Memoir Monday #6 — What Do We Owe the People We Write About When We Write Our Own Stories?

I suppose I should admit that my “experiment” has been a failure.  I set out to post one blog entry a week on memoir writing and one on writing about others during the months of April and May.  I haven’t written about writing about others for two weeks and this week my Memoir Monday entry is two days late.  As I often say to students, life trumps writing.  Work, illness and family matters interfere with our best-laid plans.

Maybe it’s appropriate then that today’s entry is about both memoir writing and writing about others—or, more accurately, writing about others in memoir writing.  This may be the least-discussed aspect of memoir writing.  We teach budding memoirists to examine their lives, to separate the contemplating consciousness from that of their earlier self, to dare to go deeper into pain and shame, but we don’t talk enough about how they should think about writing about the others in their lives.

In many memoirs, family members and others who have had relationships with the writer end up as collateral damage.  Parents bear the brunt of the character blows.  Sometimes they are the heroes of memoirs but more often they are the villains.  They are portrayed as drunk or drug-addled, abusive or negligent.  Some are psychotic, some autocratic, and some narcissistic in the extreme.  The scars left by their behaviors are real and, judging by what many memoirists have written, they are life-altering, character-warping, ineradicable even with therapy.

But memoir writing can inflict damage and leave scars too.  This coming week my Memoir Writing students will read essays from a book called Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro.  Some of the essays make clear how wounding words and stories can be.  Others talk about the usefulness of letting family members read what has been written about them in advance of publication.  All of them, in one way or another, raise the questions What do we owe the people we write about when seeking to write our own stories? and How can we make sure we’re being fair to others as well as ourselves?

There are no easy answers, of course.  But the book my students read this last week, John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers, suggests some approaches.  Wideman’s book looks at the differences and similarities between himself, a widely respected writer and professor, and his brother Robby, who is serving a life sentence for his participation in a robbery in which a man was killed.  The book is, in essence, a biography as well as a memoir, and the sections on Robby are based on interviews Wideman did with his brother.  But Wideman goes to great lengths to show that he bears sole responsibility for what the book says.

In his Author’s Note, Wideman tells us his book is a “mix of memory, imagination, feeling and fact.”  Because he wasn’t able to use a tape recorder during his prison visits, he had only inadequate notes from his conversations with his brother.  He used those notes in conjunction with his lifelong knowledge of Robby, their family, their neighborhood, and the societal conditions at play in the lives of young American black men to write from Robby’s perspective, giving Robby a voice in the book.  The voice in these sections is a voice of the streets, using slang and informal patterns of speech.  Wideman makes it clear to his readers that he has constructed this voice but tells us, too, that Robby has read and approved and, at times, corrected it.  You might call it a collaborative voice, one writer’s attempt to write about someone else while giving that person the opportunity to make sure the depiction of him reflects his own understanding.

Even then, Wideman is careful to tell us that his picture of Robby (which he uses as a mirror to reflect an essential part of his own nature) is his picture—limited and fragmentary, warped by his own partial view and understanding.  “There will necessarily be distance,” he writes, “vast discrepancy between any image I create and the mystery of all my brother is, was, can be.”

It is this mystery every memoir writer needs to keep in mind when writing about anyone, even herself.  We know people only partially and our views are distorted by our own needs, desires, emotions and experiences.  If we respect the mystery of others—all that we don’t know about their inner and outer lives—and try, in the process of examining our own lives, to see from their perspectives, we have a better chance of being fair to them on the page.

We need to remember, too, that including them in our story means using them and their stories for our own purposes.  “Though I never intended to steal his story,” Wideman writes, “to appropriate it or exploit it, in a sense that’s what would happen once the book was published.”

“Don’t I have a right to tell my story?” someone will ask.  “Of course you do” is the only appropriate response.  But rarely are our stories ours alone.  Each of us lives at the center of a vast web of associations and relationships, families and communities.  Every movement we make reverberates down the web’s delicate filaments, risking rifts and detachments and damage we can’t even see.  We need to move carefully and respectfully, weighing the possible ramifications—on ourselves as well as others—of everything we say and do.

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