Peering at Privacy in Creative Nonfiction
Kaylene Johnson | September 2004
Writers face all sorts of choices when they sit down to bear witness to the world. Penning poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, writers use a palette of words and literary techniques to paint a world of images and story that provoke the thought, feeling, and imagination of the reader. Creative nonfiction writers-especially those writing personal essay or memoir-are writing about real people and real events through the filter of their own experience and interpretation. Exposing one's self invariably involves revealing the lives of others; one's story is inextricably linked to the stories of other people. How do writers navigate issues of personal privacy and the privacy of others? For the creative nonfiction writer, perhaps no decision is more pressing than what to reveal and what to leave unsaid.
The commitment to revealing the truth in journalism is one step removed from the reporter. Although implications may be profound on the subjects of the story, the reporter leaves her office at the end of the day with certain immunity. The author of memoir, on the other hand, often lives, eats, and sleeps with her subject material. The people and circumstances she writes about are her own, and the consequences of revealing private matters lies squarely on her shoulders.
The questions of privacy are real concerns for all writers, but especially in the genre of creative nonfiction, where identities are not cloaked in the guise of fiction, and where readers demand a certain accountability for literal truth.
History of Privacy
The notion of privacy is a fairly modern concept, a view that validates the individual as a sentient being with an inner life. Privacy denotes boundaries; one's inner life is owned solely by the individual who lives and dreams that life. In contemporary society, we take the right to privacy for granted. We are offended when a household member opens mail addressed to us. We are outraged if someone rummages through our personal belongings without permission. And while any modern teenager will insist on his right to privacy when a parent pokes a head in his bedroom, the idea of private space would have seemed absurd just a few hundred years ago.
In her essay, "An Inside Story," Cathleen Medwick describes how in the Middle Ages, families lived in single room homes where all aspects of daily living took place in a public or at least communal setting. Tables were pulled out into the center of the room during meal time. Beds were set up at bedtime and it was not uncommon for several members of a household to share a bed. Certain levels of privacy were dictated by habits of modesty and decorum; finding any sort of private space required ingenuity beyond the walls of the family dwelling.
Communal living brought people together for the benefit of all, but it also demanded compliance with an established set of rules. The individual's value was, by necessity of survival, not as important as the greater good of the community.
However, that began to change as human invention gave way to possibilities for creativity. The Renaissance during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries gave birth to new ideas about the human spirit. The vocabulary of the self expanded to include concepts such as "conscience," "self-esteem," and "melancholy," according to Medwick. It was an age when the first telescopes and mirrors changed how people saw the world and themselves. Religious movements began to emphasize personal prayer and spiritual lives of inward reflection. All of this brought about a new consciousness of the individual. Writers like Montaigne wrote the first essays exposing his own private and rich interior life.
Privacy became the medium through which the individual could more fully realize the extent of his or her inner potential. In the book, Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life, Jana Malamud Smith writes, "The elaboration of love, intimacy, thought, sexuality, and friendship requires some privacy, so too the development of one's own point of view."
The communal life of villages and small towns defined common values. Malamud writes, "The dilemma of the village, the small town, the tight neighborhood, the dilemma of being known and observed, is that the pleasure of feeling known and related is accompanied by the demand to conform to the practices of the community. The margins for nonconforming private behavior and private choice is narrowed to protect the common life."
Smith comments that people settling later in America did not have the "communal surveillance" that established Europeans knew. In the beginning, the isolation of settlers in the wilderness assured a sometimes profound level of privacy. As cities grew and the population became more urban-centered, newspapers began to offer stories that communities could hold in common.
Newspapers first proliferated during the American Revolution, not because of precise and evenhanded reporting. There were no reporters. Newspapers were produced by printers, and made a place for themselves by printing gossip. They collected and printed hearsay circulating on the street-often allegations against British soldiers. In the years leading up to the Revolution, writes the newspaper historian Thomas Leonard, "printers were modest about claiming their news was true."
Since their earliest days, according to Smith, newspapers have served two main purposes. One was to provide community information such as transportation schedules, announcements of public meetings, and bits of news. The other function was to "address the collective psyche." During the Revolutionary War, the psychological struggle of the day was over allegiance to Great Britain. More recently, coverage of the 1991 Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill case spoke to cultural anxieties about gender and racial equality. In the end, Smith says, the press "became the collective projection of the anxiety, thoughts and feelings but probably also about an upsurge of illicit wishes."
Along with the development of mass media, the emergence of post-Freudian psychology greatly impacted modern ideas about personal privacy. Freud asserted that the hidden private mind, brought into awareness, could allow individuals to take charge of their destinies. Smith writes, "By the late nineteenth century the old controls-patriarchy, community, religion, tradition-were quickly loosening. Freud wondered if psychoanalysis might allow man, through self-knowledge, to control himself more from within than through external authority... His increased opportunity for privacy, created by a greater separateness and a diminution of authoritarian surveillance, could potentially be balanced and counterweighted by an increased awareness of the behavior of his mind and the whole scope of his private experience."
Freudian psychology allowed for the exploration of private experiences, which in turn revealed the motivations behind our public personas. It also challenged external authorities and lifted the veil of secrecy often cloaked in the guise of modesty or propriety. What began as private discussions between patient and psychoanalyst developed, over time, into a broad cultural consciousness. This, according to Smith, influenced a wide range of writers including Eugene O'Neil, James Thurber, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The influences of mass media and Freudian psychology have popularized biographies and memoirs and, for better or worse, opened the doors to a cavalcade of talk shows and tell-all celebrity. Smith explains that "the more private our lives become, the more self-conscious, the more we attempt to define ourselves apart from tradition or communal expectations, the more we turn to memoir, biography, or celebrity tabloid to offer possibility. When we read biographies, we search for a friend, a mentor, a kindred spirit, and ultimately for ourselves. What can we learn from his experience that will confirm, challenge, or enhance our own?"
One might even argue that the current modus operandi in media and publishing leans toward anything goes; the juicier and more sordid the detail the better. However, the freedom to discuss the most private experiences in a public forum has also given voice to the formerly silent and disenfranchised. There is power in truth; and the freedom to tell the truth gives rise to transformation and change. It is precisely this power that authors of creative nonfiction tap into when they decide to write their stories. What to reveal and what to leave unspoken becomes, then, a decision of conscience.
Risk of Exposure
Authors of all genres must negotiate complicated risks, both real and perceived, as they write. In her book Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams delved into her and her family's personal journeys through her mother's death. Connie May Fowler, who wrote about an abusive relationship in When Katie Wakes, had to think about the possibility of reprisal from her abuser. Molly Peacock's memoir, Paradise Piece by Piece, explores the private decision not to have children; the book also involves the personal stories of the people who influenced that decision-her parents, her sister, and also her lovers. And in Bodies in Motion and at Rest, Thomas Lynch writes essays about the living people who populate his life, including an alcoholic son. All these writers had to make decisions about how to navigate the tricky waters of privacy.
"All writers worry about how much they can tell for two reasons," Molly Peacock says. "They worry about being sued and they worry about damaging personal relationships. These are real concerns."
The problem, she says is that writers often get the two issues confused. "People don't realize that you can't be sued for telling the truth," she said. As for personal relationships, she says, "I had the perfect right to my own story and my family's story as it related to me. But I didn't have a right to my friends' stories."
She says that she negotiated the lines of privacy with every person in her memoir. "I discovered there is no one line. Lines must be drawn but each line is a different negotiation because every relationship is different."
She says that writing about her dad was "fair game" not only because he was dead, but because she was angry enough to tell the story. She claimed the right to her mother's story because she'd been telling it to Peacock her whole life. Writing her sister's story was slightly more problematic; Peacock worried about being sued. "She was such an out-of-control person. Then I sent her a little piece of the memoir and she loved it. She was all for it. I would have never thought it. I was afraid of her and threw that over into the legal arena," Peacock says.
Terry Tempest Williams calls writers to courage saying, "Our writing is only as strong as we are. The minute we pick up our pen, we are on the path of betrayal."
The challenge, Williams says, is to tell the story straight. "Nakedness is our shield. You can't protect yourself anyway, so you may as well tell the truth. We are all survivors of our own circumstances."
She admits every writer has to find his/her own ethical stance. She made the choice to let her family see Refuge before submitting the book to a publisher. Williams's father objected to a scene in the book where she describes him weeping at the imminent death of his wife. Williams negotiated with her father and he eventually agreed the scene could stay. However, without compromising the integrity of her story, she did relent on other details that her father felt were simply too private to expose.
Sometimes the death of a parent or other leading "character" liberates the writer to tell the story more fully. Although Connie May Fowler's memoir is about domestic violence, it delves into her abuse at the hands of her parents, especially her mother.
"The memoir would have never been written if she (mother) had been alive-no way on this planet," Fowler says. She delved into emotional honesty through her autobiographical novel, Before Women Had Wings. But in the memoir, "I took off the mantle. I took off the tag of fiction to write this."
Peacock agrees that in her book, the death of both her mother and sister allowed for a certain freedom to write boldly. "Once my sister passed away I felt I could say anything... There's a terrible way in which it's a better book because I didn't censor myself in anything."
Writing about living people does require finesse, and Thomas Lynch says he garners permission every step of the way. In an essay, "The Way We Are," Lynch explores his son's chemical dependency through his own battle with alcoholism. Although Lynch could readily choose to reveal himself, his son's story was another matter. "I had to have not only his permission," Lynch says, "I had to have his sober permission." Fortunately for readers, Lynch's son gave it.
"I like to avoid surprises," he said and says he asks friends, both before writing about them and before sending the essays to publishers, for their permission. In some cases friends said yes to begin with but later decided to remain anonymous. In these cases, Lynch, like many authors facing the same dilemma, used literary techniques to protect people's privacy. He changed the details or used composite characters to conceal their identities.
These techniques stir heated controversy in discussions about creative nonfiction. While journalism demands adherence to literal truth, creative nonfiction allows for the use of fictional techniques to get at the heart of emotional truth. The tension between "creative" and "nonfiction" in this genre creates a lengthy debate worthy of another article. However, using this practice to maintain privacy of individuals is not uncommon. In interviews with Williams, Lynch, Peacock, Fowler, and Rodger Kamenetz, author of Terra Infirma: A Memoir of My Mother's Life in Mine, all conceded a judicious use of these techniques.
Kamenetz says there are necessary concessions in dealing with the difficulties of privacy. "I have the right to tell the story because it's also my story," he said about his memoir, a reflection on the illness and death of his mother. "But when it comes to privacy, my story is also your story. The question is, where does your story begin and my story end?"
Connie May Fowler never names her abuser. Instead she refers to him throughout her book as "you." Fowler says she stumbled upon the technique as she began the memoir. "It was so natural, this direct address to the abuser. As I did it I began to realize there was power in it. It was so intimate and kept the tension and immediacy up front."
Although Fowler did not inform her boyfriend of the book she was writing, she did ask for permission from her sister to divulge details of their abusive childhood.
"If she had objected to anything, I wouldn't have published it," Fowler said. "I got the green light from her. She didn't have any objections and I think the memoir has helped her to heal as well."
In the end, Molly Peacock encourages writers to write first, to write honestly, and to worry about the risks later. "It's best to go forward with your own truths and then go forward with your negotiations," she advises. "The legal issues and the psychological trespass issues should be left to later when the work is done."
She claims that authors write memoirs in order to figure things out, and that the writing itself is a genuine process of discovery. To self-censor over worries about privacy issues is to limit the possibilities of discovery. "Say whatever it is in you to say. You can decide later what to publish... you will endlessly be coping with obstacles if you don't."
The key, she says, is to commit to clarity-using qualifiers that indicate the narrator is explaining things from the "I" point of view. This use of qualifiers sends signals to the reader that the narrator is a participant and witness to an experience, and that this point of view is limited. Phrases such as "If I had been a calmer person...", "If I'd had more money...", "If I didn't have low blood sugar..." all indicate that the author is writing from a specific experience and not from an omnipotent point of view.
"You're dealing with a question of authority and we're the only authorities of our own experience," she says. "If I can get my perceptions down as clearly as possible, I will have come as close to validating my experience as possible."
Williams reiterates the need for writers to write from a place of deep inner truth. "Writing is the process of dying every day on the page. If we fail this century it will be out of fear. I do not want to fail out of fear."
One reason to write with uncensored candor is that the "before" worries during the writing process are seldom the "after" realities of the publishable work. Nearly every author interviewed was surprised by some aspect of the response to their work.
Rodger Kamenetz says he was surprised when the first printing of The Jew in the Lotus, generated a pained phone call from a woman mentioned in only one sentence of the book. It never occurred to him that by divulging what seemed to him an ironic fact, he might be trespassing on her privacy. For her sake, though under no legal obligation, he removed the sentence in subsequent printings.
Connie May Fowler was asked by the legal department of her publisher to furnish evidence of her abuse. Even though she didn't name the abuser in her book, he was a prominent man in the community and could be recognized. Attorneys for the publisher interviewed her medical doctor, her friends, and employers to prepare a legal defense in case the book spurred a libel suit. It wasn't until she came across an audio tape of a conversation and altercation with the abuser that the publishers decided to go ahead with the book.
Terry Tempest Williams says that while she anticipated her father's reaction to Refuge, she was surprised by her brother's comment, "I can't believe what a minor character I am in your book."
Although Molly Peacock worried about her sister's litigious tendencies as she wrote her memoir, her publisher was more concerned about the sister's boyfriend. Peacock's memoir mentions his business in drug trafficking. The publisher's legal department asked her to change any detail that might reveal who he was. "He's the least likely person I know who would drive a pickup with a gun rack," she says. But at the publisher's request, she used fictional details to hide his identity.
These examples are mentioned to illustrate that legal concerns are too broad and arbitrary to possibly shape a work in progress. In addition, libel laws are governed by state laws that vary from state to state. According to the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, "A plaintiff may make a claim under the law of the state in which the plaintiff lives at the time of publication."
Two types of laws cover the legal arena of privacy issues: those concerning defamation (in oral form called slander, in written form called libel), and those concerning right to privacy. The MLA Style Manual states: "The tort of defamation has been recognized and remedied by English law for hundreds of years before the American Revolution. The concepts underlying the English common law of defamation were taken into American common law early in American history... In law defamation is a published false statement of fact about a living person that exposes the person to public hatred, ridicule, contempt, or disgrace, induces an evil opinion of the person in the minds of others, or deprives the person of friendly relations in society."
Although libel laws are set and enforced by various state laws, authors cannot be sued for statements of opinion. Neither can they be sued for telling the truth. However, the MLA notes "Belief in the truth of an offending statement is different from the ability to prove the truth of such a statement." In other words, writers should research and make sure their facts are accurate. And finally, "actual malice" must be proven for a libel suit to be successful. Publication had to be made "with the knowledge that the material was false or with reckless disregard of the truth."
The bottom line is that responsible research and honorable intentions are usually enough to keep authors and publishers out of legal hot water. Truth is considered a complete defense and the more tangible the evidence of truth (public records, etc.) the better.
Unlike defamation law, the laws of privacy are a development of the 20th century. In 1890, Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis wrote an article in the Harvard Law Review called "The Right to Privacy." In 1902, in the case of Roberson vs. Rochester Folding Box Co, New York's highest court held that the right of privacy did not exist in common law or equity. In response to that court decision, the New York legislature passed a law to ensure the right to privacy, making it illegal to use the likeness of an individual for advertising or trade without their consent. Privacy laws since Roberson vs. Rochester Folding Box Co. have been evolving ever since.
Spy technology during the Cold War gave rise to questions about state-sponsored surveillance. This technology was later used to investigate individuals involved in the Civil Rights movement and in anti-Vietnam War protests. Questions about the intrusion of government and media into private lives continues to be grist for the court mill. In general-and to varying degrees-states currently recognize the right to privacy in four respects:
Unreasonable intrusion on the seclusion of
Appropriation of another's name or likeness
without permission for advertising or purposes of
- Unreasonable publicity of another's private life
- Publicity placing another in a false light
In privacy cases, proof that the plaintiff consented to the "invasion" is a complete defense. Some states require proof of consent-often providing impetus for authors and publishers to ask for written permission from their sources.
Peacock received first verbal and then written consent from her husband, Mike Groden, to include him in her memoir. Insurance policies are also available. Peacock took out a policy to protect her from the possibility of being sued by a man whose relationship with Peacock created several defining moments in the book. She checked with an attorney who claimed nothing she had written fell into a legally difficult realm. She took out the insurance just in case.
The most important ally in court and in one's conscience is the truth. In her essay "Sweet Uses of Adversity," Peacock writes, "Shearing off the secret from the private first exposes deceit, then allows the subsequent revealed integrity of the truth its modesty. For the truth is modest. However once bold or once buried, one's profoundly held truth possesses modesty because by its nature it can't be either underestimating or grandiose. It is itself."
Serving the Work
Fear of legal entanglement and concerns over the trespass on another's privacy can cripple a writer's ability to get at the heart of the story she is trying to tell. That is not to say that these issues are not legitimate concerns. However, if the work is honest and the writer is truthful, she has little to fear. Perhaps the most important question to ask in the process of writing is whether or not the disclosure of private thoughts, events, conversations, and anecdotes will serve the work at hand.
Vivian Gornick, author of the classic memoir Fierce Attachments, made a promise to herself as she wrote about her mother that "no plot turn, no narrative device was ever to conclude itself with me in a self-serving position or Mama in a defensive one"
In her essay "On the Question of Invaded Privacy in Memoir Writing" Gornick says, "A memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a sustained narrative prose that bears the same responsibility as does all writing: to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom."
It seems then that how something is written is as important as what is being revealed.
"Truth mitigated by empathy" is key according to Connie May Fowler.
In "Sweet Uses of Adversity," Molly Peacock writes, "Truth always forms its own integrity, separate from whatever emotional and social context that generates it. Truth lifts experience out of the personal into the universal, exploding secrecy, and by doing so grants the personality of the writer her integrity, her privacy, even if she has just used an intimate detail of her own life."
Cathleen Medwick, reflects on her work as a journalist writing for a house magazine. Her essay, "An Inside Story," explores privacy and how people present themselves when the world is watching: "I examine pristine bathrooms without odors, where not even tiny droplets of water cling to the marble basins. Occasionally, I see a daughter's room with armchairs upholstered to match the draperies, and dolls arranged stiffly, like corpses, on carefully dusted shelves."
We long to know more about the life that is lived inside the walls of the house. Medwick looks at the history of rooms and how they became an answer to the growing need for privacy as the human spirit flowered into self-awareness.
On another level, the house serves as a metaphor about the stories writers tell and the tricky issues of privacy they face as they attempt to write about their own and other people's lives. As writers, will we tell the story of a single room, or the story of the entire house? What closets will we open? In what light will we examine the room-in the harsh light of an investigation? Or in the amber light of lyric poetry?
A story or poem or article has shape and form. When authors write what serves the story, by necessity they leave some things unsaid. As authors make choices about what to reveal, they are creating space, making a "room" to share with the reader. The goal of the writer, then, is to create a room that invites the reader to stay.
Medwick describes a home that she particularly remembers: "What the house contained though, mainly, was presences. Almost every object could tell a story of a friend who had passed through, or a child who had outgrown everything except memory... Fewer people visited now, but the owner couldn't look out the window without seeing a tree that someone had planted for her a generation earlier, or the low cinder-block walls her friends would sit on for a barbecue in the garden. People who did come by these days felt instantly at home because the house made room for them. By passing through, they became part of its history, which was not official, as in most historically accurate old houses, but personal. No one could invade the owner's privacy because she was never alone."
The point that Medwick makes in architecture and decoration applies to writing as well. The room a writer creates need not be comfortable, but it must have life. It must have presences, flesh and blood, heart and bone. Characters are brought to life by the use of sensory detail, giving the reader something concrete to look at, to touch, see, hear, and smell.
In order to be authentic, to be real, that literary room must also reveal the fragility or imperfection of those presences. The room must expose a certain amount of dust and cobwebs and popcorn wedged between sofa cushions.
Joseph Mitchell, in his collection of New Yorker profiles, Up in the Old Hotel, allowed the people he wrote about to read his manuscripts before they were published as articles. Mitchell's work seems to indicate that the question is not so much a matter of what stays hidden in the closet, but rather that all discoveries (the empty whiskey bottle under the bed, an earring on a rumpled pillow) can be handled with a measure of compassion and respect.
Of course this can be a difficult enterprise, when the whiskey bottle represents a lifetime of heartbreak, or when the earring belongs to the "other" woman.
Connie May Fowler said in her lecture at the October 2002 residency at Spalding University's Masters of Fine Arts in Writing program that writing memoir is always about revenge. The audience laughed, but the concept brings up a variety of considerations. What is the purpose of creating the room in which a story resides? Rooms often have a particular function: entertainment in the den; nourishment in the kitchen; intimacy in the bedroom. When the reader enters the room of a story, will she be entertained, or nourished, or touched in some way? In order for a story to work, something private must be revealed, something that allows the reader to trust that the narrator is honest and sincere.
Our task as writers is to learn how to create inviting spaces for the reader to stay. If we've done our jobs well, the reader will leave our rooms reluctantly, having felt at home in a place not their own.
A Final Word
The cost of examining the painful realities of one's life and committing it to art took a personal toll on nearly all the writers interviewed for this article. Drawing from the well of one's own experience is not easy. Rodger Kamenetz claims if he had to do it again, he would not have written Terra Infirma: A Memoir of My Mother's Life in Mine.
"My mother had died, unfortunately, but I think if you feel something strongly about your mother, you should talk to your mother," Kamenetz said. "Doing that would have made me a different kind of person."
He admits, however, that at the time, writing the book hardly felt like a choice. "I didn't choose to write the book. For the three years it took to write I was obsessed by it."
Connie May Fowler said she started writing her memoir, When Katie Wakes, as a tribute to her dog, yet the story graphically describes the horrors of domestic violence. "I went into it innocently, not knowing how hard it would be. I wasn't ready to write it, but in an odd way that helped contribute to its rawness," she said. "Writing the book helped me get to a new point in my life. From here on my art and work will be artistically bolder."
A creative nonfiction writing exercise at a Spalding MFA in Writing residency proved how wrenching the writing of personal narrative can be. MFA students of all genres were asked to write a personal response to a public event such as the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Voices shook, hands trembled, and tears flowed as seasoned writers shared their writing in small groups. No one anticipated the emotional cost of this exercise or the "down time" some students needed afterward to recover. The risk of crossing boundaries is not just limited to trespassing on another's privacy: the ultimate challenge may lie in breaking through our reluctance to move into the tender and vulnerable places of our own lives.
As writers we must be willing to take those risks, not for journalistic reasons of the truth as fact, but for the sake of shaping the work into an art that transcends the circumstances about which we are writing. Writing hard truths with candor and compassion legitimizes and validates not only one's personal experience but, when artfully done, offers a passageway to universal truths that can illuminate and liberate.
Seasoned authors such as Terry Tempest Williams, Molly Peacock, Connie May Fowler, Rodger Kamenetz, and Thomas Lynch all had to tackle privacy issues when writing their memoirs and essays. Theirs were not the questions of "amateurs" but the legitimate concerns of writers everywhere. It turns out that permission to write about these hard truths is more easily gained than one might imagine-so long as truth, compassion, and empathy are braided throughout the work.
All authors agreed that writing is often a process of painful discovery. However, the movement toward greater honesty-writing about hard truths in the light of compassion-will serve the work by creating a room for the reader that is alive with presences.
Kaylene Johnson is a graduate of Spalding University 's MFA in Writing Program. She recently completed This Caribou Season, a memoir about raising sons in Alaska 's wild places. Johnson is the author of Portrait of the Alaska Railroad.
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