Points to Ponder Before Tarnishing Memories



Tarnishing the memory of someone friends, family or others hold dear is not a step to take lightly, but it’s a risk some of us must take if we dare to share the truth of our differing personal perspective on that person. You’re surely aware of the widespread encouragement to “Be brave. Be bold. It’s your story, you have the right to tell it!” Telling by writing is good. And, it’s prudent to consider all aspects of that decision before sharing or publishing what you write.

Sometimes that truth is known, and nothing you write will be a surprise. In my family it’s no secret that my maternal grandmother had both favorites and those she scorned. I was one of the favorites. My cousins, siblings, and I and have discussed that divide. I acknowledge her ugly treatment of the scorned one and though I admit to fond feelings for her, I do not eulogize her for the affection she showed me.

All too often hurt and resentment remain secret. One person I know, I’ll call her Clarissa, was so subtly abused by a former spouse that nobody noticed. She was unaware herself until the marriage ended. Eventually she recognized the problems for what they were. She’s writing about it, but has no plans to show her stories to family members.

“Don’t you think your son would benefit from knowing?”

“No. He adores his father. He would not understand and it would not be helpful.”

That woman is wise, and as we talked, several points about disclosure arose. This is not a new topic in memoir circles, but you may not have thought of all these angles.

Disclosing negative reports of your experience messes with other people’s feelings and memories of the subject of your disclosure and also of you. They may not always welcome that intrusion. They may react in one or more of these predictable and widely discussed ways. They may

  • Argue with you. Many will feel inclined to protect the person they hold dear and  you seem to smear.
  • Get angry. They may be furious that you took potshots at a hero.
  • Not believe you.
  • Spread deeply hurtful stories about you.
  • Avoid or disown you. You may no longer be welcome at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
  • Consider you unfair. Especially if the subject of your disclosures is dead, that person will not be in a position to defend him or herself. If alive, ugly arguments can ensue.
  • You may incite a family feud. 
Ponder the guidelines below as you consider whether to share even a single controversial story with a single person involved:

1. Am I writing from revenge? In a blog post, writing guru Jane Friedman cites advice from Marion Roach Smith’s highly recommended book, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life:

Never write a story because you want to extract revenge or betray someone.

Read the rest of the post or Smith’s book to learn why. Linda Joy Myers, founder and president of The National Association of Memoir Writers, is another well-known apostle of this creed, emphasizing it often in blog posts, public teleseminars, her book, The Power of Memoir, and other arenas.

2. How will these people (this person) benefit from knowing what happened to me? The answer may be, they won’t. Especially if you write from revenge. But let’s expand on possibilities from Clarissa’s situation. Perhaps her son could learn something that would help him improve his marriage.

3. Are they likely to understand? If the son does adore his father, he’s more likely to defend his dad than look into his own behavior. Short of directly pointing out flaws in the way her son treats his wife, he’s unlikely to get the message. If she does point them out, anger and avoidance may kick in, further closing his mind.

4. Is my disclosure important to set family history straight? Connie faced major controversy when she decided to include ninety-year-old newspaper coverage of the trial of an uncle who was convicted of murdering his wife in a family history she wrote. “That’s ancient history. Why dig it up again now?” Connie did have a reason: to show current and future generations that they come from a tough line of survivors of many family tragedies who thrived despite it all. Most family members applauded her efforts.

5. Is sharing this story likely to be a satisfying experience? If you have well-founded hope of being heard and acknowledged with empathy and compassion, or of inciting positive change in some way, maybe so.  If you foresee significant risk of inciting negative reactions, you could find the situation boomeranged, and that you’ve made things worse. 

Always keep in mind that written words hold even more power than spoken ones. Once read, they can never be erased. If you do decide to disclose, do your best to show all relevant perspectives. This open-minded approach tends to be contagious.

Bottom line: Lacking a compelling reason to disclose despair, the greatest kindness you can extend to others may be to leave memories intact. Work through your feelings and get the feedback you need by journaling, talking to friends, sharing with trust writing groups, or seeking therapy, but beware of messing with family members’ minds.

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