But What About Mom?

September 8, 2021 § 15 Comments

By Helena de Bres

Every memoirist worries, at least a little and often a lot, about wronging their family, friends and lovers by writing about them. It’s probably impossible to create a good memoir without including people other than yourself in it. But as soon as you do that, you risk hurting, exposing, exploiting and betraying your subjects, some of whom you may deeply love.

We memoirists could just abandon the whole genre in light of these distressing facts. When encouraged by his nephew to write his autobiography, Freud replied: “A psychologically complete and honest confession of life  [. . .]  would require so much indiscretion […] about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is simply out of the question.” But for those of us who love writing memoir, that’s a big ask. So it’s tempting, instead, to seek an ethical quick fix that will let us keep writing our messy interpersonal histories with a clean conscience.

One option here is the Forget Them! approach. You might injure others when writing about them, this idea goes, but you shouldn’t let that stop you. William Faulkner wrote: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art … If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

Setting aside the sexism (how many Faulkners is that ode worth?), it’s implausible that the cause of literature trumps every interest of all of a writer’s subjects. Philosopher Felicia Ackerman notes that presumably no one would excuse Keats for torturing someone to get “Ode on a Grecian Urn” written. Once we admit that ethical constraint, why not others?

There’s also the point that not every writer rises to the level of Keats. In his memoir Family Man, Calvin Trillin proposes what he calls “the Dostoyevsky Test”: “If you have reason to believe that you’re another Dostoyevsky, there is no reason to be concerned about the effect what you write might have on the life of some member of your family…If you don’t have reason to believe that you’re another Dostoyevsky, you can’t.” I’m not sure I want to give even Dostoyevsky a free pass. Maybe sometimes a writer really should just let it rip for art, and let the human casualties pile up. But in the large majority of cases there’s likely to be a more decent alternative available that doesn’t leave art bleeding on the tracks instead.

A second option is Check your Intentions! Andre Dubus III said in an interview about his memoir Townie: “I had a conversation with the novelist Richard Russo, who’s a buddy of mine. I told him I was tortured about writing about my family, and he said, “Look, if this were me, I’d ask myself, Am I trying to hurt anybody with this book? Am I trying to skewer anybody? If the honest answer is no, I’m just trying to capture as honestly as I can what it was like for me, then I’d do it.’ It was such good advice.”

Was it, though? It’s certainly morally better to write without malice than with it. But that’s a pretty low bar. Writers can intend only the very best for those they write about, while inadvertently harming them, treating them unfairly, or violating their privacy. Shouldn’t we care about what our subjects have to say about the matter, rather than just what’s going on in our own heads?

The Obtain Consent! approach heads down that road, arguing that all that matters is whether or not a subject approves of how they’re portrayed. Some writers go to great efforts to inform or even collaborate with their subjects while writing, and commit to respecting any wishes they have about how they’re represented. Annie Dillard reports: “I’ve promised to take out anything that anyone objects to—anything at all.”

This approach rules out writing about people who can’t give informed consent, including children and people with severe cognitive disabilities. While writers should be careful in those cases, surely a total ban isn’t called for. Requiring consent would also cripple many memoirs written about those who don’t deserve to have their past deeds shielded. In other cases, obtaining consent wouldn’t be enough. Consensual exploitation remains morally problematic, even if less so than the nonconsensual kind.

A final ethical quick fix is Narrow Your Targets! Maybe writers should select only a subset of their associates to write about. How about those who deserve it? Anne Lamott’s widely cited dictum springs to mind here: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

While that’s funny, I don’t think it supports an open season on those who’ve wronged the writer. For one thing, if the motivation is mainly revenge, the act may not be justified: vengeance is a morally suspect motivation. For another, we generally think that retaliation for wrongs should be proportionate. Your ex-best-friend may have injured you, but your publishing a permanent record of the injury may do them much worse harm. And what at least some (not all!) wrongdoers deserve is compassion and forgiveness, especially if they’ve sincerely acknowledged their bad behavior and made a serious attempt to atone for it.

How about narrowing your targets to those who’ve left the planet? Many memoirists have waited till the deaths of loved or hated ones before doing a number on them. Presumably the idea is that you can’t harm someone after they’re gone. Your welfare can only go down if you notice it happening, right? And no one’s noticing anything from beyond the grave.

But harming someone isn’t the only way to wrong them in memoir: you can also violate their privacy, use them unjustly, or break a commitment not to write about them. These kinds of acts are plausibly wrong regardless of whether or not the victim hears about them, and it’s hard to see how someone’s being dead changes that fact.

It seems there’s no easy way out of the moral morass of writing a memoir. Any of us who care about doing the right thing will have to think long, hard and possibly agonizingly about how to balance our literary aims with the interests and rights of those whose lives we draw on. One upside is that we’re likely to learn a lot about our own values along the way. We might come out of the endeavor not just with a book or essay, but with a better sense of how we want to relate to our fellow humans in the future, in life as well as on the page. Fingers crossed our moms will still be speaking to us, too.

Helena de Bres teaches philosophy at Wellesley College. Her book Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir is out this September with The University of Chicago Press. Her creative writing has appeared in The Point, Aeon, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review and The New York Times. She’s currently working on two books of creative nonfiction: a memoir about the nature and value of philosophy and a book on the philosophy of twins.

§ 15 Responses to But What About Mom?

  • When ever I am writing anything that involves others, I strive to be respectful of their privacy. A good story can still be written without risk to the innocent. Even those whose intents in my life were across the line of ugly, I would and do go out of my way to not lower myself to a level that would seem vengeful there are too many ways to write without going there.

  • kperrymn says:

    I am still struggling with this as I work on my memoir. What I’m learning along the way is to try to be scrupulously honest about my own flaws as I write about others, to work from a perspective of understanding as opposed to revenge, and to acknowledge that my recollection of events may well differ from others. I think writing with good intentions as I go–even if it means telling uncomfortable truths about others–also serves as a kind of ethical undercurrent in my book. That is what I am hoping for!

    • rachaelhanel says:

      It is a struggle! Another consideration is to make your characters as well-rounded as possible. Yes, people behave badly, but generally there are also redeeming qualities. It’s just like with fiction; we don’t want to read about one-dimensional characters. Good luck!

  • Sheila McEntee says:

    Beautifully written, with intriguing references, and very helpful! I feel affirmed in my concern for potentially hurting others when or if I write about them. You’ve confirmed that it’s not an easy problem to address. Thank you for a wonderful essay.

  • …and sometimes—probably far too often—our version of events or the wrongs done by others, is inaccurate, incomplete, or unfair. We remember our own version of events. We understand our own motives and suffering and joy. We fail to see the world as another does. We are only human.

  • As you get older this gets easier because the people you are writing about ( I always change their names) die. Since I started my ‘sixties memoir my parents died, the main subject has seemingly vanished, his mother died, and old high school friends I interviewed have also died. One of the main focuses of the book was a young woman who died , probably murdered, many years ago, had no siblings or children and her parents have died, too. The other thing to recall is that most of the world’s people aren’t “dying” to read books unless they are huge best sellers. You have to put your published work into the hands of those in it, and even then they may not read it.And keep in mind that people see themselves in fictional works ,too;, one writer friend has a novel ms under her bed because she thinks a character who resembles her ex- husband will offend their son. You can’t win this one.

  • Mary J. Breen says:

    There is a time and a place to write your truth, and one way to consider the question of how much you can ethically reveal is to ask yourself why you are writing. If your intent is simply to seek revenge or to show that you were right after all, then justifying the harm is not easy. On the other hand, if, for example, the trauma of unacknowledged sexual abuse is at the core of your childhood story, or if a vital secret permeated your family’s dynamics, or if your family had a pattern of alcohol abuse, then you may have to reveal damaging facts about certain people. If your intent is to stop further harm and to support people who have suffered in similar ways to your own, such as those who were raped in the military or have become addicted to narcotics for pain, you may be justified in revealing certain people’s criminal behaviours. (And for this you might need the advice of a lawyer.) None of these are easy decisions, and well worth thinking about.

    • Heidi Croot says:

      Thank you for this, Mary, especially the part about stopping further harm and supporting people who have suffered in similar ways. I wonder if the title for this piece shouldn’t have been “Silence!” Doors are opened for the purpose of being slammed, and the great heaving wave of suffering that flows beneath the memoir genre is being told to stay there. It will take me a while to unpack my feelings about this piece.

  • michelleredo says:

    I love this thorough list of considerations… perhaps layering them on as filters may help the memoirist with the internal critic whispering (or quite possibly shouting) in her ear. I’ve had more than one writing teacher advocate the “forget them” filter for the first draft, but to apply either the “check your intentions” or the “obtain consent” filters before the final one. Then again, my there’s also the quote from Czeslaw Milosz who said ““When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”

  • judyreeveswriter says:

    When my husband knew his cancer was terminal, he told me he didn’t want others to “stand around watching him die.” Decades later, in writing my memoir, I was torn on whether to include some scenes; writing about his illness and death felt, in a way, like a betrayal. I was inviting others (readers) to “watch him.” One thoughtful editor told me, “yes, and it’s your story, too.” Ultimately I received an answer that I could use some of those scenes, and did include them, but always respectfully and always from a POV of lovingkindness.

  • judyreeveswriter says:

    PS: I meant to say thank you for this excellent posting that looks at all the situations and options and solutions for writers to consider.

  • Something my mama said was “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” That’s something I often come back to, even though it is an almost impossible standard for us all, even Mama.

  • “It seems there’s no easy way out of the moral morass of writing a memoir.” Well said.

  • Thank you so much for sharing these considerations . I consider others even in personal blog posts. I tend to spend more time and be more descriptive about those who hold a special place in my heart. Because of that, I think that if a reader doesn’t feel my affinity for someone referenced, they can draw a reasonable conclusion about what that means.

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