In his popular memoir, “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” David Sedaris analogizes his work as a memoirist to that of a garbage man discarding the family trash. The job stinks. Sedaris writes that his sister has become afraid to share any anecdotes from her life for fear that she will end up in his stories, being judged by him. “In this country, once something’s out of your mouth, it’s garbage,” she quips as they ride toward her ramshackle apartment. Later, while his sister is preoccupied, Sedaris compulsively cleans the garbage out of her kitchen sink: “I fill the sink with hot, soapy water, roll up my shirtsleeves and start saving her life.” It is clear that Sedaris does not have his sister’s permission to “pick up” her garbage or examine the elements of her life that she would rather keep hidden. The author is doing exactly what his sister asks him not to do: He is making judgments about her life and attempting to alter it—and, given the popularity of his work, is doing so on a rather public stage.
In his satires, David Sedaris uses his family members as characters to create entertainment, but he also uses these characters to make statements about the problems he sees in an attempt to fix them. For Sedaris, as for many writers of creative nonfiction, extracting an issue and getting it out into the open are the first steps toward catharsis. In an introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of “The Liars’ Club,” Mary Karr writes about exposing her family’s stories: “As certain facts that had once scalded all our insides and almost decimated our clan got broadcast a thousand times, we got oddly used to them. Call it aversion therapy, but the events seeped in a little deeper. We healed more—though that had never been the point—through exposure.” The act of publishing family drama can thus be simultaneously selfish and altruistic.
Too, in his defense, Sedaris remarks that there is a distinct ethical difference between someone offering you a perfectly good article of trash for reuse and stealing something out of a person’s garbage can without his or her permission—but in the case of family, it’s not always clear which category research falls into. A writer who interviews a public figure, notebook and tape recorder in hand, is clearly researching a story, and the subject should consider himself forewarned; it is harder to maintain constant wariness toward a brother. Should family members of writers have to censor their dinner conversations for fear of finding them reproduced and dissected in a book?
Perhaps inevitably, nonfiction writers who use members of their families as their subjects reveal information that the family would prefer to keep private. For this reason, when writers use family members as subjects, it frequently affects their familial relationships and daily interactions.
Furthermore, there are always conflicting loyalties at work when nonfiction writers sit down to write about their families. No one can be completely objective about family: Even the best of writers can grapple with vengeance, pride and deep-rooted insecurities when writing about a relative.
Indeed, in some cases a writer’s strong feelings about his family— even strongly negative feelings—can provide a great story, especially if the writer has inside access to information not available to scholars or other writers. In “Sweet and Low,” Rich Cohen dissects both his family and its artificial sweetener business. Cohen, who has been disinherited from the family, shamelessly investigates his relatives and writes an unflattering account of their public and private actions. Cohen clearly has little loyalty to his family and next to no respect for his relatives’ privacy. But in a narrative that exposes many dirty secrets about how the moguls of the fake-sugar industry came into power, these are not necessarily bad motivations to have. As a renounced heir, Cohen hasn’t got much to lose and, therefore, tells all.
Most writers don’t have the arguable luxury of having been disinherited, however, and so they have to be more careful about the stories they tell. In some cases, this means letting family members vet drafts of work and giving them veto power. Other writers publish memoirs thinly veiled as novels, though rarely is the veil thick enough to be convincing. But in any event, writers must think carefully about the value and consequences—because there almost certainly will be consequences—of turning their family members into characters.