As you bring your memoir into the world to share it with family and friends or to publish it, ethical issues arise that need to be resolved. Think about the issues that concern you after you have written a few drafts of your family stories. Did you reveal any family secrets, or expose any subjects you fear you could be sued for? Could your writing cause a huge family uproar? What is most important—the family or the writing? Consider the ethical dilemmas that need to be resolved before your memoir is published.
Just because we “could” say certain things does not mean it is a good idea. Just because we might not get sued or have legal action brought against us does not mean that we should put questionable or “hot” information into words. Deciding whether or not to put potentially damaging or upsetting material into the memoir needs to be resolved in the final stages of writing.
Getting revenge is not the best motivation for writing a memoir. If you have been wounded, writing about your feelings is a good way to resolve them. Writing the stories about what happened can help you come to a new understanding. But writing to “get back at” others almost always backfires. I listened to a published memoir writer talk about his many complaints about what happened to him after his memoir came out—he was sued, and his family was shocked and hurt at what he wrote. However, he had not warned the people involved about the content of his work, and much of it was angry and highly judgmental. He said he hoped that they would never find out about it because he had changed his own name. He talked about how the memoir had created another level of conflict and hurt feelings, but seemed have no idea how this happened.
You are the only one who can decide whether putting the “truth”—your version of it—out into the world will help create a healing experience for you and your family. Ask yourself if you have a fantasy that after your memoir is written that there will be an upsurge in family forgiveness, or that longstanding grudges will suddenly dissolve once you present your point of view (or the “correct” point of view.) It may be hard to predict how the memoir will affect family and friends. All you can do is to be as ethical and compassionate as possible as you present your work to the family and the public. Being ethical does not mean that you agree with what other members of the family think, or that you have to be close or connected. Being ethical means that you protect yourself and your work, and have proper boundaries when sharing your opinion, which is what a memoir is, with the larger world.
Here are some suggestions:
- Are there serious grudges or emotional cut-offs with family and friends?
- Do you want to ask permission or to tell your family what you are writing about?
- “Asking permission” means making a request that can be denied—which affects what you write about had how you write it. Be clear before you speak about your request and intentions.
- Be prepared to negotiate sticky issues.
- If anyone is mentioned by name, get permission to use their name, and after you write your piece, show it to them for their agreement before putting it in print. If your piece reveals information about a town, or any public figures or events, be sure that your facts are accurate before publishing.
- Make certain that you are not defaming anyone’s character or invading his privacy. Check with a literary attorney to see what these terms mean. If you have a publisher, the staff and attorneys will work with you about this, but if you self-publish you need to do it yourself.
- Be sure that your opinions are not expressed as facts. Check any “facts” in your research that can be checked.
- Be willing to change names, physical descriptions, the location of a town or public arena if non-family members figure into the book.
- Fictionalizing, changing certain things to protect the guilty and the innocent, may be necessary when looking at publication.
Publishing a memoir means considering it as a literary public endeavor. Publishing concerns should be put aside until you complete a full draft of the memoir. As with any public statement, ethical issues arise and must be solved, ideally in a way that continues to allow the work to be healing to everyone involved.
- Write about your top five worries about what will happen when you talk with your family about your memoir.
- Think about revenge—is there anyone you’d like to get back at? Do you imagine someone reading your memoir and feeling sorry or apologizing to you? Write about this in your journal.
- What emotional reactions are you concerned about when you present your memoir to family? Will they think your work is fair and balanced?
- Name the ethical problems in your memoir that concern you.
- How do you feel about taking your memoir into the public arena? Write about this as you go through the process of writing and publishing your memoir.
- Research your rights and your legal and ethical responsibilities if you want your work published.