Writing about family – Whose story is it?

My mother found a lot of ways to refer to her four daughters during the decades she wrote her weekly newspaper column. Often weLog picture - color were an undifferentiated brood—the girls. When we were specifically called out it might be by birth order, year in school, size, or even Girl Scout rank. So at various times, I appeared in print as Daughter Number Three, Miss Fourth Grade, the Medium-Sized One, or Our Cadette.

Mom was careful to not include anything too embarrassing, and our names didn’t appear until we were adults—and then only with permission and for events such as an engagement. Nevertheless, we were still local celebrities of a very minor kind. Our friends knew more about what we were doing than might have been entirely comfortable, and when I met a guy in college who grew up in a neighboring town he immediately said, “Oh! You’re one of the girls we read about in the newspaper every week!”

Even this small level of notoriety was more than some newspaperwomen wanted for their families. Ellen Goodman never wrote confessional columns about her family. She explained, “I wouldn’t write a cute little column about my daughter getting her period. You know what I mean? There are certain things one doesn’t do in life.”

Many years earlier, Vivian Castleberry wrote a column called “Family Style” for the Dallas Times Herald.  She knew it was making a difference to her readers, but she stopped writing when it hit too close to home:

I had many letters from readers who said, in effect, “have you been looking through my window?”It really hit a remarkable nerve in this community about the kinds of things that happen to people who live in houses with children. And I quit it only when one of my children came home one day and felt singled out at school. Her teacher had said to her, “Are you the daughter of the woman who writes about you all the time?” And I thought, “uh oh, I will not put that onus on my children.” And so I stopped doing the column.

This issue is even more complicated for family bloggers today. Concerns about violence and pedophilia have escalated. The newsprint of yesteryear has been joined by photos and videos. A post on a small circulation blog can go viral. And, as has been so often noted, the internet is forever.

Many writers have grappled with this issue. Lisa Belkin confesses that she struggles “with the line between helpful introspective sharing of my own parenting, and blatant invasion of my children’s privacy.” Linda Sharps notes that decisions about what to publish get more complicated as kids get older. Sarah Kendzior and Hanna Rosin take several bloggers to task for writing posts which they believe blatantly violate their children’s right to privacy. Says Kendzior, “It is so hard to be a mother, they say. But it is far harder, one suspects, to be the child of a mommy blogger.”

Thus, when we write about our families, we face difficult choices … do we write anonymously? Do we share names of our children? Do we post pictures? And, perhaps most important, are there aspects of family life that should simply not be included in our writing?

These concerns aren’t just limited to columns and blogs about our kids. Memoirists, novelists, essayists, and writers of many stripes are confronted with challenges of how to understand and write about those close to them—especially family members. A recent series of columns about grief and memory by Olivia Judson tracks the complex emotions she felt as she went through the contents of her father’s house after his death. In one piece, To Read or Not to Read, she recounts her confrontation with the large trunk in the attic that held her mother’s diaries, closed off for more than two decades. Though she remembered her mother reading from them years ago, she says “it’s one thing to listen to someone read from her own diaries, and another to read them uninvited. There’s something sneaking about it. A sense of violation.”

Dad book coverI sympathize. After my father died, as I worked on my book based on the letters he wrote to his parents during World War II, I often felt that I was eavesdropping on conversations I perhaps shouldn’t hear. And when it came to writing about the letters, the young man who wrote them, and the father he became, I faced dilemmas of what to tell. Could I be honest about his story and honor his memory in appropriate ways? Could I appreciate what my good friend Bud Goodall would have called my “narrative inheritance” without spending that inheritance in profligate ways? I face these issues again as I write about my mother. Before she died, I told her about the book I planned to write, but I can’t ask her about whether she’s comfortable with what I say.

So whose story is it? The mommy blogger’s kid? My dad’s? My mom’s?  As I tell the tale, does the story become mine? And when it’s written and in the world, does it belong to the reader?

I don’t have answers to these questions that I wrestle with. But I’m very serious about the responsibility I take on as a writer—and especially a writer about my own family. There are many choice points about what to tell and what not to tell. Each of these choice points shapes the story—but also shapes the lives or memory of the people we tell about. Stories matter. So we need to take all of these choices seriously.

3 thoughts on “Writing about family – Whose story is it?”

  1. A great blog post. I don’t have children but I understand where you’re coming from. There’s a thin line between sharing and privacy violation and you have to be careful not to cross that. I think that probably goes with all people in our lives too.

    1. This is definitely an issue that goes beyond family. And it is especially difficult in the internet age. The problem, of course, is that people may define that “thin line” very differently.

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