Sunday, April 5, 2009

The ethics of writing about those we love

I have found myself having a lot of discussions with people of late about the ethical problems of writing about our families — those thorny issues of boundaries and consent.

Writers, particularly, rarely avoid writing about the people they are intimate with. So, do we have a responsibility to ask our subjects’ permission to publish material about them, even if fictionalised?

And can’t we just be satisfied with writing something down? Why do we need to go and publish the stuff?

Can there really ever be an ethical code of practice for artists?

Gabrielle Carey made the interesting comment about her latest book, Waiting Room: A Memoir — that she kept it in her bottom drawer for several years before publishing it. Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing.

I do my best to write now, think later. If I think too much about what so-and-so will feel, I’d never write anything at all. But I do find myself regularly minimising the document on my computer when my partner walks into the room.

I have sometimes worried about what my kids will think of The Divided Heart, should they ever read it. I hope they see it as a record of how much I love them, as much as anything else. But there’s a risk they’ll have a very different view, and I have to live with that.

My seven-year-old son is very aware of the book and recently drew a picture of me with a bubble from my mouth saying: “The Devided Heart” and then an arrow to a drawing of a book, with “Mama’s book” written above it. I felt kind of wretched that he was celebrating my book without being old enough to really grasp its theme.

Fellow blogger Elisabeth has a fascinating discussion of the 'writing about family' theme on her blog, Sixth in Line, and notes that it is closely related to that other big area of literary controversy: the fact vs fiction debate.

You may all have heard about the furore in Britain over Julie Myerson’s book about her 15-year-old son's drug addiction, which led her to throw him out of the house. You can watch a painfully squirmy BBC interview with her here, in which Myerson mostly works to justify her decision to publish the book — only really digging herself in further.

Gabrielle Carey made an interesting comment in response, that instead of Myerson trying to justify her decision on other grounds, why can't she just say "I write — and that’s what I do?”


Ariel said...

I've been pondering this very question ... and was thinking about doing a post quite similar to this, vis a vis the whole Myerson debacle.

It's a tricky one - and, as you say, very hard to judge when your kids are small and haven't yet grasped what it means to have their private lives made public. My nine-year-old was recently very chuffed when a piece I wrote about him was published in an anthology, though I had been quite worried when he read it. I hope he feels the same way later.

On the other hand, there are family members and situations I would love to write about and can't. Frustrating.

I'm always minimising my screen when my husband comes into the room while I'm writing ...

Thanks for this. I'm curious to watch the discussion here. (ANd sorry for such a long comment!)

Damon said...

I'm not decided on this.

But I suspect my position's something like this: we write whatever we want, but be prepared for what we might sour or destroy.

And perhaps I'm a bit utilitarian about this: our work must be more important that whatever it is we ruin. The Mandarins. for example, was worth the irritated nerves of De Beauvoir's friends.

But If we're writing mediocre crap, perhaps we're just better off being kind and generous (and this goes for critics, too).

But, as I said: I'm undecided.

katiecrackernuts said...

A difficult one indeed. I write in my diary about the family, as I am sure we all do (and I find myself editing there too). A lot of my writing about this so called thing called life is in my head. We have a situation in my household at the moment that is fodder for fiction (as much living with teens is). I'll follow the link to the Myerson interview when I have a little more time. Thanks. I'll be watching to see what others write.

little red hen said...

Oh yes this is quite a mine field... apart from my blog I'm not a writer and I've managed to offend a family member unthinkingly with an off hand comment that I didn't even really mean! Oh well that will teach her to take me too seriously!!! As a reader, rather than a writer you often find elements of a character that you can relate, or situations, so I can imagine that it would mean there could be some pretty paranoid family members in your family tree if you were a writer who may read more into the character than you meant there to be!
I know my kids are generally pretty chuffed when I use them as subjects, even loosely for my art work.

D said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D said...

I just deleted my original comment because of a type-oh.



This is an interesting topic. My mother took her own life two.5 years ago and I used to write about it. I was cornered by an ignorant family member for writing about my mother on my blog. I deleted it.

Now I don't write about it any more. Not even on my computer. I wanted to write about it more, but I stopped. I stopped because, even though she isn't here, if I were ever to focus and aim to publish my account of her story I fear my tarnishing of her memory.

Yet ... I feel as silenced by her memory as I did by her presence. I wonder and fear that one day this (inner) dam will burst. And though I fear it, I suspect I have nothing to fear and more to give by writing about my dear, poor mother's dilemma.

Truths hurts. Written words last forever. Truths can

Thanks for posting this topic. It's reminded me to remember to, at the very least, not bury My Truth along with my mother and her lies.

Toodle Pip

Rachel Power said...

That is such a massive thing to be absorbing, on every level I imagine. Especially as a mother yourself. There is such a blurred line between our lives and those around us, and while writing about other people's lives is tricky territory, surely we all have a right to our own stories, and our own experience. Don't we? Particularly when it comes to our own mothers, where the relationship is so intense and internal--so much a part of us. I can imagine that writing about a mother's suicide, for example, might be vital in coming to grips with such a trauma. And it is when we are at our most truthful and open, that we really touch others and give them a deep sense of solace and relief. In this way, to write is a hugely generous act. I always loved Anais Nin's statement that if you are willing to turn the same cold hard lense on yourself that you use in describing others, then it can only be seen as fair. I hope at some point, D., the need overtakes the fear.

kayoz said...

This is such an interesting topic, and I think becoming more and more - well, relevant and maybe irrelevant too, in this age of blogging. Will Gen Zs wonder why we make such a fuss about it, or will they revert back to more privacy?

I am beginning to be conscious about writing on my blog about Liam, who is now seven. Dawn ( said that some of her 11-year-old son's friends read blogs, including (bizarrely) the mommy-blogs. I have avoided almost completely writing about my sister's infertility and (completely) about my Dad's cancer - despite the fact that especially the latter has of course had an effect on me. But they are both private people and I've respected that.

However, that isn't to say I always will. In a life writing unit I did at uni a few years back I wrote about the period in my life when my parents separated (I was 6). I interviewed both parents for the project as well as both my siblings, and let all of them read it before I submitted it (not that I promised to change anything) (and note, this was submission for assessment at uni, not for publication). My Dad got upset about the inclusion of his (long past) girlfriend's real name and thought perhaps he shouldn't have talked to me about it at all. I pointed out that actually I hadn't included *anything* that he had told me that I hadn't already known.

I have never submitted the piece for publication, but some small damage was done to my relationship with my father. It made me realise that if I ever did write candidly about that time - or about anything to do with my father - it would likely be very detrimental to our relationship. And for the moment, that's enough to stop me. But it also saddens me, because if I wait until he had died, I will not longer have his perspective to add to my truths.

Anyway, long and rambley post and I really should be studying. But thanks for making me think some.

D said...

Thank you, in many ways.


B said...

This is such an interesting topic. I write about my family in my journal, as I feel much of what I am comes back to them. I've been thinking about writing certain things in my blog, but I don't want to hurt them. At the same time, this makes me feel that I can't let go of many feelings... it's a difficult one.
PS. Thanks for following!

D said...

I've posted further thoughts on this post @

Thanks D

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