Writing the Truth
November 13, 2020 § 15 Comments
By Maddie Lock
The email from my father began: It is with a heavy heart that I write this… I quickly scanned the German words. My knees buckled as my world plummeted to a depth that had me gasping for air. I understood immediately I had overstepped my writing boundaries.
I had written an essay about finding my biological father when he was about to turn ninety and I had celebrated my sixtieth birthday the day before. An unwanted player in my German mother’s life, she mulishly refused to talk about him. My childhood badgering finally caused her to spit out words to shut me down. They did. Not because I believed her spiteful words but because I felt I had hit a dead-end. Perhaps it didn’t matter after all; I had been adopted by my American step-father and my life was far removed from my native country.
Through unexpected circumstances, I ran across old court papers that provided his name and an old family address. One of my German cousins was able to track down a current address. I flew to Germany and rang his doorbell, not knowing if he was still alive or even in good health. I took a risk not only for me but also for a nonagenarian ex-WWII prisoner who, as a young man, was banished out of his daughter’s life by an angry twenty-three-year-old woman who found herself pregnant when all she wanted was to have fun. The risk paid off. He welcomed me with tears in his eyes and an open heart.
I couldn’t wait to write about this day, to share my joy. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote again. I also wrote what my mother had spit out to me in anger. Words and an accusation that, as it turns out, my father had never heard. The essay found a home in an online literary journal. I mentioned to my father that I was writing a book about our family and the story now included him; he smiled and seemed at ease. I didn’t think twice about it. My literary world in the United States felt far removed from a small town in Germany, the English language a world away from German. My shortsightedness came to a reckoning when the email came and made the world very small.
Curiosity had prompted him to put my name in a search engine and up popped a listing of my published work. He tapped “translate” and read the words that broke his heart. Not only did he read the words, there they were for anyone to read, including friends and neighbors, followed by his smiling photo. When I contacted the editor and explained my situation, she was sympathetic but balked at pulling it. Instead, she agreed to take out the offending words, change names and remove the photo. My father accepted this. But the damage was done.
Emails flew back and forth. My father sent photos of us together, no words attached. With each one I felt his pain. And my confusion. Was he expressing his sorrow at the relationship that was now breached? Or was he saying the bond was still there? I responded with heartfelt apologies and acceptance of culpability. I repeatedly insisted that the story was never meant to blame and shame—after all, I had never believed those words—but to convey the joy and love I felt after finally knowing him. I had planned a trip to visit him that May and now wondered if I should cancel it. Finally he wrote and underlined these words: DO NOT cancel your trip; please come.
We talked and cried and hugged. We mended. But for months I felt I was recovering from unprecedented trauma, a sense of PTSD. I questioned the memoir I was writing about my family, which also dealt with trauma. I wanted to build a fire with the manuscript and call it a day. An ending to years of work. How could I possibly risk creating more damage to those I loved? The joy of writing turned to gut-twisting doubt. I found myself unable to put a single word on paper. Recurring nightmares of my father receding, and dissipating into darkness added to my sorry state. But I had written the truest truth, hadn’t I? Isn’t that what good memoir writing is all about? How do we balance the truth with responsibility for the feelings or memories of those we are exposing? I stared at the stack of memoirs piled next to my bed. Researched the writers I admired to find out how they fared. Turns out, many paid a price for their “truths.” Not a one wrote their story glibly, as I felt I had. But it seemed we all had one thing in common: the story demanded to be written.
So it was for me.
I reached a deal with myself so that my fingers could function again on the keyboard: the offending words will not be included, or alluded to, in the book. As won’t other prurient revelations that may be relevant to the story but that will cause more harm than any possible enlightenment. Since this is my story, I get to choose what and how I tell it. And I choose to respect those who have entrusted me. With conditions: if the revelation is essential to the insight or depth of the binding theme, if it must be included to make the story whole, then it shall be. The words my mother hurled in anger do not; they are not relevant to the outcome.
I’m also changing names, although it won’t be difficult to make the connections. Yesterday I Googled my father’s name and, directly underneath a social article and photo of him in his local newspaper, the offending essay came up (although it was the revised version that did not mention his full name, the name of the town or any other obvious identifying clues). Another of my essays came up beneath that one. The internet does its job well in finding what we are looking for. It looms as infinite and omniscient. This adds a heavy layer to the responsibility memoir writers already carry, and one we must place at the forefront of the truths we share.
German-born and American bred, Maddie Lock fell in love with words as she learned the English language. Maddie has published an award-winning children’s book, lamented about her writing obsession on the Brevity Blog, and has work published or forthcoming in Gravel, Wanderlust-Journal, The RavensPerch, Under the Sun, Ruminate, and others. She is currently finishing up a memoir about her German roots.