Writers who publish memoir face the ethical and legal dilemmas of exposing personal details about family. We all have stories and since we don’t live in a vacuum, these stories involve other people. The main question/dilemma becomes how can I share my version of the truth without jeopardizing family relationships?
Joy Castro’s book, Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, is an anthology of twenty-five memoirists who share their stories of writing about their families. Their responses are as wide and varied as their individual personalities and circumstances.
However, a common question that confronts most memoirists is how will my family react to my truth? The key question I asked myself as I wrote my memoir is can I do justice to my version of the truth while respecting family boundaries?
My Story…I started journaling in high school as a way of understanding myself and how I fit into the world, particularly as I faced challenges. I continued to journal throughout my divorce and life as a single parent into my early thirties. When I walked out on my husband with two small children in tow because at that point his drinking was ruining our lives, I thought I was leaving addiction behind. Sadly, I was wrong when I discovered my fourteen-year-old son Brian started drinking heavily. Addiction had been not an issue in my family of origin. The cycle began when I decided to marry Ed, the father of my children who turned out to be an alcoholic.
The thought of Brian turning into his father immobilized me and I once again turned to my journal to ease the pain and gain some clarity about what was happening. As time went on and Brian continued to drink his way into his twenties and thirties, the need to write became so great that I started taking writing courses and began to write vignettes. I sent him the stories to read.
“I had to put it away Mom while I was on the subway and wait until I got back to my apartment so I could sob uncontrollably,” Brian told me the first time he read my writing.
I was finding my voice in the midst of the chaos and he was hearing me. Somewhere along the way, a seed was planted in my mind and heart to tell our story. But he was in the throes of his active addiction and I was still trying to find my way through it all. I knew nothing about storytelling, narrative arcs, themes, etc. I didn’t even know what my story was at that point but I had a fierce underlying hope that things would get better and I kept taking courses and writing…for years.
Here’s what I’ve learned about the pitfalls and rewards of revealing family over the twenty years of writing my upcoming memoir, Just the Way He Walked: A Mother’s Story of Hope and Healing.
The Pitfalls…I am very clear that I am first a mother then a writer. I would never do anything knowingly to jeopardize my relationship with my children. I had to think long and hard about how exposing painful details about my children might affect them.
And yet, how can I write my truth authentically without sharing the dark and ugly side of addiction?
I didn’t know if I could ever publish the story but I kept writing and sharing it with my children. I had to know that they could handle the exposure. William Faulkner once said, “A writer’s only obligation is to his art”. But I knew my main obligation was to my children and I gave them veto power while hoping,in time, they would accept my version of our story.
“What if Brian relapses because of the exposure?” Leigh Ann asked me one day. She was fine with the story but had major concerns about her brother. Then Brian chimed in with “ Mom, I really don’t want people to know about all the stupid things I did.”
I had a lot of reason to pause and reflect on what impact my story would have on my children. Then I did the only thing that made sense to me. I kept writing and sharing. One day, I made a decision. I would not publish this story unless it felt right. If I did publish it, it would have to be for the right reasons. I began to trust in the process.
It is this intention…to share my hope that recovery is possible …for the parents of addicted children that motivated me to keep writing.
Despite all this care I have taken to involve my children in the process, I fully expect that readers will confront me with questions about why I decided to expose my children and what impact it will have on them.
I can only say that I’ve taken a calculated risk to break the silence and reach out to others who suffer similar pain. And if our story touches someone else in a healing and hopeful way, then the risk will be worth it.
The Rewards…Addiction is shrouded in silence and shame. The guilt I carried around because my son was addicted did nothing to help the situation. Writing about it helped me to step outside myself and see the role I played in enabling my son. It helped me to understand and clarify the insidious nature of the disease and its impact on myself and on my children.
Sharing the vignettes with my children opened up a dialogue that continues to this day and has made way for more love, forgiveness and serenity in our lives. And over time both my children became more comfortable with the story. “The more I talk about it, the easier it gets.” Brian said recently.
The idea that the cycle of addiction started and ended with us gives us a sense of empowerment that we played a part in how the story ends. We broke the cycle and are now all free to live our lives on our terms. Addiction will always be lurking in the corners ready to pounce but together we’ve learned how to gird ourselves against its ominous presence in our lives.
For me, writing about my family has been a rocky road that has leveled off with persistence and purpose. The story that has nagged at me for years is getting ready to find its way in the world.
Involving my children in the process, being open to their suggestions and feedback, communicating my intention in writing this story has helped pave the way to its publication. They have given me permission to use their first names but there are instances that I changed other names and places to protect privacy.
My greatest hope is that the people who need it the most will find it and it will give them hope to find their own way into the light of recovery from addiction.
In a poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty called “Why Bother?” he says: “Because right now, there is someone out there with a wound the exact shape of your words.”
How do you feel writing about family? Your thoughts, experiences and reflections are welcomed.
Selected Resources for Writing About Family:
Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro (2013)
“Writing About Family and Friends in Memoir: Nine Key Questions” by Lisa Romeo on Memoir Matters: Lit Chat blog.
“Memoir or Fiction: Should You Hide the Details of Your Story in a Novel?” by Lisa Shulman on Lisa Shulman blog.
“Fear and Writing About My Father: Memoir Lesson by Susan Weidener on The Women’s Writing Circle Blog.