I watched The Savages last week, expecting a touching story of adult children coping with their father’s end-of-life dementia. It was all of that, but what made the story even more deep and more poignant was that the father had been abusive to his children so that as adults they had no relationship with him. In the end we see the daughter has written and is staging a play about their twisted lives. This is a thoughtful (R-rated) movie.
On another front, writer Holly Silva recently reviewed Augusten Burrough’s latest family secrets memoir, A Wolf at the Table. Burroughs is currently famous for his Running With Scissors book. Brother John Robison has his own memoir, Look Me in the Eye. These two men have hung out all the dirty laundry!
Tell-all family exposes are not new and shocking anymore. The question for memoir writers is one of conscience: should one not write unpleasant things about their family at all, just mention minor offences, or go ahead and tell the darkest secrets. Should we at least wait until the “bad people” are dead? For those not interested in revenge or making money off the closet skeletons, this can be a delicate dance.
None of us is perfect, so it does not make sense to show only the best of people in family stories. When we see the quirks and foibles in others, we relate better to them; they become human. We can learn about culture and social history. We can see how behaviors and ways of thinking are passed down through generations. We learn from the mistakes and failures of others, which can actually be quite inspiring. The trouble comes when crime or various types of abuse are involved.
When we write our memoirs or family stories, we hope they will be passed on to future generations as a legacy. Our first thought may be to sugar-coat them, often out of respect for family, but maybe out of embarrassment. Our stories are personal, sometimes intensely personal, and when others read them we may have conflicting feelings of pride, awkward shyness, or sometimes downright horror at the sudden realization that other people now know our innermost thoughts!
In the end, each of us has to grapple with our own feelings about the level of dirt we want to show about our families. We must balance the desire to show the truth with a respect and understanding of the person and their situation. Will exposing abuse be helpful, or will it just be sensationalism. Will your relatives be upset? If the people you write about are still alive, will they sue you?!
There is a difference between personal diaries and stories meant to be shared. When working on memoir and family stories, write calmly and knowingly, round out stories with both good and bad aspects, share different points of view. Write as though you are speaking to strangers. Write with respect, because the way you present your stories is a reflection of you.