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?