Whose Secret Is It? What I Wish I Hadn’t Shared In My Memoir

June 3, 2019 § 27 Comments

Linda C. WisniewskiBy Linda C. Wisniewski

When my memoir was published, I didn’t expect everyone in my family to like it. I had written about growing up with unhappy parents, in a depressed industrial town, in a punitive church school, and as part of a Polish working-class community looked down upon by many of our neighbors. That was a lot for me to push back against as I struggled to find my best life, and I knew some people might not share my perspective. I steeled myself for criticism.

But my cousin Angela’s letter came as a complete surprise.

“Where did you get this information about my mother? And what does this have to with your childhood?” she wrote.

I didn’t know I had exposed a family secret until I read those words. Angela’s Aunt Lucille was my mother, a woman who believed the Church’s promise that suffering would lead to everlasting life. I learned to suffer from her, and my memoir is about my lifelong struggle to create my own happiness. To show her self-centered pain, I used a story she told me when I was small:

“My mother said that soon after they returned [from their honeymoon], Dad walked in the door with a strange look on his face. ‘My sister tried to kill herself,’ he blurted. ‘They don’t know if she’ll make it.’ She had planned to run away with her married lover, but the man backed out at the last minute. In despair, Dad’s sister took an overdose of pills. For weeks, her hold on life was tenuous. When she finally pulled through, the whole extended family was still reeling. It didn’t seem right to be going off to Hawaii.” (excerpt from Off Kilter, Pearlsong Press)

 I didn’t use the name of my dad’s sister, who was Angela’s mother. But to my surprise and horror, her letter seemed to say she never knew her mother had been unfaithful to her dad. She was now in her seventies and I in my sixties. We weren’t close but I still felt terrible.

The letter was otherwise kind and supportive. “I wish I had known what you were going through as a child,” she wrote. “I would have helped you cope.”

I felt bad for hurting her, but I also remembered Angela criticizing her own daughter-in-law for a suicide attempt.  I hoped she’d now be more supportive, knowing what she knew.

I wrote back, apologizing for hurting her. I explained my purpose in including the story in my memoir was to illustrate my mother’s bitterness. I wrote her twice but never got a response. At the next family gathering, she didn’t come near me, and didn’t make eye contact. It could have been worse. To my great relief, her husband gave me a big hug.

Another cousin was pretty harsh when I told her what happened. “It wasn’t your secret to tell,” she wrote in an email.

I didn’t know it was a secret, and never suspected it could still hurt anyone. It happened in the 1930s and all the people had passed on long ago. Angela is in her eighties now, and I don’t know if or when I’ll ever see her again. We were never close.  My mother told me she was a spoiled child. But I wonder now if that’s true, along with the other stories she told me.

If I had it to do over, I’d leave that story out. Though I didn’t use my aunt’s name, the family who read my book knew who it was. My dad had only one sister. My hope is that they’ll think twice about judging others after reading it.

No matter how careful we are to avoid hurting people with our writing, sometimes we make mistakes. Just like we do when we interact with people off the page. When we do, we can ask forgiveness. And we can also forgive ourselves. For writers, just like everyone else, are human. And that has to be okay.

Linda C. Wisniewski lives in Bucks County, PA, where she teaches memoir writing and volunteers as a docent at the historic home of author Pearl S. Buck. Her memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace With Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage has been published by Pearlsong Press.


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§ 27 Responses to Whose Secret Is It? What I Wish I Hadn’t Shared In My Memoir

  • Janie says:

    Thanks for sharing that story. Always wondered where to draw the line and remain truthful.

  • Relax... says:

    It’s why I have no memoir — that chance it could hurt someone deeply… or come back on me with the now-utterly-useless “If only I’d known, I would’ve helped” — like an aunt’s, “I feel so sorry for you, dear. I always did.” Great, that fixes everything? Hopefully, my family doesn’t know I have a blog, but I’ve kept much out of that, too.

  • I know for myself, I’d omit certain details from my memoir because they may be too personal or sensitive. The best solution to cutting those details would be to vaguely summarize them or allude to them with a different anecdote.

  • I love memoirs and even read “how to write” memoir books, like the one from Mary Karr. These authors tell their stories, as you told yours. What happens to you in your life does not happen in a vacuum. There are other people involved. Your including that bit of information from the 1930s should not be upsetting to anyone and I’m sorry your cousin felt it was wrong of you to include it. IMO the stigma of suicide, or attempted suicide, is cruel. If society was more open about it, as you were in your memoir, some of the taint would fade. And lives might be saved too. Suicidal people must feel so very alone, try to think of your memory of one attempted suicide as uncovering what has too long been seen as a shameful secret.

  • Christine Hope Davis says:

    I appreciate your sensitivity to your cousin’s feelings. I also trust you to have weighed your purpose in including the anecdote against her sense of exposure and found her feelings to weigh more. I find the hardest thing in memoir is to discern what hidden parts of other people’s stories carved so deeply the shape of my own life that they must be included, even if they expose others’ unresolved pain, grief, etc. For what it’s worth, had learning of this affair and suicide from your mother resonated significantly with your own choices and/or set a new course somehow in your life, I would consider it fair to include even given your cousin’s reaction.

  • Karen Elizabeth Lee says:

    You can only leave out so much before the “memoir” becomes a fiction. We have to weigh carefully the balance between the importance of a story of a life and the sensitive feelings of those who would rather push things under the carpet. Of course you cannot put everything into a memoir anyway, but pick out the ones that can be left out and not alter the story in any way – it is a difficult balance.

  • Brenda says:

    I did a similar thing in one of my blog posts, by insinuating a former boss of mine had gotten fired instead of quitting. I felt horrible but at the same time felt like I had spoken the truth. And the bottom line was the story was about my journey not hers. She chose to single out that one reference and cast me aside for someone who tells great lies. It’s not a great loss for me but it sure makes me think twice about consequences before making anything public. Good for you for being brave enough to write a difficult truth, despite what it may do to your relationships.

  • krpooler says:

    Linda,I guess we never really know how people who are in our memoir will respond. I’m sorry this has been such an unpleasant experience for you. I’m
    About to publish my memoir about being the mother of an addicted son and even though I have involved my son from the start, I still have concerns about how he will respond once it’s published. Great discussion. Thanks for sharing such a sensitive topic.

  • Suzanne Henley says:

    I’d like to know what was accomplished by including—almost as a throwaway—“my mother told me she was a spoiled child” other than a potentially painful comment to a relative expressed in an internationally read blog. To think she might not see it is at best naive. Eighty-something does not mean Neanderthal.

    • Laurelyn says:

      “We were never close.”
      ~mama said~
      “But I wonder now if that’s true, along with the other stories she told me.”

      It informs Linda’s failure to realize that the information *was* a family secret; perhaps if the cousins had been closer, Linda would have known not to include it.

      I think it also should be noted that Angela’s expressed concern is about her mother having been unfaithful, and there’s actually nothing in Linda’s quoted account to indicate that Aunt Angela’sMom was married at the time, only that her lover was. So Cousin Angela is producing a bit of unnecessary Hamiltonian Reynolds Pamphlet-esque drama here, in my reading, perhaps to avoid thinking about the suicide attempt.

  • IMHO, telling a story about an aunt’s suicide attempt and affair is a no go. If it were your own mother, sure, but there must have been other ways to make your point.

  • Linda, My dear –I also teach memoir writing and there just exists no good way to approach these situations. We are born into families filled with brokenness, which is often passed along for generations. Those of us who write about these patterns of behavior always risk rejection and censure. (I’m writing my own at this time and struggle with the same questions.) Someone will not like what you have written, because they may have experienced the situation very differently. That is the price that comes with being an honest writer. All you can do is share your story as you lived it—in your own words. Perhaps you can allow yourself some grace, based on the belief that your mission was to bring some clarity to the situation–and, inadvertently–that caused some suffering. To remain silent would be to remain complicit. One of my writing students uses the phrase; “the violence of silence,” to describe this situation. Remaining silent is really more painful for everyone. Brava! Jane

  • jholowaty says:

    I literally just had a conversation with my wife about this very thing last night. This summer i’m working on a book about our family’s journey from fundamentalism to Catholicism, and I simply cannot tell it without divulging some of my wife’s most intimate secrets. I left the ball in her court, and she bravely told me it was ok. thank you for sharing this.

  • Marj Hahne says:

    Linda, I admire your truth-telling and, knowing you, I absolutely trust that you considered, long and hard, what stories, details, language to use in your memoir. I understand the territory of this question for all of us, both as writers and as humans having relationships with other humans. And yet, when I make this same interrogation of other art forms, writing seems to have a disadvantage: Do painters feel an obligation to get the green light from someone before they paint them (however that painter interprets that person in line, shape, color, brushstroke, and thickness of paint)? Do musicians feel an obligation to run their lyrics and melody by the person who catalyzed their love song (cue Taylor Swift)? I think, because our art form is the same medium humans communicate with, that those outside of it think that writers are merely making a communication/self-expression the equivalent of a long gossipy email or journal entry, motivated by some kind of selfish survival, and not art. I’m a really kind, considerate person, but I have a strong stand for the integrity of what we do as ART. And, yes, we writers get to choose if we’re willing to pay the potential cost to our relationships if we write about our peeps, but I’m feeling some fire right now to keep educating non-writers that writers who write real good are compelled to write because they can’t not write, and they can’t do much of anything else as well, so they’re pretty sure they were born to do this, and if they believe in God/Goddess, they might even call it their divine gift/expression, the thing they squeezed their soaring spirit into a skinbag to do–and the material of their life is the material of their art. Maybe I’m a smidge indignant about this ever since a therapist a long time ago gave me a huge permission to speak my “truth,” when he counseled me that others, via their negative reactions to my “truth”-telling, don’t cause my self-fragmentation; I DO, by allowing those reactions to make me second-guess my “truth” and keep me from opening my mouth again. I know my argument ain’t with you, Linda. I applaud you for telling your story the way you had to tell it.

    • The conversation is interesting and valuable. We all make mistakes and it is not easy to know who we need to review when we tell about real people in our real lives. On the other hand, I think it is probably possible to explain something we regret writing without both repeating the story and doubling down on hurtful details.

    • lindawis says:

      Thanks, Marj, for this thoughtful comment and for taking the time to post this here. I took a risk with this essay, and maybe I’ll write another one – “what I wish I hadn’t shared on the Brevity blog.” (Just kidding!)

  • deemallon says:

    I cut you a lot of slack when I read that you didn’t know it was a secret. So the question has to back up a bit. Not: should I divulge this secret. But: how do I determine whether certain information is secret.

  • If the world of writers, left out every tidbit that could possibly upset someone (that by choice or circumstances was in fact a part of the writers story), I believe there would be a shortage of memoirs and the ones left wouldn’t be worth the writers time & effort, or hold any interest for the reader, as well as robbing both parties of the shared experiences to educating others. I feel you unintentionally exposed what had been kept secret, what the cousin should have been upset about is the “action” she was unaware of & that it was kept secret by her mother. If there was no lie or deception in the 1st place, then it never would have been mentioned later on. You have little control when it comes to what people do and don’t do in life, and if they didn’t want their secrets, or frowned upon behavior written in your book, then they should not have behaved in such manner through the chapters of your life. In addition, considering the fact that this was forever ago and the original person involved has passed, I see little reason for your cousin to be so devastated considering she is an adult & has been for some time. She is most likely upset with her illusion of what she believed to be prim & proper to the book parental figures, that she herself adored & wanted to be like. Telling truths should not be frowned upon except when a very pregnant wife has gained all that unfortunate water weight & asks her husband if she looks fat in her outfit… then it is perfectly acceptable & recommended that the husband fibs.

  • I am pretty sure that’s why I will either never write mine or “fictionalize” it. Family secrets are tough. Especially when you don’t know they are secrets. Nice writing! Thank you for sharing.

  • Mr. Snow says:

    I was always though that it is ok to write the facts. How someone reacts to what has been written should not be of your concern! In counseling they taught us, if the individual is a true friend they will change or accept what has been written. I feel, they are more concerned and afraid of what others may think about the information you have written.

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