What the Memoirist Prefers Her Child Does Not Know

July 17, 2011 § 6 Comments

Interesting reflection on the memoirist’s dilemma from Dani Shapiro, in The New York Times this morning:

On a recent weekend morning, I set out with my son to do errands. As we drove from the post office to the health food store, he began fiddling around with the radio, looking for NPR. I reached over and turned it off. He turned it back on. I turned it off again. He shot me a look, puzzled. After all, he knew I enjoyed the fact that, at age 12, he was a fan of public radio. “What’s the problem?” he asked.

“No problem,” I said. “I just don’t feel like listening.”

I couldn’t tell him that later that afternoon, “This American Life” would be rebroadcasting an episode with a reading I did years ago from my first memoir, Slow Motion. That I was afraid a promo would come on the air, and that suddenly, improbably, horrifyingly, he might hear his mother’s voice of more than a decade earlier, telling a story of events in her life that had happened more than a decade before that, a story no parent would want her child to hear.

Essay continues here.



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§ 6 Responses to What the Memoirist Prefers Her Child Does Not Know

  • She talks about censoring herself and being sensitive to the fact that her son would either read and/or appear in her writing, and I think all memoirists can relate to this challenge, but she ends the piece with her truest statement–knowing the writer wins out–that she will write about the experience. She has to–she’s a writer.

  • Jane Churchon says:

    I have found that I worry much less about my children knowing who I am than I have wondered about the question of whether I have the right to tell their stories. Memoir is about me, but it necessarily includes the people with whom I love and struggle, because we are social animals, and our self-definition arises from the brief glances we are granted from other people’s perspectives of us. But my children are already taking in my view of them, already formulating a self from who I think their self is, just by virtue of my parenting. Do I have the right to cement that view into the world by putting it into print? I have written about my children and seen that work in print, but I am very careful with what I choose to publish, in deference to their right to have their own experience of their lives, without my slant.

    To speak to Shapiro’s question–how much information we should share with our children about parts of our lives that aren’t exemplary — I had a piece published recently about another family member (under a pseudonym, to protect that person’s privacy). The piece contained a great deal of information about my life, information that my children did not know. My children are 17 and 23, and the piece gave me a way to discuss some of the most painful experiences of my life with them, without having to break the parent-child Wall of No Life Before You. By discussing the memoir, our family was allowed to create intimacy and trust with each other, and I was allowed to be vulnerable without sacrificing my role as their parent, or their roles as my children.

    Ultimately, to me, the question becomes how to show compassion to our children and our selves in memoir, how to present our own stories without molding our children’s stories in the process. I don’t know if that’s possible or even desirable; our children, our partners, our friends, know who we are, instinctively and thoroughly. There is little point in hiding our identity. Our children may not know the details but we are fools if we think that they don’t know that we have holes and rips in the fabric of who we present as our self. The only possibility is learning to present our true selves to our children in a way that still allows them to be children, still allows them to form their own experience of us as parents, including facts that may be unsavory but which support their grasp of the totality of who we are. If we are lucky (as I am), that honesty allows our children to glimpse who we are as people and to love us–not just in spite of our flaws, but also because of them.

  • A perfectly wonderful essay and terrific message for others who write memoirs. . Thanks for sharing it with your readers.


  • Thanks, Jane. Well put.

  • Tim Elhajj says:

    I asked my son’s permission to reveal the parts of his life that appear in my upcoming memoir. I didn’t think they were terribly damaging things, but if he hadn’t agreed to let me do it, I’d have had to find another way to tell the story. Not sure how that would have even worked, because he’s a major part of the plot.

    I like what Jane said above about parents revealing themselves to their children in memoir. I wish my father had. He died when I was in my teens and I know very little about the man. His family — all good, good people — insist on telling these trite little stories about him that don’t add up to much. It’s aggravating. I don’t even bother to ask the questions anymore.

    When my oldest son — the one who appears in my memoir, who I have lived apart from since he was an infant — read an early draft of the prologue to my book, where I discuss our separation and my addiction to heroin, which he was already well aware of, he was finally able to express and give voice to some of the grief, sadness and anger he felt around all those events, but had never been able to express before. When you have a long distance relationship with someone, it’s hard to find an opportunity to express those kinds of emotions, especially if you’re a kid growing up and there is physical distance to contend with. I like to think the specificity of the story (and I’m not talking about anything literary here, but just the fact that the story exists, and that he read the opening chapter, and it was about him) gave him the opportunity and the means to express himself. I really do believe that our stories are our most important and best tool. I agree that you have to be careful when you write about your children, and even about yourself, and I think it makes a lot of sense to think carefully about the implications of what we write, but I also think there is a huge reward for writing memoir that’s honest, even if we’re revealing behavior that’s not exemplary.

    Good article! I’m glad I read Brevity blog! 🙂

  • Nothing should go in a memoir that the author wouldn’t reveal in a heartfelt conversation, says this memoir-author.

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