The Veil of Privacy in an Age of AnxietyPosted: April 16, 2015
[What follows is my contribution to “Other People’s Privacy: Secondary Characters in Nonfiction,” a panel presentation to the annual meeting of the Associated Writing Programs in Minneapolis earlier this month. I joined Emily Fox Gordon, Debra Monroe (moderator), John T. Price, and Robin Hemley on the panel.]
I confess to some anxiety over the task that this panel seems to pose for me as a memoirist and essayist, that is, offering advice, the fruit of experience and reflection, on the ethical and aesthetic issues that come with writing about secondary characters in nonfiction, a secondary character being anyone who is not the writer herself.
My feelings about offering such practical wisdom are suggested in a story told by Jud Heathcote, former coach of the Michigan State University men’s basketball team, about receiving advice from his predecessor. “When I got to Michigan State,” says Heathcote, “the previous coach was cleaning out his desk. As he departed, he said he had left me two envelopes, each containing a three-word message. He told me not to open the envelopes unless things were not going well. Well, sure enough, after the first year, things were bad, so I opened the first envelope and read the three words: ‘Blame your predecessor.’ So I told the press and alumni that the cupboard was bare and I needed more time. A few games into the second year, things were bad again. Out of desperation, I opened the second envelope. It also contained three words: ‘Prepare two envelopes.’”
The contemporary writer of memoiristic nonfiction comes at the end of a long line of authors who have faced the issues we are talking about. After all, autobiographical writers have been portraying secondary characters for a long time, and the issues of privacy are inherent in autobiographical nonfiction. Almost a century ago, W. B. Yeats in The Trembling of the Veil addressed some of them:
Except in one or two trivial details, where I have the warrant of old friendship, I have not, without permission, quoted conversation or described occurrence from the private life of named or recognizable persons. I have not felt my freedom abated, for most of the friends of my youth are dead and over the dead I have an historian’s rights. . . . I have said all the good I know and all the evil: I have kept nothing back necessary to understanding.
We do, as Yeats says, have greater freedom with the dead. And it’s helpful to obtain permission—when you can get it. But what I want to note especially is Yeats’s confidence that he has cleared his path, that he has no obstacles ethical or aesthetic to his art.
Contrast that confidence to the anxiety that suffuses writers today, evidenced by this panel and others that have been convened on nearby topics and by numerous texts in our writerly periodicals and websites. What has changed to create this state of anxiety?
Growth. In the last twenty years memoir and other personal writing has become vastly more popular in publishing circles, has been added to the curriculum of undergraduate and graduate writing programs, and has attracted more readers and practitioners. It has become more visible and more diverse. It has moved online.
Out of that visibility comes anxiety—concern about invention, the policing of facts, debates over the documentary and the literary, over privacy, who is speaking for whom, and fairness. Anxiety over the ethics of writing about other real people—how fair or unfair we are, our accuracy and motives—is an outgrowth of a genre’s explosion.
Unfortunately, applied ethics won’t save us from our anxieties and conundrums.
Let me give a small example from the memoir I’ve been writing. One chapter is about a hike I took on the Appalachian Trail with my friend and her sister during a college summer long years ago. The two sisters came up with the plan and invited me to join them. Though we talked about the hike all summer, I did little to prepare, while they devoted themselves to getting ready, and when the time for departure came, ready they were, outfitted in broken-in boots and proper backpacks. They were in superb physical condition.
Our plan was to enter the trail in Pennsylvania and hike for a week, pushing well into Maryland. However, in keeping with my twisted approach to matters at the time, I wore blue swede boots that were more pretty than practical, and within a day my feet were rubbed raw and bloody. Besides ruining my own journey, I made my co-hikers miserable. Straggling behind them hour after hour, I devoted myself to distributions of blame, and realized at last that the sisters and I were on different hikes. Not just unprepared for the physical rigors of the trail, I hadn’t considered the dynamics of hiking with two sisters. There was sisterhood on the trail, but it didn’t include me.
I stuck it out until we reached Maryland and then I quit, exited the trail where it passed close to a little town, and called my parents to come pick me up.
While in my account I take the blame for sabotaging the hike, I also suggest that the sisters might have been more solicitous of my welfare. I notice that they did not accompany me into town to make sure I could get a ride home. In other words, they abandoned me.
Sisterhood is powerful, I thought as I watched them carry their heavy packs on strong backs along the trail into Maryland, in step with each other at an expeditious pace. In less than a week they had become practiced at the art of hiking which required that they leave me behind. Watching their figures recede, I saw that they would do good things with their lives, hard and difficult things. I asked myself why I wasn’t the kind of person who could follow the trail like the sisters moving quickly beyond me.
Now it’s easy to believe that casting a cold eye on oneself justifies casting a cold eye on others, that willingness to reveal my own unflattering secrets authorizes revealing secrets that belong to others. Yet whatever harshness I reserve for myself, my old friend and her sister did not consent to be part of my narrative, only part of my life. As the description of this panel puts it, “Our secondary characters . . . think of themselves as people, not characters.” The person I knew in life is being brought into a different realm where the only authorization is the aesthetics of art.
Even when we try to be fair and careful, to write out of empathy and not malice, we are using real people as part of the story. These secondary characters didn’t ask to be written about, and many aren’t happy to appear in our pages. Following Yeats, I sought permission from my hiking friend to include her in my memoir. I received no reply.
Mark Doty suggests that “beyond the personal ethics of memoir . . . there’s a higher ethical standard, which has to do with the ethics of art.” To put it in bare language, Doty is suggesting that the best way to handle our anxieties is to write well. Regardless of the age or the particular cultural moment, the only standard is the work itself. We must assess safety and protection and privacy against the aesthetic and ethical demands of our art.
We can’t avoid the issues, but we can put them in their place. Doing so won’t eliminate the damage, the possibility that we might lose people whom we write about, just as Mark Doty’s relationship with his father was severed by his own writing
My advice, then, is to make the writing worth the cost. And prepare two envelopes.