Writing About Family in Memoir: Fairness Counts

Writing About Family in Memoir: Fairness Counts

by Lisa Romeo

A perennial topic: how to write about family. Do we have the right? Can we include others we hold dear—or even those we are related to but perhaps do not hold so dear? How to protect privacy, preserve relationships, avoid lawsuits? Can we alter stories to avoid conflict? What about showing our work to those included in it for their reactions?

As I wrote, revised, rewrote, and edited Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, it was a topic I was primarily consumed by. There were so many places where I needed to write about arguments and bitter family issues and while I had to be truthful, I also wanted to be fair. But what does this mean?

Starting with GoodbyeMy feeling is that as nonfiction writers, we are free to write about anything that has happened to us: we own our stories. If others were present, including them is our choice; leaving them out is another (often equally creative) choice. The quandary for me is always whether what I write about another real person’s actions and words is integral to the story. If so, then how do I portray potentially upsetting material in a way that’s both true to my memory but also doesn’t exploit or harm another person?

First, I’m always cognizant to write only about other people’s words, behavior, and observable actions. This keeps what I write solidly in the realm of what’s stored in my own memory. I’m careful not to express authority about others’ thoughts, feelings, motivations, or intentions. Staying in the narrator’s head when writing memoir ensures that I am reporting only on what I know, and only speculating on what is unknowable: someone else’s mind and heart.

Yet honesty counts. Sometimes what I was writing about another person’s behavior was unflattering; I decided not to shirk from that. My narrator had to be who she was at the time of the events: opinionated, stubborn, quick to assign blame. Yet the author at the keyboard—seven years older than that narrator—had time to carefully consider that other person’s actions. She was curious and compassionate. That author tried to be fair.

In Chapter Two, my well-traveled father, hospitalized for a stroke and battling Alzheimer’s, thinks he’s in a hotel and is dismayed not to have money to tip room service waiters (orderlies), bellboys (doctors), housekeepers (nurses). He’s so upset, I am moved to leave some singles in his bedside table, which makes him happy and charms me.

But. Then I tell my brother. I expect him to be charmed too, but he reacts negatively, mocking and belittling my actions. The narrator chastises him on the page for this and enumerates all the ways she finds his behavior upsetting.

But. Then (stepping in as reflective author now), she writes about how her brother has been dealing with Dad’s Alzheimer’s daily for months, while she lived across the country; how he had already been chafing from Dad’s bizarre behavior, how he’s exhausted and feeling hopeless and can’t find this tip-money scenario as charming as she can—since she’s the one who can jump on a plane the next day.

This makes it clear that the then-narrator is upset and judgmental about her brother’s response, but the current-day author recognizes that he may have had confusing motivations, that she was unable to understand his emotional state. (One caveat: students sometimes ask, what about someone whose actions were abusive or criminal: are we to write compassionately about them too? I don’t think so. Though I have seen it done.)

If as memoir writers our stories were to include only secondary characters who were acting commendably, those stories would never rise to the level of compelling narrative. No one wants to read about characters all behaving in lovely, selfless, helpful, honest ways; readers aren’t interested in perfect people or too-smooth situations. We must let warts show, put flaws on display—ours first and foremost of course, but also those of secondary characters if they are to be believable.

Readers have an intuitive understanding when reading memoir that remembered events and the actions of others are understandably being filtered by the narrator’s own memory and inherent biases. Readers also are willing to overlook some slight exaggerations, over-the-top drama, and less-than-flattering depictions of other characters if, on balance, the author is displaying an overall reflective tendency toward fairness.

Writers can be sure to bring a sense of fairness to the memoir page by asking themselves why someone may have acted the way they did. What part may the author herself have played in the way things happened? Are there reasons that occur to you now—that may not have even been possible to entertain before—which can help you write with greater awareness and compassion about others’ actions?

So often the answer lies—as it does for so much else in writing—in revision and in time spent letting the work simmer. Stepping away for a while, I often returned to a thorny passage with more insight. The narrator still got to be angry on the page, but the author found ways to present that without vilifying the others in the story.

This is not the same as glossing over or prettying up another’s behavior, but the opposite. It is presenting that behavior first as it’s remembered by the narrator, raw and real; but then on second examination, showing the reader the author’s curious compassion at work, attempting to make sense of it all.

That, after all, is the very definition of memoir: not what happened, but what it might mean.

Photo by Ryder Ziebarth

Lisa Romeo has been teaching with The Writers Circle for five years, focusing on creative nonfiction, personal essay, and all-genre workshops. Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss (University of Nevada Press) is her first book. Lisa’s short nonfiction is listed in Best American Essays 2016, and has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Longreads, Brain Child, Inside Jersey, Brevity, and many other places.

Top photo: Lisa and her family at her book launch. Photo by Judith Lindbergh