On a writers’ and editors’ mail list I belong to a question arose this week about a dilemma memoir writers often face: What do you do when you’ve written something you don’t want a family member to read, especially because that person could be hurt by it? One member wrote in to say:
I’ve written a memoir, short story that isn’t very flattering to a family member. When I was a child, the experience was awful, but now as an adult, well, I know no one is perfect. Also, in all other respects, I adore this family member. The story, though, is compelling (I think). Anyway, now that I am just about done and it could be ready to submit for publication, I am not feeling good about putting out into the world a portrayal of someone I love who is/was as imperfect as myself, a human being who at the time was stretched and challenged in ways I have never had to deal with. I’m not talking abuse in any form, just perhaps, a lack of empathy and compassion.
Judith Barrington talks about this dilemma in her book Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. When writing about living people, she says, “Each of us must balance the reasons for writing a story . . . against the harm that might be done to someone else” (131). Memoirists choose many different approaches to the problem. Some change the details and disguise characters’ identities; others may pass the questionable sections across the desk of the family members they are written about with the promise they will not publish if the loved one finds it too painful. Still others wait for family members to make their final exit. A good question for writers to keep in mind, suggests Barrington, is “Which decision is most life enhancing?” (132)
This week when our list member put out her question, others responded with many of the usual ideas, from publishing as fiction to examining one’s motives for telling the story. But my favorite response came from Lori Pfeiffer (update: now Lori DeBoer), herself an editor and writing coach:
I work with this issue quite a bit with my clients, who are mostly memoir writers. There isn’t any one-size-fits-all answer to your question. . . .
Every piece of writing has the presenting theme and the transcendent theme (my terms): that is what the story appears to be about and what the larger truth actually is. It’s similar to someone trotting into a doctor’s office with an ongoing case of bronchitis (presenting symptoms), although the real story (transcendent theme) is that the person is dealing with unresolved grief.
In this case, I think the transcendent theme, the reflection on what those events meant to you then and what they mean to you as an adult, needs to be incorporated into the essay. Indeed, what those childhood experiences mean to everyone provides a good frame. . . .
I think that the trajectory from having someone hurt you to adoring that person is a really amazing story, in fact. You ought to tell it. Include all the ambiguity you have about telling the story. It will make it a powerful piece.