Unfortunate consequences: writing memoir about family members – Meg McGuire

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By Meg McGuire

Writing stories about family members brings up an array of ethical dilemmas and unforeseen consequences. The writer has to navigate deep, murky waters. She has to figure out what story is hers to tell and what the limits are to writing about loved ones, particularly a child. How does her story intersect with that of her family member and does she have a right to reveal a story they share?♥

As a memoirist, I grapple with this dilemma every day. I may want to write a story about my relationship with my son who has been challenged with bipolar disorder, yet at the same time, I am cautioned not to by the need to protect him. What judgment will I bring down upon him, upon me, upon us? What taboo will I break by speaking?

I try to make art out of our lived experiences but sometimes writing about those experiences has real life consequences. In When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams reminds us, “For a woman or a man to speak from the truth of their heart is to break taboo.”

In his article, “Things We Don’t Talk About,” Aaron Raz Link writes, “A writer working with family materials stands in a liminal space where my story meets your story, meets the reader’s story, and becomes our story.” My story about my relationship with my son is intertwined with his story about his struggle to manage his mood swings. Is my act of writing about my son a betrayal of him? Some might say so. Even I have thought so at times. But Williams informs us that to speak from the truth in our heart is to break taboo. Speaking about mental illness in the family does break a taboo. Mental disorders are the only kind of illness that we, as a society, regularly respond to with handcuffs and incarceration instead of treatment and compassion.

I am encouraged when Link writes, “There are the stories powerful enough to shape our lives and our world, and they are often stories no one else has the power to tell. The only way to revise silence is to speak.”

Writing about family members is not without risk. How can it not be? Memoir writers are representing loved ones in shapes convenient to their own purpose but perhaps false to their image of themselves. Many memoirists have lost family members along the way.

Poet Honor Moore felt compelled to write the story of her relationship with her father, Paul Moore Jr., the Episcopal bishop of New York, soon after his death. The eldest of nine children, Moore wrote The Bishop’s Daughter, a memoir, not only about the defining issues of the time such as war, race, family and faith, but she also exposed the fact that her father was a secreted bisexual. She basically outed her father, which some of her siblings felt was unwarranted.

After The New Yorker published an excerpt from the memoir, three of her siblings wrote a letter blasting her for exposing their father’s “most fervently held private life” and “damaging” the legacy of both of their parents. But Moore wrote that his conflicts about his sexual nature had had a great influence on her growing up and when she found out about his bisexuality as an adult, it helped her understand her own bisexuality. She writes, “I came to understand that my own sexual development was inextricably tied up with my father’s complicated erotic life and I thought that story important for me to understand.” As a writer, Moore wrote, “understanding meant telling.” She does not wrestle overtly with the ethics of outing her father but felt that her own integrity was dependent upon her writing the truth.

For ten years, I have been writing a book about my relationship with my son to understand the complexity of his illness. When my agent submitted the manuscript to several publishers, one editor in particular, wrote, “Why is this mother telling this story? Why isn’t her son?” As if the mother’s experience was irrelevant. It is just as much my story as it is his — from a different point of view. Mental illness affects the whole family; perhaps more so for the mother who carried this developing bundle of dividing cells in her womb close to her heart.

What is important is that you write your story. Get it down; you won’t know whether you want to show it to anyone else until after you write it. Writing it will change you; in the best of circumstances, it may heal you.

You have some options to consider as you write about family members or friends:

1. Show the person what you have written but don’t show it to them mid-process. You may have changed your perception about them by the time you finish your piece. Never write to settle scores.

2. Change names and identifying details. Let them choose their pseudonyms.

3. Don’t tell the story until the person is dead. Of course, as Honor Moore found out with her siblings, that doesn’t necessarily mollify the survivors.

My favorite advice comes from Philip Lopate in his article, “On the Ethics of Writing about Others.”

1. Befriend only people who are too poor to hire lawyers to sue you.

2. If you plan to write about friendship, make lots of friends, because you are bound to lose a few.

3. For the same reason, try to come from a large family.

Meg McGuire is a mother, writer, psychotherapist and the author of five internationally published nonfiction books. She is an activist in mental health and criminal justice reform and teaches memoir in southern California.


1 Comment

  1. Lea

    December 11, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    This is exactly what I needed to read. Im pondering the idea of writing a memoir about my relationship with my mom and my moms relationship with my adult sons. I’m trying to educate myself because the last thing i want to do is have it backfire on me. But, my voice needs to be heard. I’m eager and nervous at the same time.

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