The Ethics of Writing About Family: Laura’s Dilemma

laura.and.mom.fixed.by.jan copy This past March, as those of you following my blog already know, my partner Karyn and I took my 86-year-old mother, who is frail and suffers from dementia, on a trip from California to Florida so she could see her last surviving sibling one final time. The two sisters hadn’t seen each other in seven years and neither or them thought they’d ever see each other again, so the trip was definitely an act of kindness, a mission of mercy—one that was extremely gratifying for everyone involved.

The trip went well, my mother was a trooper, and I can’t imagine a more emotional experience than witnessing the reunion of these two old sisters, the last of their generation—or five days later, watching them say goodbye for the last time.

When I decided to take the trip, I thought I was doing it for my mother and my aunt, but now, I realize I did it for myself as well. The experience unexpectedly transformed me: my capacity for compassion grew, my love for my mother deepened, and my own perception of myself as a family member who can “show up” increased dramatically.

These are all great things—and they’re things I feel grateful for. But that’s not what I want to write about today.

What I want to write about today is not the trip, but the fact that I chose to write about it. And I didn’t simply chronicle it for my family. I decided to write it for you—my readers—and to publish it, day by day, as it was unfolding, on my blog.

I knew I was in universal territory. Most of us have elderly relatives. And if we don’t die first, we, too, will grow old. Our bodies will decline, we’ll lose our memories, our mobility, and the flexibility of our minds; we’ll become vulnerable and dependent on the mercy and kindness of others. This is the human condition. This is something we all face. So as a writer, I knew I had material that would strike a universal chord. I had a story that would move people, a story worth telling.

But I was ambivalent about blogging something so intimate. It wasn’t until I started taking notes and pictures, until the visit started unfolding before me, that I knew I wanted to share it—-at least the writer in me did. But what about the daughter and the niece? That’s where things got sticky.

Because you see, I didn’t tell my aunt and uncle or my mother that I was blogging our trip.

For you to understand my decision, I need to fill you in on some family history. Thirty years ago, when I was 27, I remembered being sexual abused by my grandfather, the father of my mother and my aunt. I told my mother, expecting sympathy, and instead sent shock waves of horror (at me, not at my grandfather) throughout my family. Three years later, Ellen Bass and I published The Courage to Heal, a healing guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse. Of its 600+ pages, a few dealt with my own sexual abuse and recovery. The Courage to Heal became a bestseller and a touchstone for millions of incest survivors. My private pain suddenly became extremely public—and I spent the next several years speaking, being on national TV, writing more books about healing, and unexpectedly becoming the public face of incest in America. I was the poster child for healing from sexual abuse.

My mother and her side of the family felt humiliated and outraged by my disclosure and this public sharing of our family’s pain. I was furious, too, and hurt by their denial. This led to a painful stand off: I wanted my family to believe and support me; they wanted me to recant. We didn’t speak for years.

It was only when I gave birth to my son, twenty-one years ago, that things started to thaw, first with my mother, and later, with the rest of her family. By the time our youngest was born 17 years ago, my mother and I were well on the road to reconciliation. I documented our journey in my book, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again.

At the core of my reconciliation with my mother is that we agreed to disagree. I reached a point where I didn’t need her validation. She reached the point where she didn’t need me to recant. And we were able to gradually forge a new relationship that wasn’t contingent on agreeing about what happened when I was a child.

As my relationship with my mother healed, other family relationships were rekindled. Now, more than 30 years after my revelations rocked my family, I have re-established positive relationships with almost all of them. These relationships stand on a new equilibrium based on contemporary, shared experiences. And part of that equilibrium relies on an unspoken, understood agreement. We do not discuss my grandfather.

I am comfortable with this arrangement; after three decades of healing, incest is just one of many threads in the tapestry of my life. It’s in the deep background now, and I have no need to talk about it. The fact that many of my relatives have never been able to accept my truth no longer stings or bothers me. I need nothing from my family except for them to be exactly who they are.

That’s the back story.

And that’s why I wasn’t sure about blogging my trip. If I were to write about this family reunion, I knew that for it to be meaningful, for it to be more than just a sweet saccharine story, I needed to include the context—the fact that I had been estranged from my aunt and uncle in the past. That back story was essential. It needed to be there, even if I only mentioned it in a single paragraph. But for me to put it there, I had to once again mention the elephant in the room—the incest.

My choice to include this part of our shared history in my account didn’t come from a place of anger, entitlement, or revenge—I am decades past those feelings. I feel nothing but fondness and compassion for my elderly relatives and I knew it would be easy for me to write about them from a place of love. Yet I was sure if I didn’t tell the whole story, my words wouldn’t ring true.

I also knew that mentioning our past history would deeply upset my aunt and uncle, and because of that, I never disparage my grandfather in front of them. I have no personal reason to do so anymore. My reason for referencing him in my account (as well as the estrangement my revelations caused) was to create a better, truer story. And that was my dilemma. And it’s what led me to write and publish the story of the reunion without telling my family. Just writing those words makes my stomach squirm. These are not easy choices. They never are.

I feel less conflicted about my decision where my mother is concerned. I have written and published about her for decades, and she and I have processed the fact that I am a writer, and the things I’ve written about her, for years. My mother has been both outraged and simultaneously proud of what I’ve published. She read every word of the book I wrote about us, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again, and when she finished reviewing it, she asked me to make a couple of (minor) changes which I did. I also gave her the opportunity to include her own perspective on our relationship, in her own words, right in the body of the book.

And just a year ago, I sat down with my mother on her flowered couch and said, “Someday, I’d like to tell the story of us.”

“Go ahead, darling,” she told me smiling, “It had a happy ending.”

Aside from this tacit permission she gave me to write about her, my relationship with my mother is primal to me. It is my core material as a memoir writer, material I can hardly ignore if I want to continue to write.

But my aunt and uncle? My relationship with them feels far more fragile and the ethical line feels more blurry.

What I’m grappling with here—-and what you will grapple with if you publish memoir—-are my conflicting responsibilities to myself as writer, to my readers, and to the people in my life.

Ironically, I’ve received more of an outpouring from readers who were moved by this reunion story than I have for anything I’ve published in the past ten years. Readers wrote back, sharing with me the stories of the old people in their lives, the trips they took—-or didn’t take-—with elderly relatives. People sent my posts to their friends and urged me to expand my story into a book. And largely, I think that was due to the fact, that it’s a story we all share and that I wrote it with love.

As a writer, this is what my lifework is about. This is what I do best. It’s who I am as a writer. I’m not a novelist or a fiction writer. I write about my life and I write from the deepest, truest place I can reach, and it’s the truth and grit and honesty of my writing that is the hallmark of my work. And consistently, over more than three decades, my words have inspired and moved people.

That’s the kind of writer I am.

And now, I’m also the kind of writer who wrote an intimate story without the permission of the people I was writing about. Will they ever read my blog? Unlikely. Will they ever know I told the story? I hope not.

But what if they do? What if they find out and read it? What if they come to me feeling angry, hurt and betrayed?

Then what I will say to my relatives is this: It’s hard to be related to a writer. I know it’s hard and I’m sorry. But being a writer is who I am; it’s how I shine out into the world. The person who wrote about you without telling you is the same person who made the trip possible, the same person who facilitated your reunion, the same person who made a wonderful slide show and shared it with the family, the same person who’s caring for my mother, and who created a picture book so you could relive and remember this final visit between these sisters. The same person—me—your daughter, your niece, your cousin—did all those things. And all of them were a genuine expression of who I am. I did them out of love. I did them out of gratitude. I did them so I’d remember what happened. And yes, I admit it, I also did them because I’m a writer and telling stories is what I do. I wanted people to read it. And that, too, is part of who I am. I hope and pray that you can stretch to love all of me-—so that I don’t lose you all over again.

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