While traveling a couple of weeks ago, I reunited with a friend I hadn't seen in more than 20 years, whom I shall call "Jane." Over dinner with her and another long-lost mutual friend, I shared news of my life and that of our friend "Kevin." We all had a great time, and when we parted I was full of warm, fuzzy feelings over old ties renewed.
Last week, Jane sent out an e-newsletter chronicling recent events in her life, with a good one-third devoted to our meeting, including liberal quotes of what I'd said over dinner about Kevin's personal life. Many of the salient details were dead wrong, and I sounded like a gossipy bitch. I only found out about this when Jane proudly forwarded me a response to her newsletter from an old acquaintance of mine (whom I didn't know she knew), who'd gone to college with Kevin.
I felt betrayed that Jane would broadcast my private remarks, and mortified at the thought that word would get back to Kevin. And as a journalist, I was furious that Jane hadn't bothered to tell me beforehand that I would be "on the record," or to verify my quotes afterwards.
When we finally spoke, Jane couldn't understand why I was so upset. She explained that she'd been sending weekly newsletters for some time, and supposedly they were being archived at some institution along with papers from her earlier life as an activist. Jane said that she sees herself as a cross between Anais Nin and Michael Musto (I made a mental note to laugh about that later), and that her life is in the public domain. "Well, mine isn't!" I snapped.
Following the first rule of politics ("Kill the story before it kills you"), I called Kevin and told him the gist of what happened. However, I didn't think it necessary--or kind--to let him know exactly what Jane had written. So there's been no bad fallout.
However, this affair caused me to think about some larger issues. Namely: Whose story is it? When you write about your own experiences, where do you draw the line between your life and others'? Whose memory is right? (think of "Rashomon") And what do you owe the people you write about? Do you describe them and your feelings about them exactly, even though it might hurt them? Do you ask permission to write about them? Do you even tell them at all--and if you don't, are you opening yourself up to legal action?