a mark. Often these things involve family members—whether siblings, mates, parents or children.
This is where it can get sticky.
I don’t think it’s possible to write good memoir without betraying someone. Memoir requires we put ourselves on the line like no other kind of writing. Here I am not thinking of only the scandalous tell-all memoir, although it’s certainly a fine example of betrayal. But even stories about the most ordinary subjects—parenting, infirmities, relationships (especially relationships!)—require unearthing details that wouldn’t ordinarily be a part of the public sphere.
I first realized this after having a conversation with my nine-year-old son about sex. He and I had sort of stumbled into the discussion, but it ended up being one of the most satisfying parenting experiences I’ve ever had.
So naturally, I wrote it up and posted it to my blog.
I didn’t think about betraying anyone as I wrote. To me, the story was about my reluctance to tackle my fears and inadequacies around being a good father. But to tell the story, I had to mention that my nine-year-old had found pornography on an old laptop computer that I had earlier lent to my oldest son, who had been stationed here in Seattle. I suppose I understood it was a little dicey to link my oldest boy’s possession of the computer and pornography, but there seemed to be enough plausible deniability built into the story (he shared the computer with all his roommates) to cover everyone, so I blazed forward.
When I finished, I posted the story. Friends and family were amused. I was pleased. One night as I read the comments attached to the story, my nine-year-old noticed it over my shoulder. He was reading dialog attributed to him, that he had actually said.
“Is that about me?” he asked.
I could hear the hurt in his voice. We had had a heart-to-heart talk—one of our very first—and I had posted it to the Internet for all to see. I felt so ashamed. I quickly switched the window to something else. It was all I could do not to just tell him a lie: “You? Of course not.” Somehow I held my tongue.
Now parents have been telling humiliating stories about their kids for ages, so that’s nothing new. But this story was different—it wasn’t about getting a cheap laugh. I wanted to talk about coming to terms with my fears around being a parent.
My nine-year-old and I needed to have another little heart-to-heart.
I didn’t try to explain to him anything about fears and inadequacies. I went with how much I love to write. He seemed to understand that I wasn’t out to hurt him. We came up with some boundaries, which mostly involved certain things he would rather I never write about, if they involve him.
My big lesson was this: it’s fine to write about the important stories, but you have to consider the aftermath. Can you live with it? I know writers who have changed the names of their loved ones to protect their privacy. I have heard of other writers who have let loved ones (and even not so loved ones) vet their pages before publication, with the option to negotiate what details get published. Obviously if you’re writing a tell-all memoir, you’re not going to have the pages vetted, but you must prepare yourself for the potential fall out.
A few months later my oldest son posted to the comments section of my blog denying any knowledge or complicity with pornography, which I had already assumed was the case, anyhow, but his earnest disavowing also made me chuckle. We probably need our own little heart-to-heart, but he already knows how much I love to write, how important our relationship is to me.
He is my biggest fan. Somehow my best stories always seem to be about him. Writing memoir is almost certain to involve betrayal, but that’s not always so bad.
Sometimes it can be the start of something beautiful.
[…] Love Hurts: Betrayal in Memoir. “When you write about your life in essay or memoir, you naturally lean toward things that have some emotional weight: the people, places and events in your life that have had enough heft to have left a mark. Often these things involve family members—whether siblings, mates, parents or children. This is where it can get sticky.” […]
Excellent, Tim. This really resonates. I got into trouble with my family for a piece I wrote for Dead Mule a while back. It laid fallow and unnoticed until I linked to it in my “about” page on my blog. When a family member read it and made sure to pass it along to one of my older sisters, I was in hot water up to my neck and had some explaining to do. (All I did was imply that she communes with the spirit world and thought our mother was possessed rather than mentally ill.) The good news? I screwed up my courage and we had a long talk, wound up dusting off some of the old family elephants in the room and learning to laugh together. I did do an online apology, as well. She’s a regular reader now, and we are close now because we like each other, not because we are related. These things don’t always have happy endings, and there are still alot of things I would like to write about that involve the family, but don’t know how to do it because of the very concerns you raised (and yet, I realize that my most authentic writing must come from that stew.)
By the way, I am enjoying your gratitude list on FB.
I think we’re lucky, Beth.
A friend just shared with me a quote from a recent radio interview with author Zadie Smith, who says:
“I wouldn’t write about people who are living and who are close to me, because I think it’s a very violent thing to do to another person,” she says. “And anytime I have done it, even in the disguise of fiction, the results have been horrific.”
I think the best we can do is approach our stories with an appropriate amount of respect for those who appear in them. I’ve had pretty good luck with writing memoir so far, so I’m certainly not going to quit, but I can appreciate the inherent difficulties of writing non-fiction.
Zadie Smith amazes me as an author, but I don’t agree with her sentiment. Violent or not, writing the truth is important. I don’t mean Truth as an absolute, either; I mean it as your perception of reality. Writing about real living people need not be violent. It’s a fine line to walk, to be sure, but Smith’s comment about the violence of the act and her categorical dismissal of it as an option seems too limiting (unless of course you have the wild imagination of someone like ZS!). Surely we can all recognize in our own characters people with whom we have close personal relationships. And whether writing fiction or non-fiction, writing what you know, and writing it with equal doses of honesty and integrity, is most important.
I think about this topic a lot. In my personal repertoire of characters are two dead brothers, two deadbeat dads, and a surviving mother and siblings who are tragically/happily interwoven with my own life story. I’m always treading this line. It’s uncomfortable at times, but writing with respect, as you say, is the best we can do.
I like your post about your nine-year-old boy. I recently wrote a story with a reference to my eight-year-old daughter in it, and, knowing that she might be sensitive to my parading her feelings out in public, I read it to her first and explained the significance of using it in the piece. Kids constantly astound me – she didn’t like the part that included her at first, but she understood how it fit into the larger piece, and by the end of the story accepted it with a great deal more sophistication than I had expected. Anyway, just thought I’d share that, too.
I have to agree with you about non-fiction.
One of the first memoir’s I ever read was Tobias Wolff’s, This Boy’s Life. Alice Sebold, who had studied with Wolff in Syracuse, suggested I read it. She insisted that I not watch the movie, but actually take the time to read the book.
I know all the reviews talk about Wolff’s hardscrabble childhood, but to me it was remarkable because it was so ordinary: treacherous stepdads, single parent families, and dilapidated small towns.
And it was a real page turner! I couldn’t put it down. Something about a book so compelling, yet so ordinary, had a huge impact on me. It’s hard to describe how I felt other than to say that after finishing the book, it just seemed as if anything were possible. Gotta have memoir.
Michelle, You’re daughter sounds like a gas! Kids are amazing.