Friday, February 21, 2014

Ponderous Thoughts on the Ethics of Writing About People

I am up to my eyeballs in getting ready for my two workshops at the Oregon Christian Writers conference in Salem tomorrow.  I'll be teaching one session on "Writing a Newspaper Column" and one on "Telling Your Story: Discover the Thread."

One thing I want to cover is the ethics of writing stories about your life.  This involves, among other things, mentioning other people.

And it is astonishing, the different reactions people have to possibly being written about.  From: "NOW THIS DOESN'T GO IN THE NEWSPAPER, YOU HEAR ME??" to "Ooooo, I'm so excited, I got Quote of the Day on Life in the Shoe!!!!!!"  And some people really don't care if you write about them or not--it simply doesn't matter to them.

I don't think anyone ought to be offended at being mentioned in passing, either on a blog or something more formal like a newspaper piece.  "I borrowed a cup of sugar from Aunt Susie."

Longer involvements and quotes usually require permission, depending on the context.

If I don't have the time or a way to ask permission, I'll change names and garble identity.

But mostly, I try to be accurate and kind.  Which can be tough, because not everyone in your life was kind, loving, and wise.  Your story is no good if it isn't honest.  But what's to be gained by laying out the brutal facts about people who don't have the same platform to tell their side?

I recently decided to read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen.  Obviously I was intrigued with the Mennonite aspect of the story, and the coming home after many years angle.

But I find it a disturbing book.  I've read maybe a quarter of it, and these are my impressions.

First of all, the author presents herself as an intelligent, literary, worldly-wise woman.  She is very funny and snarky and clever. Her chapter structures are brilliant.  And her turns of phrase.  Her portrayals of Mennonite quirks are stellar, although of Russian Mennonite culture rather than the side I'm familiar with.

But.  She has been through terrible physical suffering, from surgery and a car accident, and through worse emotional suffering, from a completely crazy, selfish husband whom she propped up for years before he finally left her.  But you don't get a sense that this has softened and refined her, deep down.  Instead, you get the sense that she's a teenage girl who's determined not to cry in front of you, so she talks louder and louder and laughs more and more, just to make you think she is SO over it.

She also uses repeated vulgarities of every description.  It seems there was a stripe of reader she was trying to shock, and another stripe she was trying to impress.  I can understand a few words for authenticity, but this is way too gratuitous and too much.

But.  What really caught my eye was her portrayal of her family.  Her dad is portrayed with humor but some respect, her mom is portrayed as lovable but very eccentric, with far too much private information, I thought.  And the sisters-in-law are chopped up into tiny slices and hung out to dry.

I wondered how her family felt about this, and found a blog post by Shirley Showalter.  Shirley approaches the subject delicately--this was the author's experience, her perspective, her story, her journey, her process, after all.  We all perceive the same event differently, etc. etc.  I got the sense it was not ok to say, "Rhoda Janzen was downright mean sometimes."

Interestingly, some of her family members showed up in the comments.  One said, "I am “Staci” in the book. I am most definitely not proud of the way I am portrayed in this memoir. The verbatim conversations between family members either did not happen at all or happened in a very different “unfunny” context. To be perfectly honest, none of us are that interesting or funny. Rhoda's disdain for me, as well as our sister-in-law “Deena” is obvious and hurtful. When we welcomed Rhoda home with open arms and hearts we had no idea she was using us as fodder for a book deal. Rhoda's attempts to portray us as a backwards uneducated farm family are laughable. I have received numerous calls and notes from friends asking if Rhoda has in fact, ever actually met me. So–take this book with a huge grain of salt."

And a brother said, ". . .When I finished reading the book I had to admit that I had a variety of feelings, a few of which are positive. Rhoda is a gifted writer and always has had a keen intellect which she can convey with extreme zeal. . . I am proud of her accomplishments, BUT I have others feelings as well. I feel frustrated about her portrayal of the family. Rhoda’s recollections are not factual and her perspective of reality has a lot of artistic license. I sometimes feel anger at the condescension that is woven throughout the book. Her derision of ‘Staci’ and ‘Denna’ is palpable and I just don’t understand why she feels so negative against family members. ‘Staci’ has always tried to be kind and compassionate to Rhoda, (that is her nature) and Rhoda mocked ‘Staci’ in the book and in various interviews. The impact on the family has not been good. . . My father briefly pulled back from public engagements, my wife feels a sense of mistrust, my mother cries because of the hurt family feelings. Forgiveness is a process and it has begun in the family, but reconciliation is not there…yet. I understand that Rhoda is going through a self-reflection/self-actualization process by writing this book, but, as Rhoda states in her book “… it is much harder to show compassion and understanding when we are the ones being hurt directly, when the wrecking ball of someone else’s misery takes us down, too.”"

As I read the book, I had thought "Surely, surely, she asked their permission first."  And it looks like No, she didn't.

In contrast, I read a piece by Mary Karr about her book, The Liars Club.   Her approach was entirely different.  This is a long quote but very instructive in the lengths she went to.  She says, ". . .it's a scuzzy business at best, displaying your wounds in the marketplace, making close compatriots into "characters." How dare I? I did take a few precautions.
Every major character in both memoirs (still alive) was alerted to the project in advance and "warned" about scenes they might find troubling—i.e., I told my mother I intended to recount her psychotic break. I told my best high-school friend (Meredith) that I'd describe her cutting herself, as well as her brother's stint in jail.. . ."
Maybe this ongoing closeness made writing about them easier. Or maybe they're just tolerant individuals, which they'd have to be to associate with me for so long.
Once the manuscript was completed, I sent it to these primary characters for fear I'd misremembered or misrepresented them. The one small complaint I got was from a rock musician (an ex-beau) who worried that I said he'd smoked pot as a teenager—a scene he didn't deny but now found embarrassing. I offered to take the scene out but refused to change how I remembered it. He preferred it stay in.
The large complaint involved my friend Meredith. She asked that I take out the scene of her cutting herself with a razor. She didn't mind if I reinserted it in later editions, after her elderly mother died. To write it and blur the identity of the "cutter" seemed a fat lie to the reader—plus, it's a different kind of betrayal: Watching a stranger taking a razor to herself just differs—morally speaking—from watching a dear pal. So, I'd initially intended to cut the chapter altogether. Then "Stacey," our volleyball-playing pal, said she'd prefer to claim the cutting acts as her own. Stacey felt the scene was socially relevant and in some way "true" and that the book would suffer from its absence. This is the only intentional falsehood I've consciously constructed—other than fake names. It's the one time I've let literature rule over fact. And now that Meredith and her mother are both dead, I correct the score.

I recognize that there are a lot of gray areas in the ethics of personal writing and who am I to judge, remembering some lessons I learned through phone calls that nearly peeled my ear off my scalp.

Even writing positive things can be difficult.  For example, I would have loved to write a lot more about my mom, but she didn't like being written about.  I did write about her after she passed away, of course, and my sister said Mom was no doubt blushing, even in Heaven, at the flattery.

Overall, I can cut Rhoda Janzen some slack--not much, but a little--because writing about family is a very delicate balance.  But I think she could have made her story 25% less hysterical for the sake of being 50% more kind.

But then I think of all the wonderful quotes from my family that I would just love to post but am not allowed to.  At those times, I think the humor would surely be worth the discomfort.

We all have a lot to learn, that's for sure.

Quote of the Day:
Me: I am so utterly tired.
Ben: Do you need a hug?
Jenny: Wow, I didn't think Ben would be this nice when Amanda wasn't here!


  1. Great post! The exact place I find myself.

  2. "But I think she could have made her story 25% less hysterical for the sake of being 50% more kind." You nailed it.

    And have fun at the OCW conference! How I wish I could be there. Alas, there is no OCW in England.

  3. I heard a radio interview with Rhoda Janzen and felt pretty much the way you do about her work. After listening to the interview I decided it was one book I don't want to read. ~merle

  4. I agree that this is very tough balancing act; once I've figured it out, maybe I'll get back to personal writing. On one hand I appreciate Anne Lamott's advice, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better” (Bird by Bird). But then she's also written,“You can either practice being right or practice being kind.”

    And guess which statement ultimately pulls more cultural weight--most days? :)

  5. I've used different words to express Anne Lamott's sentiments. Everyone has a chance to "tell" their own story exactly as they want it told--once, at the time they're living it. After that, it's not their story only, but belongs also to everyone else who is/was involved or affected. I do try to be kind in what I write, and often refrain from saying things I could say truthfully. Yet, a true story always helps us learn something about how things are, and a "made-up" or excessively embellished story comes with no such assurance. Blatant and bitter fabrications make a writer look small-minded and immature if you know the real story. If you don't, these writers might deceive you, and that's an even bigger problem.

  6. Delicate subject indeed. I've heard people come out of the Mennonite/Amish background & blast everything about it, with very personal details. Then have had other non-Mennonite/Amish folks ask me about it. I can only shrug and say that may have been their experience, obviously they were hurt (& now bitter), but I always caution you should NEVER judge a whole sect of people, or any one family, by one persons account. Best way is to get to know a someone personally.

  7. Great post! and great topic--what a difficult one. You've got us thinking!

  8. New York Times reporter David Carr took an unusual approach when he wrote his memoir. He wrote about his life events as he remembered them. But he also spent many hours interviewing witnesses to those events. He compared his memories to the stories that emerged from the interviews and concluded that what actually took place was, in some cases, significantly different from what he remembered. "The Night of the Gun" is, I think, an excellent contrast to the book you're critiquing. And it's a great read!

  9. You are kinder to Janzen than I would be. Or than her narcissist behavior deserves. Good for you!

  10. Interesting...

    I compiled a genealogy book complete with stories that were handed to me or from interviews I did with some old folks. That was no problem, but what became a severe problem was when people balked about being honest where they came from. I am talking about identifying the adopted. The adopted knows his birth situation, everyone else knows it but they just did not want it written down in a book for all to see. Some of these people are from a different races. What would it be like if in generations to come if a dark skinned child would appear and the parents wonder where that DNA came from. If there is no written record of this dark skinned person being adopted folks may think the mother of this child was fooling around and got pregnant.

    How did I eventually handle this problem? I put an * beside the adoptees name with an explanation at the appropriate place.

    In a genealogy book one may also look for physical ailments that may have a genetic component - if someone died I included the cause of death.

    Insightful article. And I doubt I will waste my time reading Jansen's book.

  11. Matthew, I had a similar experience last year in re-reading a box of my old diaries that I found. For years I had been telling stories that weren't actually accurate. I found that the most common way I mis-remembered things was by 'normalizing' little details, like I remembered a story that involved a Santa suit as happening at Christmas even though it actually took place in February, etc.

  12. Such a thought-provoking post! I thought Mennonite in a Little Black Dress was really funny the first time I read it, then I read it again and was very uneasy. Thank you for posting the direct quotes from her family. Very revealing.

  13. My biggest objection to Mennonite in a Little Black Dress was this constant (and cliched) theme: good girls/people are slow-witted, small-minded, narrow-minded and, worst of all, un-funny. The equally damaging corollary is that the only way to have a truly authentic life is to make a big ol' train wreck out of it. Oh, please, Rhoda. I think we've heard that refrain a time or two before.

  14. I completely concur. I've read both of Rhoda's books, and found them to be uneasy reading... you nailed it when you compared it to the teenage girl that thinks that louder and more hysterical equals good writing. I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but your analysis (the whole thing, not just the teenager comment) seems to sum up my feelings about that Rhoda's work.

    Thank you for the insight!

  15. I saw that book in the thrift store once... It didn't take long, skimming through the pages, to see that it was a very inaccurate portrayal of the Mennonites. I left it there but on second thought, maybe I should have bought it so no one else would have. :)