Almost always, writing memoir is not just about the writer’s personal story; often it is also about the writer’s family and their stories. Whether the memories are stupid or stupendous, family is embedded, much like a story about a snake is about its skin as much as its tongue. So, what are the ethics of writing about family? If everyone in the family present like good little boy and girl scouts, the ethics are easy—just be nice. If some in the family present as vipers and vixens, the ethics are harder—just be careful.
I recently went to a book festival where three very good writers presented new books about family fractures, failures, and destitution by the bushel basket. One author said she kept all the family secrets secret until the book flashed on Amazon. Another said he told his family what he was writing and managed to keep his throat from being slit until Amazon spilled the beans. The third said he told his family only the good stuff and left town on a book tour when the book popped out, as though he had nothing to do with it.
From this small sample, you can see the ethical contours of writing about your own family. At the upper curve, there is the need to balance truth with fairness. Just because it’s true doesn’t make it fair. Revealing the truth is always more damning than keeping the lie. So truth alone is not much help. Fairness comes closer. If it’s both true and fair, the family revealer can claim a higher ground.
Another contour is early advance warning to the family and the chance to rebut or defend. If the revealed secret was true, fair, forewarned, and not denied, then it claims a sort of ethical height, maybe even a pinnacle.
But because it’s family, there are other ethical precepts to consider.
How about harm in a mortal way. Harm that doesn’t just bleed, it becomes gangrenous, which results in amputation. Loss of self. Loss of being part of. Loss of any chance of a future as family.
If the revelations wreck and degrade, then truth, fairness, and forewarning do not trump bloodletting.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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