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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

the debate goes on

The other day, a friend e-mailed me the link to Patricia Cohen’s New York Times article “A Mother’s Memoir, a Son’s Anguish,” which discusses how British author Julie’s Myerson was “pilloried” after the release in Britain of The Lost Child: A Mother’s Story, a memoir about her son’s drug addiction. Apparently the press in Britain accused Myerson of exploiting her son and exaggerating her son’s drug problems. It didn’t help matters that her son, as well, accused his mother of doing so.

I’ve posted before about the ethics of writing about one’s children, and since presenting at AWP last February, I have been particularly interested in how parents who write about their children navigate this issue. I really like what Julie Schumacher, author of the Black Box, had to say in my interview with her:

“There’s an ethical dilemma in being a parent and a writer of realistic fiction (or nonfiction), that is, a person whose real life and relationships can be a starting point for creative work. When your children are very young, you’re free to comment on their behavior—as well as your own parenting skills—in their presence; as they get older, they don’t want to be the subjects even of positive conversation (“Look how she’s grown!”). That said, I think writers can model responsible self-inquiry — Who am I? What does my life mean? — and demonstrate to their children that creating art, and asking difficult and sometimes unanswerable questions about relationships, families, and societies, is part of living an examined life.

When I have published nonfiction about my children (as in the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times), I’ve gotten permission from them first. (In fact, the editor at the Times pointedly asked if I had done so.) Fiction offers a bit more of a cover; still, I’ve asked my children to read each of my young adult novels — including Black Box — before they were published. I think my kids understand what are for me the two enormous truths of this parenting/writing experience: 1) I love my children wildly, unreservedly, and 2) I can’t live my life without writing things down.”

One of the things that I always ask myself, whether I am writing about my children or someone else in my life, is whether what I’ve written feels true—is it as accurate and true to memory as possible?—and whether or not it will be hurtful. Sometimes, I’ve written a scene that feels honest and true, but still, I know it might be hurtful. A couple of years ago, after I finished a full draft of Ready for Air, I handed it over to my mother.

I knew there were some scenes that might hurt her feelings, so as I put it into her hands, I said, quite simply, “Mom, I know there were times during this period when I was a brat. I just wanted to warn you.”

I felt nervous over the next few days, knowing she was making her way through my manuscript, but when she finished it, she said she loved it. “It’s true, though,” she added, “you were a brat. But, you’ve written it how it happened.” I can’t thank her enough for this.

When I’m writing about my children, however, I am even more careful. They don’t have the ability or maturity to separate the purpose of my writing with how it would make them feel. Someday they will—I hope—but still, it makes me nervous. Hurting them is the last thing I want to do. And perhaps this is why I don’t write about them that often; I write about me, about my role as a mother. I write about early motherhood, about my shifts in perspective. But at some point, this might not even feel okay to me.

I haven’t read Myerson’s memoir yet, though I plan to. And maybe when I do, I will take issue with some of the things she writes. But that wouldn’t mean that I think she shouldn’t write her story. I think there needs to be a place for women and mothers to write the hard stuff, the stuff that so many people don’t want to hear. And I am very sensitive to the fact that women are treated much more harshly than men when they write something controversial about their kids.

Cohen’s New York Times article addresses this very issue, quoting Susan Cheever, who wrote a parenting column for Newsday, and Michael Greenberg, whose memoir Hurry Down Sunshine, detailed his 15-year-old daughter’s first psychotic episode. Cohen writes, “Both Ms. Cheever and Mr. Greenberg mentioned that the ferocious attacks on Ms. Myerson would probably not have been so vehement if a man were the author. ‘I do think that a mother is a very ripe target,’ said Mr. Greenberg, who was in England when Ms. Myerson was being filleted by television and newspaper commentators. ‘I felt it was very predatory.’”

I’m very interested in whether any of you have read Myerson's book and/or the article. What do you think? Where do you draw the line? Is there a line?


cath c said...

i haven't read that book yet. i don't know how i'd feel if i were to write about my kids in a way that opened their heart and issues up on a table for examination.

i do write about my kids in my blog, but i hope i am doing so in a way that shows them in a good light and reveals more about me as a parent than about them as my kids. when i write about s's aspergers, i hope that i am doing so in a way to show that even though it is challenging, it wakes up moment of miraculous perspective or perception on his part, which are of endless surprise and fascination to me.

i try to avoid writing about poop re: my youngest, as someday she will probably read the blogs and not want to know that the world read about her poop for a couple of years.

my eldest is particularly sensitive and i have a poem published in a small way, but it's on the internet, which i wrote when he was a preschooler. in it i address how i am conflicted by parenting and writer's block in away that makes it seem like he is responsible for it. at least, that is how he reads it. he is very angry with me about that one.

that has taught me to be aware of how they would feel if they were to come across my writing in a public forum.

even the other day, i wrote a review of a movie and in it i relayed a convo between my boys on the way into the theater, and k had to correct me that that wasn't exactly what he said. i mentioned it worked better for the point of the coversation, and he understood that. he's enter high school now, so i can find a balance by consulting him if i intend to use his words or somehwat put a few in to smootha transition from actual convo to the written version of it.

kate hopper said...

Cath, I think you've hit on something with your comment about your writing revealing more about you as a parent than it does about your kids. That feels really important to me, as well.

Leightongirl said...

"Whether what I’ve written feels true—is it as accurate and true to memory as possible?—and whether or not it will be hurtful."

Beautiful questions to ask, indeed.

The Blue Suitcase said...

Fantastic topic. I read the NYT review of the book (not the article you mention), and though it was measured and strong in its criticism, there was no suggestion that the author took advantage of her family. Interesting.