Is Memoir a Betrayal?

money“Writers are always selling somebody out,” wrote Joan Didion at the beginning of her first essay collection, 1968’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

This sinister quote was included in Boris Katcha’s feature article on the New York Magazine site discussing Didion’s brutally personal new memoir, Blue Nights. Katcha considers Didion’s words “a statement of mercenary purpose in the guise of a confession: not a preemptive apologia but an expression of grandiose, even nihilistic ambition.”

How might this apply to “ordinary people” writing lifestory and memoir? How many memoir writers have grandiose or nihilistic ambitions? My previous post, “Above All, Cause No Harm,” emphasizes that shadows give depth to a character, and that speaking our truth may be inconvenient or painful for others. So, yes, in a sense, even without Didion’s mindset, memoir can be seen by some as a betrayal, in at least a small way.

Most thinking people will agree that this is a matter of degree. Mentioning that Aunt Agatha was portly won’t raise nearly as many eyebrows as sharing the news that Uncle Elmer groped children, specifically you.

So here’s the ethical dilemma. Assuming it is true that Uncle Elmer groped children, even if “only” you, most would consider that Uncle Elmer betrayed family trust, and yours  most of all. Perhaps by opening this wound to light and air you will help yourself and an entire family heal and move on. Perhaps you will inspire others to speak out and help rid society of this evil, or at least give future generations the strength and awareness to teach children to speak up so we can deal with it quickly before permanent damage is done.

In this case the question may be, if Uncle Elmer betrayed trust in general and yours in particular, is disclosing this fact in a published memoir betraying Uncle Elmer? Betraying the family? I leave that for you to decide. There is  no right answer.

Are hurt feelings a betrayal? Who owns reactions? Does Aunt Agatha ever look in the mirror? Does she think nobody knows she is the elephant is in the room? Is she truly unaware that people whisper and snicker behind her back? If you know Aunt Aggie’s feelings will be hurt, perhaps you don’t need to mention her size and eating habits, at least not so bluntly. Perhaps she’s eating herself into an early grave and you can wait her out. If it is an important story element, you’ll have a decision to make.

On balance, published memoirs do tend to include “juicy” material, perhaps because most people who feel motivated to take on a writing project of that scope generally have some sort of traumatic event or series of events to report, in the belief that doing so will have benefit for others. But even these thorny stories have rose petals strewn among them.

Decisions about what to include and what to leave in the closet are always an individual decision. Use these questions to help make your own:

  • What is my purpose for including this event or detail?
  • Does it further the purpose of the story?
  • Am I using it to gain sympathy or a laugh at the expense of the person I’m writing about?
  • What are the long term consequences likely to be?
  • Do the anticipated costs of  expected turmoil outweigh the benefits?
  • What will that person think? Others who know the person?
  • Can I generalize enough to mask the identity of this person?

You may think of other questions to add to this list. I’ll continue writing about this thread in future posts, so please participate in the conversation by posting additional questions and other thoughts in a comment.

Write now: a draft of a story with juicy content that you aren’t sure about sharing with anyone. Write the draft without consideration for propriety or anyone’s feelings. When you finish, look back through the story and underline sensitive passages. Consider each one. How does it contribute to the story? Would your message be clear without that line? Is there another honest way to say the same thing in a less offensive way?


suzicate said...

You pose some excellent questions here. Our intentions for writing these stories sets the tone and tells us what to include or omit. While shadows certainly give depth to a character we must be careful we portray them truthfully and not out of our own is so easy for one's emotions to high jack character flaws etc...

Sharon said...

Right on, SuziCate! When anger flares, do freewriting, then burn it. Write again when you feel calmer. And try different points of view.

Linda Austin said...

Excellent questions to ask ourselves. There has to be a darn good reason to expose a dark family secret--these can tear generations of family apart and result in the author becoming an outcast. If there are other good memoirs about that subject, why should I hurt my family to write mine? Another good question is "Am I providing a balanced view of the person? That balanced view, perhaps explaining motives or suggesting reasons for behavior, can help avoid hard feelings as well as give depth of character. Also, exactly how descriptive and detailed do I have to be to make my point? At what point do descriptions become prurient.

Sharon said...

Thank you for that additional question Linda. I briefly addressed that in the previous post. Attaining a balanced view is often a huge challenge, especially when your own view is weighed down with anger and resentment. That topic is definitely on the list for further discussion.

Barbara Amaya said...

I asked myself question in the beginning of my journey as I began writing my memoir
And I found my answer as I looked at my purposes for writing this story which turned out to be multifaceted and varied
First I knew that I wanted to empower and educate other victims and survivors of human trafficking
Next as I wrote and went deeper I came to see something very clearly no one had tried to protect me when I was a child sadly I did not feel any obligation to protect my "family" by not being true to my story and everything that happened me
I want to address.something here about descriptions and genre. An editor I worked with kept.using the words misery memoir until I finally told her please say empowering and overcoming memoir not misery memoir because every word we use effects our world and my manuscript

Sharon said...

Blessings on your purpose and path. I wish you every success. Obviously writing has been a big help to you personally as you prepare to share.

And brava for educating your editor about the costs attached to the term "misery memoir." Another term I like is "transformational memoir."

Sue Mitchell said...

Sharon, I love your list of questions that writers can ask themselves as they decide what to include in their memoir. I do think this is a process that needs to happen after a draft is complete, rather than while trying to write. It's important to get everything out and write just for yourself at first. I can see using your questions as a way to do a first revision.

I loved Samantha White's idea on the other post in this series about consulting clergy for another perspective about what could be hurtful. It's important to get input from others because often we don't realize our writing has an unintended negative tone or can't anticipate how a certain phrase might land with the reader.

I recently reviewed a section of manuscript for someone whose mother felt offended by what she had written but the writer couldn't see why. As an objective reader, I was able to tell her immediately where the trouble lay. It was very subtle, but definitely there. So I would just add to your wonderful tips to consider getting an objective opinion on questionable sections.

Sharon said...

Thanks for the reminder that these questions can strangle a draft. Your point about an outsider being able to see what was offensive to the mother is spot on also. In this regard, I suspect it could be helpful to have an older reader take a look, because generational perspectives can cloud these issues for some.

Evelyn Lauer said...

Love the line "strangle the draft." Recently, I gave pages to a friend who asked how I could write the things I wrote. I said if everyone worried about that, nothing would ever get written. I said I had to write it. Great post, as I'm thinking about all of this now as I work on a memoir that's half written.