Whose Story Are We Allowed To Tell?

That’s not to say there are no ethics to the memoir or that we are allowed by the genre’s necessary disclosures to be cavalier or cruel. But it does imply a certain ruthlessness, which the memoirist must apply to him or herself as much as anyone. Memoir is not about revenge, but it is about revelation . . . – David L. Ulin

I got the call on a weekday morning (it could have been a Tuesday). Her voice was even, as usual.  “He’s on the couch. He’s been there all night in the fetal position, trying to figure out how to position his truck on the train track so that it will look like an accident.”  She didn’t want me to come. “No, stay at school” – I was a junior in college.  “We’re on our way to see a psychiatrist now.”6283320700

This is how I learned about my father’s severe depression.

My father is a private person. He doesn’t share his life easily – just the idea of Facebook makes him nervous – and yet, when I wrote about my struggle in my essay “Working Wood,” he read it . . . and liked it.  Because, see, I wrote about my experience with his illness. I didn’t try to tell his story – I just told my own.

This is the way of all memoir.  The only story we can honestly tell is the one we know in our own heads.  And yet, of course, our stories weave into the stories of others, and so we must be aware.  We must know – as Ulin says, “to accept that by pursuing family stories, we are always co-opting those we love, compromising their privacy as we compromise our own.” This is an acceptable thing, a good thing even. We are allowed to tell any story that affects us, as long as we acknowledge that these same stories also affect other people.

When we silence ourselves because other people are involved in our stories, we not only deny our own truth but in a very real way we are saying that other people do not affect us, that their love or their loathing or their indifference has not shaped our lives. When we pretend that we can only write stories that affect us, we either don’t write at all, or we act as if we live solitary lives untouched by others.  This is, of course, a lie.  We are all intertwined, and thus, our stories are interwoven, too. I can only tell my story, but that tale will necessarily tie in my family, my friends, and even the incidental people I meet at the Food Lion on a Monday night.

Of course, as Ulin also says, we are not to be brazen or heartless in our writing – our goal is not revenge or setting the record straight – it’s discovery, a journey to find what we feel and know and, thus, believe. Writing is like a great conversation with a dear friend – it allows me to find my path to some understanding.  When we say we can’t write about something because it involves someone else, we are isolating ourselves with that experience, and that isolation can be very painful.

Every writer has to determine our choices, of course – the subjects we can take on, the ones we aren’t ready to tackle yet, the stories that will – as fairly as we tell them – hurt relationships we cannot bear to lose.  There is no formula for what we should or should not share.

Yet, if we want to share, we do no wrong if we are honest and truthful to our own memories and if we know that these stories are just one of the many parallel threads that go through a single experience.  For it may be in the telling that we find a new path through.

My father is sick again, sick enough to be on the couch in the fetal position.  It terrifies me.  Yet, I have written this story before, the one where I acknowledge all the ignorant things I said, the one where I learn to stand by, to be close, to let him lean. I have learned this story, and even in my fear, there is peace. I know his story, and I know how to tell my own.

What do you think of the idea that memoirists need to be a little ruthless about telling stories?



  • http://www.riverofthoughts.com Christine Niles

    Important thoughts…I struggle with this more than anything else as people encourage me to write about our adoption story. I am terrified that I will mis-place the line between my story and the story of my children. So I do not write about this. I write about crate-training puppies or about the zombie apocalypse. But I can’t write the truth while they are still vulnerable.

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      I hear you, Christine, and I cannot imagine how challenging that fear is. My question is one that I don’t at all expect you to answer here, but one that I’d ask you to consider . . . what are you afraid will happen if you tell your story? If you aren’t trying to tell their perspective, how could you possibly tread on their stories? What if you simply wrote the story for you and then evaluated if you could share it now or need to wait? I ask because it sounds like YOU might need to write this story, even if no one else reads it right now.

      • http://www.riverofthoughts.com Christine Niles

        That’s a question I’ve actually considered a LOT. There’s a disconnect between what I understand to be their reality, which informs how I parent them and offer support to them for healing, and what they perceive/remember from their history–perhaps more accurately, how they *choose* to remember it. That’s where the risk lies.

        I like your idea of writing it privately…because yes, I do need to write it.

        • http://www.andilit.com Andi

          I see. . . and yes, maybe with more years and time, they will come to be able to see your story as complementing theirs . . but teenagers are fragile, of course.

          I hope you do write it privately. :)

  • http://culturalsavage.com Aaron

    This is something I struggle with. I’m not worried so much about “stealing someone’s story”, but I am worried about changing or damaging the image of someone.

    Like, If I write honestly, with my voice, my inner feelings, thoughts, journey about my church wounds, will it hurt the reputation of some people that are good, but human? I don’t want to bad mouth anyone.

    Same with my wife. She has given me permission to write honestly about how her depression, anxiety, and sexual abuse effect our relationship. She has given me permission to tell this story I’m living… but I worry about people seeing her in a negative light because of my words.

    That is what I don’t know how to deal with. That’s why I stick to the “safe” topics of theology and ideas. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I know that if I let my story breathe my wounds will be shown and people will see why I’m hurt (and how I heal) and who has hurt me (and how many have failed to heal).

    But I agree with your post. I just don’t know how to be brave in this area of my writing.

  • http://www.andilit.com Andi

    So here’s my question for you to consider then, Aaron – what if people read your words about your own wounds and the pain your wife has experienced and find grace and healing in them? What if you found that? Your wife found that? Your son (in time) found that?

    My challenge to you is that you cannot control how people perceive you or other people. Maybe people perceive you poorly because you DON’T write certain things. . . your challenge is to write these stories well, to be sure you show that people are broken but still beautiful and still loved. If you do that, you have done your work. The rest is beyond your hands.

    I say write it, Aaron. Write it all.

    • http://culturalsavage.com Aaron

      Why you gotta be all challenging me to be honest to my words. 😉

      I hear you. It’s just scary. Plus, all the sermons about gossip and divisiveness and my grandmothers lectures about being polite keep ringing in my ears.

      But, you are right. I have to write it all.

  • http://marthaorlando.blogspot.com Martha Orlando

    If we write out of love and, as you’ve said here, understanding that our perceptions and experiences are our own, I think we can include difficult situations with regard to family and friends. It can be like walking a tightrope at times, and we have to know when something we wish to write should be held in check.
    Great post!

  • http://www.embon.com Steve Thomas

    There are consequences to being truthful.

    Hank was the judge at County Court. His rule was simple: if your newspaper was going to report any cases that came before the court, you had to publish all the cases. You weren’t allowed to neglect reporting that a major advertise;s son had been stopped for drunk driving with a woman not his wife in the car.

    The girl who ran around on Mondays collecting such news as that was sick, and the circulation manager was filling in. When she got to the hospital, though, the journal of newborns and ambulance runs that they always prepared for us wasn’t available; it turns out that they had someone out with the flu as well. My circulation manager was resourceful, and said she’d prepare the journal herself if they told her where the data was.

    It turns out that Hank had asked the hospital to omit his ambulance trip to be unpublished. He wasn’t well-liked, but he only had to serve one more term before retirement. Nobody wanted to run against him, because it’d be professional suicide if they lost; they has to appear before him.

    But he’d made two emergency trips to the hospital that week. One case could be indigestion, of course, but two? Three days after our paper appeared in mailboxes, five lawyers had filed to run for judge.

    There were other stories, delicious and true, that we never published. One nippy November morning, Beatrice had gone out on her front porch at 5 AM to fetch the morning newspaper. She had a towel around her head, but her bathrobe was in the laundry. Oh, well, there’s nobody going to see her at five AM, right?

    Next morning, she’s got her bathrobe on when she fetches the newspaper – and she barely has the front door closed when the phone is ringing, It’s the lady who lives across the street. “Did you decide that November is too cold to go naked?”

    He who hollars down the well
    All the news he knowto tell
    Soon will find himself missin’
    All the sources that once were his’n.

  • http://bradleyfinnerty.soup.io/?sessid=e496d29f80f4c1ebfbd73da210e4aeba Kristian

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked

    submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that
    over again. Anyways, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Thanks for reading, Kristian. Sorry about your comment though . . . appreciate you stopping by.