But Will They Love Me When It’s Done? Writing about Family in Memoir

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

When my memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist,was published in 2010 by the University of Minnesota Press, my mother grabbed the book and scoured it for references to the family—specifically, for references to my extremely private little brothers, one of whom apparently had said that he would never speak to me again if I so much as mentioned his name in a book. Eventually she handed it back and said, with some relief, “I think you’ll be OK.”

Later, when I began writing personal essays, she read one that focused on her and my father, and she said, “I don’t mind that you’re writing these, but can’t you change my name?”

Writing honestly about loved ones—specifically, writing about family—is one of the trickiest aspects of memoir writing, perhaps trickier even than recalling events accurately or finding the arc of our own story. We do not live in a vacuum, and when we write our stories, we cannot leave out all mention of others. But how fair is it to put people into our books—names, warts, and all—just because they happened to bump up against our life? How does a writer deal with this: simply tell them? ask permission? whitewash? Change, as my mother suggests, their names? (But how do you change the name “mother")?


Memoir writers have grappled with this problem forever. Anne Lamott regards it flippantly: “You own everything that happened to you,” she says in Bird by Bird. “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Calvin Trillin has a more nuanced view. In his memoir Family Man, he mentions his Dostoyevsky test: “If you have reason to believe that you’re another Dostoyevsky, there is no reason to be concerned about the effect what you write might have on the life of some member of your family. . . . you can say anything you need to say. If you don’t have reason to believe that you’re another Dostoyevsky, you can’t.”

Some writers, such as Dinty Moore, have chosen not to write pieces that were too personal. Others have changed names or details—though this is more successful when writing about friends than family, since it is difficult to disguise one’s siblings or parents. Andre Dubus III and Dan Barry both tried to leave family out of their family memoirs entirely, though with very different results.


The Legalities: What You Can and Cannot Do

Before you move forward, no matter your path, it’s a good idea to look at the law. This is not a legal paper (and I am not a lawyer). Moreover, state laws change from state to state, and both federal and state laws are subject to interpretation by the courts. So, depending on how scandalous the details you want to reveal, you might consider consulting with an attorney once your manuscript is written.

The First Amendment protects your right to free speech. But that does not give you carte blanche, and it’s good to remember that anyone can sue anyone else for any reason. The chances of their winning might be slight, but you still have to defend yourself, a process that can be time-consuming, expensive, and emotionally wrenching.

Legally, with memoir, you need to worry about two main things: first, defamation; second, invasion of privacy.

Defamation is misstating the facts and injuring someone’s reputation; essentially, it’s similar to libel or slander. In this case, the truth is your best defense. Don’t lie about people, don’t stretch the truth, don’t make things up. Of course, you shouldn’t do any of those things anyway, since memoir is, by definition, nonfiction.

Invasion of privacy includes the public revelation of private facts. The truth is no defense here; you can be sued if you reveal truthful information that is not of public concern and that a reasonable person would find offensive if it were made public.

With all this said, if your book is bought and published, your defense might be that mere publication makes the information of public concern (or else it would not have been published). This is harder to argue if you self-publish your book.

In claiming either defamation or invasion of privacy, the plaintiff must prove that he or she is identifiable—not necessarily by name, but possibly by setting or circumstance. So changing names alone isn’t always sufficient protection for the writer. If the subject is recognizable in other ways, the name the writer uses in the book doesn’t matter; this is one reason why some memoirists state that they have changed both names and “identifying characteristics.”

When Augusten Burroughs wrote Running with Scissors, he renamed the Turcotte family (the people he had lived with as a teenager), calling them the Finch family, and then went on to write that the Finch family were filthy, somewhat crazy, sex-obsessed, and violent.

The Turcotte family weren’t fooled. They knew whom he was writing about; they knew that he had lived with them. They filed a $2 million lawsuit against both Burroughs and his publisher, claiming invasion of privacy, libel, and emotional distress. The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money and an agreement that in subsequent editions of the book Burroughs would call it a “book,” and not a “memoir,” in the author’s note (though it was still called a memoir on the cover). He also rewrote the acknowledgments to say that the Turcottes’ memories were different from his own and that he regretted any “unintentional harm.”

Lawsuits are expensive for everyone, and that fact may be of benefit to the writer. Nicole Helget, in her memoir Summer of Ordinary Ways, wrote about growing up on a farm in southern Minnesota, recalling drunken fights between her parents, sexual abuse, and, perhaps most famously, the time her father killed a cow with a pitchfork.

The family made strong and very public objections to the book, saying that none of those things had happened (her father pointed out that it would be extremely arduous to kill a cow with a pitchfork), but they ultimately decided against suing, because they said it would be too expensive to hire a lawyer.


After the Legal Questions Come the Ethical Ones

Let’s set aside the legal questions for now. How do you proceed when you set out to write your life story? Joy Castro asked that question of twenty-five writers for her anthology Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, published in 2013 by the University of Nebraska Press.

In her introduction, Castro quotes William Faulkner, who urged writers to just press on: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. . . . ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies,” Faulkner said. That’s fine for Faulkner, who arguably fits the Dostoyevsky rule, but others are more measured.

It is easy for me to say that I own my story and I have the right to tell it. Both those things are true. But it is also true that my story includes other people, and while I have a right to write about them, I also have an ethical responsibility to treat them with respect. Cheryl Strayed suggests being ruthless with oneself and gentle with others, which seems a good rule of thumb, both for human relations and for literary achievement: Nobody wants to read a memoir that is self-aggrandizing or blaming.

In an AWP panel discussion on this topic in April 2015, Debra Monroe suggested camouflaging the identities of friends and other secondary characters—not for legal reasons, but out of kindness and respect for privacy. The question for her becomes not what can she write (legally), but what should she write (ethically).

Write with empathy and respect, said Emily Fox Gordon, who was on the same panel. Make sure the negatives are in context. Beware the “gratuitous, small hurt.”


Look at Your Intentions

A lot of contemporary memoirs are confessional. They deal with hard truths—abuse, sexual assault, drug addiction, parental violence, drinking, mental illness, closeted homosexuality, criminal behavior. Maybe the writer is angry at his parents for his upbringing, or at her spouse for cheating. Most memoirists advise not writing in the heat of anger, but waiting until you are detached enough to tell the story fairly and fully.

In his 2011 memoir Townie, Andre Dubus III reveals secrets about his childhood. His father left the family, and his mother was always exhausted, working long hours at jobs several towns away, with no car, while the children were left to their own devices. One of Dubus’s sisters was raped, another locked herself (truly locked; she had a big padlock on her bedroom door) away from the rest of the family, and his brother tried to kill himself.

In his first draft of Townie, Dubus didn’t tell these stories about his siblings. He figured it was his own story he was writing, not theirs, and he left his sisters and brother out. The book did not work. His editor sent it back, saying, “I get the feeling that a lot more went on in that house than you’re letting on.”

Dubus told me, in an interview for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2012, “The hardest part was writing about my family. I had a conversation with the novelist Richard Russo, who’s a buddy of mine. I told him I was tortured about writing about my family, and he said, ‘Look, if this were me, I’d ask myself, Am I trying to hurt anybody with this book? Am I trying to skewer anybody? If the honest answer is no, I’m just trying to capture as honestly as I can what it was like for me, then I’d do it.’ It was such good advice.”

In her book The Truth of Memoir, Kerry Cohen echoes this. “Never write in order to get revenge or to hurt someone,” she says. Instead, write about your characters fully, as whole people. “Your parents are also people. They are human beings whose life events informed who they became.”

This doesn’t mean that your family will automatically like what you have written, or even necessarily understand that you have been fair. But you will know. And your book will reflect it, and be all the better for it.


Consult with Family on the Finished Memoir . . . Maybe

When Susan Cheever wrote Home before Dark, the memoir of her father’s secret life of homosexuality, she sent a completed manuscript to her mother and brothers before publication. They all asked for changes—her mother asked for six pages’ worth. Susan Cheever made some, maybe most, of them.

Her brother Ben Cheever said he, too, objected to parts of the manuscript, especially the more graphic depictions of homosexuality, which Susan Cheever had borrowed from her father’s journals. Those passages were cut.

This does not mean that Ben Cheever was happy with the final book. He told the New York Times, “I love my sister and I do want her book to be a success, and I think she’s a good writer. But in the best of all possible worlds I’d feel better if the book had never been written.” Why?

“Because I don’t think it’s anybody’s business,” he said.

After Andre Dubus III finished his rewrite of Townie—in which he told everything, rape, suicide attempt, all of it—he sent the manuscript to his mother and siblings before publishing.

“I don’t think I was going to give them veto power, but I didn’t want them to be sucker-punched,” he told me. “And thank God they all received it really well. But my younger sister refuses to read the book. She says, ‘It was a sucky childhood and I don’t want to go back to it.’ And I don’t blame her.”

Most writers, Kerry Cohen says in her book, recommend not showing anyone the manuscript along the way, but waiting until it’s done. Having someone—especially someone who has a vested interest—read over your shoulder as you write may restrict the writing in too many ways. “Proceed with caution, and always, always, amid kindness to others, protect your work’s integrity,” Cohen says.

One exception to the general rule might occur during the research phase: sometimes it makes sense to interview someone who experienced the same things that you did and to compare your memories to theirs. Keep in mind, though, that their memories do not necessarily trump yours. You can gather material from siblings and friends, but you are not obligated to use their version of events. (You can, of course, use both yours and theirs, which might mitigate bad feelings later.)


Leave Stuff Out, including Names

In my memoir, News to Me, I focused on myself, my career as a journalist, and the rapidly changing world of newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s. My family formed only a small part of the book, primarily as background. But there were other people I needed to include—the city editor who trapped me under a desk and said lewd things, the college professor who mocked my ambitions. The stories were evocative of the time, and I needed them. But I thought it would be unfair to haul these private citizens out of their quiet lives and slap their names in a book. Sure, they had done despicable things, but they had done them twenty or thirty years before, and they had done them in a very different time. My decision was to write about what they did, but not to name them. They weren’t major characters in the book, the scenes were fairly short, and it was easy to write the scenes without using names. Omitting names might have raised questions about my credibility, but it seemed preferable to using fake names, and more ethical than using their real ones.

In the chapter “On the Ethics of Writing about Others” in his book To Show and to Tell, essayist Phillip Lopate writes that his mother forbade him to write about her (he refused), and she retaliated by telling people that he was her nephew, not her son. He also wrote that he changed the names of his siblings in some of his memoiristic pieces. It made no difference; one sibling remained furious twenty years on.

In Pull Me Up, his memoir about growing up in a big Irish American family on Long Island, New York Times reporter Dan Barry writes of his own childhood but not that of his siblings, who are barely mentioned. The book makes clear that he has siblings, but the reader rarely sees them. At a writing conference at Harvard, I asked Barry why he wrote it that way, and he seemed surprised by the question. “They don’t want to be written about,” he said. And so he didn’t. The result is a book in which Barry seems to be almost an only child or, possibly, a very aloof child. But he respected his siblings’ wishes.

In her introduction to Family Trouble, Joy Castro explores some of this territory, which she came up against when writing her own memoir, The Truth Book.

“If an incident, detail or family story contributed in some way to the answering of [her book’s central question], then it went onto the page. If it didn’t, I didn’t even draft it. . . . While this is partly a matter of respect for loved ones’ privacy, it also stems from self-interest.  Having worked so hard to build a happy family, I wanted to keep it.”

Nonfiction writer Dinty Moore writes in his essay, “The Deeper End of the Quarry” (collected in Family Trouble), that he abandoned his plan to write a book about fathers and daughters, “an autobiographical account of my relationship with my smart, sassy pre-teen.” He spent five years on the book, wrote more than a thousand pages, but he could not make it ring true. He finally realized that he was “caught between two competing loyalties—loyalty to my writing, and loyalty to my daughter.”  He could not find common ground, could not write “without filter or censor” about his own child. And so he returned the advance and gave up the project.


Play the Love Card

If you are young and callow, as Patricia Hampl was at one time, you might try pressuring your family to get their permission. When she was thirty-two, Hampl published her first book, a collection of poems. One of the poems was about her mother, who had epilepsy but had kept her disease secret from the world. The poem revealed it. Hampl’s mother objected, saying, “You cannot publish that poem.” Hampl recounts this in her book about memoir, I Could Tell You Stories.

“Just who did I think I was? A writer, of course,” Hampl states. “We get to do this—tell secrets and get away with it.”

She did publish the poem, with her mother’s eventual permission, but years later she had questions for herself. “I am trying now to remember if I cared about her feelings at all. It was all, as I told her, no big deal. Couldn’t she see that?”

Late in her mother’s life, Hampl asked her why she eventually allowed the poem to be published, hoping her mother would say that it was because the poem was so good. Instead, her mother said, “Because I loved you. I’ve always hated it.”


Be Prepared for the Fallout

Hampl has not always been that lucky. “I’ve lost quite a few people along the way,” she writes. “And not to death. I lose them to writing. The one who accused me of appropriating her life, the one who said he was appalled, the poet miffed by my description of his shoes, the dear elderly priest who said he thought I understood the meaning of a private conversation, this one, that one. Gone. Gone. Their fading faces haven’t faded at all, just receded, turned abruptly away from me, as is their right.”

She writes of the betrayal these people have felt: “the outrage, the disgust, the wounded astonishment, the quiet dismay, the cold dismissal.”

Robin Hemley said at AWP, “It’s important that we don’t kid ourselves. We’re going to write things that definitely will hurt other people.”

But writers can never guess what the response will be. Joy Castro notes that her family’s responses were “as multiple and varied as their personalities,” and that while her stepmother pleasantly surprised her by accepting the book, her adoptive mother did not. “She sent only a brief e-mail: ‘I can’t deal with you right now,’”  Castro writes. “Several years later, she still hasn’t.”

There are plenty of stories in Castro’s book from writers who had feared the repercussions but pressed on with their work anyway, only to have surprisingly happy results.

But it’s not hard to find contrary examples. Kerry Cohen cites the memoirist Jillian Lauren, whose parents cut off ties with her after her book was published, and writer Abby Mims, whose sister did the same. “You can’t begin to know what will come from your writing,” Cohen says, “and you usually can’t predict others’ experiences.”


When Push Comes to Shove, Do Not Let Fear Stop You

Annie Lamott is right; you do own your story. You do get to tell it. Most memoirists recommend writing your best, your strongest, from the start. If you have to tone it down later, change names or details, do that last, after your book is done. You will get the fullest, deepest, and truest memoir if you do not edit yourself as you go, or before you even start. Write as though you will not be published.

You cannot be certain what people’s reactions will be. As I finish my second memoir, about my childhood, I do not know if my brother will really stop speaking to me forever (he might; he’s stubborn) or if he will someday be glad to have the family history written down.

In essay after essay, book after book, writers express surprise at the reactions their memoirs have elicited. Even Mary Karr, who wrote about family drunkenness and sexual abuse, says in her new book, The Art of Memoir, that her mother and sister liked The Liar’s Club. (Her father died before the book came out.)

You can’t know what people’s reactions will be. You can guess, but you can’t know. Just write, and err on the side of honesty and generosity.



Barry, Dan. Pull Me Up. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

Barry, Dan. Personal interview. Nieman Conference on Narrative Writing, Harvard University, 2004.

Castro, Joy, ed. Family Trouble. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

Cohen, Kerry. The Truth of Memoir. New York: Writer’s Digest Books, 2014.

Collins, Glenn. “The Cheever Chronicles: A Daughter’s Book.” New York Times, 15 October 1984.

Cook, Amy. “A Writer’s Guide to Defamation and Invasion of Privacy.” Writer’s Digest

   Magazine, 15 September 2010.

Dubus, Andre, III. Townie. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

Dubus, Andre, III. Personal interview, Minneapolis, 2012.

Hampl, Patricia. I Could Tell You Stories. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir. New York: Harper, 2015.

Kephart, Beth. Handling the Truth. New York: Gotham Books, 2013.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.

Lopate, Phillip. To Show and to Tell. New York: Free Press, 2013.

Monroe, Debra, Emily Fox Gordon, Marcia Aldrich, John Price, and Robin Hemley. “Other People’s Privacy: Secondary Characters in Nonfiction.” Panel discussion, AWP, Minneapolis, April 2015.

Tevlin, Jon, and Sarah T. Williams. “Dark and Stormy Memoir Creates Family Rift.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 15 December 2005.

Trillin, Calvin. Family Man. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999.