Monday, July 25, 2005

Whose Story Is It?

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?

6 comments:

Janis Jaquith said...

I just got the word from son Waldo that his upcoming wedding is forbidden territory -- I've been told not to write about it. Harrumph.

Kathy Shearer said...

I dealt with just this issue while writing a history of Dante, Virginia, an old Pittston coal town that has been through rough economic times. I interviewed about 50 people who gave me their stories quite freely, and I had to chose what to use. I decided to take this opportunity to emphasize the many positives of life in this close-knit company town while acknowledging the struggles. When considering an important story that I thought might cause someone pain, I made the call and sought permission. I also had a local person, someone well respected, read each chapter and give me his thoughts on the content. The resulting book has reinstilled a lot of pride and has become the catalyst for a new community revival non-profit, Dante Lives On. And, we're all still friends!

Bethany said...

I write fiction--and well, I use some of my life experiences mimick some similar situations in my books. Do I tell the people these events so closely resemble? no. Why? Well I have made it a habit to change major pieces of the puzzle so they don't match exactly.

You know, to save my ass. :-)

Miss Snark said...

Look what happened to Augusten Burroughs, author of Running With Scissors. Hello lawsuit.

A very interesting question, considering the courts have held people have an "expectatin of privacy" from government....but haven't weighed in yet on ..um..relatives who fancy themselves Anais Nin.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, you can't help people's responses. My first wife read a short story of mine and said she caught on that I had based a character on her. Since she liked it, I decided not to tell her that I had written the story years before I met her.

kitty said...

People don't remember things the same way. My brother and I remember growing up poor; my mother, who had come from money, doesn't.

The problem with writing about other people is that they can, in turn, tell their version of you. Which sucks because my family is loaded with great stories ... especially my husband's family ;)