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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