The ethics of writing about other people

Whenever I speak in public about autobiographical nonfiction or simply give a reading of my own work, I am invariably asked in the Q-and-A session: How should one deal with writing about one’s family members or intimates? How does one balance the need to tell one’s story with the pain others might feel in being exposed this way? The assumption is that since I have written candidly about family and friends in the past, I must know the answer to this difficult question. In fact, I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer or a single set of rules. I continue to find the matter perplexing. I have to keep making up my mind on a case-by-case basis. And sometimes I get it wrong.

Let’s first examine the common approaches to this dilemma. On the one hand, it is sometimes asserted that you have the right to tell your own story any way you want, and if you happen to offend some people by doing so, they’re welcome to write their own stories. This strikes me as wishful thinking and a rationalization. We are always responsible for any pain our actions might cause, and there is no “get out of jail free” card, given by some professional writer or teacher, that will relieve you of the burden. That does not mean you shouldn’t go ahead and write the possibly offending material. It simply means that if you do, be prepared to accept the guilt and don’t try to weasel out of it by appealing to authorial license.

On the other hand, it is sometimes asserted, even by authorities as eminent as Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm, that writers are inherently betrayers who will backstab everyone around them for a good line: If you go to bed with dogs, you wake up with fleas, and if you hang around writers enough, you will be traduced. This viewpoint strikes me, also, as an exaggeration. In fact, writers may be no more given to betrayal than those in other professions, such as politicians, undertakers, high school principals, florists. … Many times, I have decided to hold back from using juicy material when I thought it would damage the reputation of the person in question or deeply offend him or her.

Complicating the dilemma is that one does not always know what will cause offense. I have written fairly critically about people who seemed to have no problem with it. I have written somewhat negatively about people who ignored the main substance of my critique but pounced with outrage on some picayune detail they thought I got wrong. I have written glowingly about people who took it amiss because they did not like the idea of having a walk-on cameo in my (center of the universe) story when they regarded themselves as the center of the universe or because they simply did not like the presumption that I could take their measure in a few paragraphs, regardless of how positively I ending up doing so. I have given offense to certain people by not writing about them when I wrote (critically) about their colleagues.

The issue at bottom is this: Who am I to judge anyone? A fair enough question. I’m someone who calls himself a writer, and if I write about my life, I am, inevitably, writing about others because no man is an island. The main rules I give myself in doing so are these: 1) Never write to settle scores (enter into the other person’s point of view and be as fair-minded as possible), and 2) Write as beautifully as possible because well-wrought prose invites its own forgiveness—from you yourself, if not from the offended party.

When I first began writing about my family, I changed the names of my siblings but not my parents, reasoning, I suppose, that my parents were elderly and their lives were nearly over, whereas my siblings were still in the midst of the struggle. My father (the scapegoat of my family) was pleased that I had written about him at all even though the portrait was by no means entirely flattering. My mother was touched that I’d written about her as a young woman and said, “Now I know that you love me.” (Typical of my mother that she would have ever doubted it.) When a second memoir-essay of mine appeared several years later, however, she was shocked and said it was all untrue. I asked her what I’d gotten wrong. She paused and said the essay wasn’t exactly a lie but she was no longer like the young woman I’d portrayed, and why did I have to keep writing about that unhappy period (i.e., my childhood)? She forbade me ever to write about her again. I refused, saying that, by this time, she was a lively character whom I could render easily on the page, and I would make no guarantees. She said she would still come to my book party but would tell everyone I was her nephew, not her son.

Granted, writing about one’s family or intimates can be an aggressive, vindictive act, but it can also be a way of communicating something to loved ones you never could before—a “gift” of the truth of your feelings. It can poison the air or clear it. In the end, my mother accepted what I had written about her—as did two of my siblings, but not the third, who has still not forgiven me after 20 years. And I didn’t think I even treated her so shabbily on the page, nor did I use her real name. In retrospect, I can see that particular sibling relationship was due to crash and burn, regardless.

Some writers get around the problem by showing their manuscripts to the people being written about and asking if they object to anything. I understand the scrupulosity of this position, but I could never do it myself. Having made the decision to go ahead and write about someone, and having done it to my satisfaction, I don’t want to give that person such power over me! Once you invite people to make changes on your unpublished manuscript, they will. Besides, it’s my moral dilemma, not theirs. Giving them the option to revise would be like shifting the ethical burden onto them.

Some creative writing professors advise their students that if the material seems too explosive, they should try writing it as fiction. I don’t see this as a solution since the person in question will most likely recognize the character based on him and still take offense. In short, the quandary remains obdurate; there are no easy answers.

Here, however, is one little trick that works for me: I like to tell myself that I am not a nice guy. In doing so, I prepare myself in advance for the anger that may be directed against me and the guilt that I may have to endure for hurting someone else’s feelings. (The funny thing is that, by and large, I am a nice guy, but I need the fiction that I’m not in order to sustain me in the act of writing.)

My final recommendations are:

Befriend only people who are too poor to hire lawyers to sue you.

If you plan to write about friendship, make lots of friends, because you are bound to lose a few.

For the same reason, try to come from a large family.

About the Author

Phillip Lopate

Phillip Lopate's nonfiction books include essay collections (Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body); film criticism (Totally Tenderly Tragically); an urbanist meditation (Waterfront); and, most recently, Notes on Sontag.

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