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.