The Ethics of Silence

March 29, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Sandra Hager Eliason

In my transition from Doctor to Writer, I thought the hardest lesson would be moving from emotionless, “objective” medical writing to the feelings and scenes and stories of creative nonfiction. But there are harder, more painful lessons.

When my essay “Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” was anthologized in Tales From Six Feet Apart, my family was scandalized that I’d described being quarantined with my mother-in-law and her memory loss. Our relationship had been rocky, and I wrote about the difficulty of living with someone in the recurring loops of forgetfulness, as well as recalling some Not-Nice events of the past. I thought I described the understanding we came to, and our learning to care for each other, resolving past hurts in our relationship now.

My mother-in-law unfortunately died (not related to the pandemic) just before publication. The timing was unfortunate, although I’m not sure the family would have approved of my telling about her at any time. I told them I was writing my truth.

My sister-in-law said my story “May be your truth, but it’s not the whole truth. It says more bad things than good.”

My daughter said, “We tell each other half-truths all the time to be polite, why do you have to write your truth when it offends others?”

Why indeed?

I tell stories to make sense of the world, and want to reach others, hoping to help them make sense of their world too. I hope my writing can create a truth broader than its specifics. Comments on my story told me it rang true.

My daughter started me thinking, though. Is it ethical to tell a story when it hurts others?

My mother-in-law didn’t like me very much at first. Her firstborn son was one year out of her home when I stole him from her. I was three years older. Her son had become someone with long hair and ripped jeans and suddenly radical notions about the Viet Nam war and racism and over-packaging. It must be my bad influence.

I also had radical ideas for 1972: that women could work, and after my first daughter, that women with children could get higher education.

She was embarrassed. Her conservative neighborhood would not approve.

My grandparents died young. I missed that connection with my history, something I wanted my children to have. So I kept returning, to the relationship and my mother-in-law. We both kept up the dance of niceness through the years. But the decades of sitting around a family table sharing food from recipes we gave each other; telling favorite stories about my children/her grandchildren; me making a meal to serve her family, or she making one to serve us, created fondness under the niceness.

Toward the end I participated in her care, the same as her children. I was a part, though always apart. The events of the past were never discussed, nor ever to be discussed. That wouldn’t be nice.

Acknowledging those events now is “an expression of repressed anger,” according to the family. They seem minor: my mother-in-law giving my baby a bath when I asked her not to, making my child cry as soon as I left the room; her saying she was done with kids and didn’t want to babysit ours; the “helpful” articles handed to me on how to raise children and the damaging effects of a working mother; the calls to tell me what baby food was appropriate. I wrote that I felt she was judging me from under lidded eyes. “Makes her look like a snake,” per my sister-in-law.

They don’t want their friends to see me mention my published piece on Facebook, because that’s where tributes are posted, the memories of her goodness. Which is not negated by me telling the other truth: that she was human.

I didn’t tell the story to let out repressed anger, but to set free a truth: that not-nice things happen, and yet can be overcome. It was not written with malice or an intent to malign. I am tempted to paraphrase Anne Lamott: If they wanted me to say nice things about her, they should have asked her to treat me better.

And yet, I keep returning to the question of ethics.

Is it ethical to present their mother in a bad light if it offends them?

The ethics of silence are just as tricky. Is it ethical to keep the stories hidden?  If I am to be silenced in the name of niceness, are we not also suppressing the whole truth? Half-truths linger silently, a monument to missed opportunities, a quietness of suppression.

Reading stories lets us say “Yes, that also speaks for me.” If we don’t tell stories that allow us to speak to and for our common humanity, what is lost? As Suzanne Roberts says, “The real act of violence is in the attempt to silence someone else’s voice.” Perhaps what’s being silenced is the voice of common experience: I hear you and understand.

Why write my truth if it alienates the family? Because, although it may not be the whole truth, whatever is? As has been said so often, we each have our own truth. To be honest and ethical, it needs to be told.

Sandra Hager Eliason is a retired Family Practice physician, now writing full time. She won the Minnesota Medicine Magazine writing contest in 2016, and her work has appeared in the Brevity Blog and Bluestem Magazine She is finishing a memoir, and lives with her husband and a spoiled cat in St. Anthony Park, Minnesota. Find her on Twitter at @SandraHEliason1 or reach her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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§ 20 Responses to The Ethics of Silence

  • Heidi Croot says:

    Sandra, you speak for me. Thank you for laying out the writer’s obligation so clearly. I wonder what precisely drives people to defend the notion of only one truth. Or why they wield the term “my mother,” as if some relationships are ascendant. I’d be tempted to hand them a pen and invite them to the page; there’s room for all truths. Love this sane, insightful, well-crafted piece.

  • Susan Fisher says:

    Beautifully written and balanced. I am 79. About 10 years ago, I posted something on my blog where, amongst other events, I described a memory where my sister-in-law (I did not name her or even say how she was related) did something very cruel to me when I was down and out. Even though she is not online, another family member made sure she read it. She hasn’t spoken to me since — and we used to have a friendship. Yes, bless Ann Lamott for the very funny and true things she says about writing about family. I hope you keep up the good work — thank you. Susan Fisher, Perth, Ontario.

  • This is so good, Sandra. To share or not to share is a loaded question, and I wish you luck with your decision. Or, have you already made it? Best of luck with your memoir.

  • Definitely a tough spot to be in. That’s an indirect reason to me writing under a pen name and writing fiction for the most part.

    I am very much pro free-speech. I don’t think you meant to write this to offend your late mother-in-law. I think you wrote it for YOU and we are all allowed to do just that.

  • dkzody says:

    Good for you, Sandra. You are right, you must write YOUR truth.

  • Eilene Lyon says:

    I agree with your decision to share your story. Her children have the freedom to share theirs, too.

  • Sara Harris says:

    I think this is an excellent piece and I love how you explore both sides. This is a “keeper.”
    Thank you.

  • Thank you for this though-provoking piece. Wishing you continued success with your writing.

  • Joanne says:

    So much honesty and reflection here. You raised wonderful points every writer grapples with and you found a way to express them cogently throughout!

  • Carmela McIntire says:

    Tremendous. Thank you so much. I am wrestling with similar issues now, in telling the story of a long marriage, my late spouse, and the family I married into (a lot of material there, right?!?). You have chosen to write–it’s a courageous decision, and maybe you would agree that for many of us, it’s something that we have to do. Not out of any kind of vengefulness or mean spiritedness, but because something compels us to write our stories, stories of complicated relationships, with our families and others (are there any other kind?) I am driven to write too–as you say, to make sense, to find meaning, to explore and explain to myself how and why things are. Keep on!

  • […] share with you an essay, Ethics of Silence by Sandra Hager Eliason published on Brevity’s […]

  • kperrymn says:

    Your story of this classic memoirist’s struggle is especially heart-rending, framed as it is by the fear and fragility all of us feel during the pandemic. Add to that those those other things beyond your control–the unfortunate timing of the publication of the essay right after your mother-in-law’s death, and the immediacy of social media amplifying people’s reactions in a way that would not have happened were not all tied to our devices even more than usual these days–and your decisions require even more courage than they normally would. Still the ethics of silence is a question we must wrestle with. Thanks for sharing your struggle so honestly. Your courage is inspiring, Sandra.

  • mksksdd says:

    Thank You! There are not only two sides to a story, there’s a few hundred depending on who’s telling it. Your memories are not your in-laws and vice versa, to state the obvious. I had an “unusual” family and childhood, which I intend to write about – and the irony is the stepdad who abused all of us and our mother has adopted ‘selective amnesia’ to talk about all the good times we had and how hard he worked to support all of us. That’s fine, it may help rid him of any guilt we might feel. I didn’t see it that way.

  • Sierra says:

    Yes. Thank you. So much damage is done when we silence any part of the truth. So many trauma cycles continue when nobody is brave above nice.

  • Darlene Mueller Morse says:

    Bravo for writing this! I had a MIL who was highly educated (double masters gotten in the ’60s when women didn’t usually do that), and had grown up in a wealthy household until the Depression when most was lost. She had no common sense to speak of and couldn’t cook or clean properly because she never learned growing up. My own mother died a few yeas after I married her son so I couldn’t use the tactic I’d coped with by switching off between the two for balance. She did things like Xerox the hand-drawn Christmas cards I would make and then send them out as her own. She constantly compared all seven of her grandchildren and only the ones of her daughter were the most “brilliant.” The three sons had children which were “sweet.” I would love to write about my experiences with her especially since she moved to our town from the East Coast and I took care of her for the last three years of her life. But I don’t think I ever will because my husband and his siblings all think of her as a saint and no one can speak ill of her even after she’s been gone for 16 years. Perhaps this is how fiction writing evolved.

  • lyzams says:

    Sharing is part of healing….and if by writing it your healing process begun then it’s a good thing….to let it out….some of us don’t have the voice to shout to let our most inner thoughts out….but we write and pen down to let those perturbed emotions out …good for you….in swahili a Kenyan language.. we have a saying that goes…mtendewa hasahau ila mtendaji husau…english translation….the one who wrongs you forgets easily but the one who gets wronged doesn’t …

  • Maddie Lock says:

    This so resonates with me! I get the thought process… sadly, others have their own. After my sister read my memoir, she made it a point to call me and say”I have to keep reminding myself that this from your perspective, not anyone else’s…boy is that ambivalent!

  • Peg Conway says:

    I appreciate these thoughts and affirmation!! I may need them when my memoir comes out later this year.

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