On the Ethics of Writing About Your Family

November 5, 2014 by Maurice Mierau

My new book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, deals with the most intimate aspects of family life. As you’d expect from the title, that includes the adoption of our sons, and their new lives with me and my wife Betsy. But it also includes the most difficult and personal parts of our family history: my sons’ abandonment by their biological mother in Ukraine, flashbacks to my father’s traumatic childhood fleeing from the same country in World War II, and the impact of these past events on me, on our family formation, and on my marriage.

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My new book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, deals with the most intimate aspects of family life. As you’d expect from the title, that includes the adoption of our sons, and their new lives with me and my wife Betsy. But it also includes the most difficult and personal parts of our family history: my sons’ abandonment by their biological mother in Ukraine, flashbacks to my father’s traumatic childhood fleeing from the same country in World War II, and the impact of these past events on me, on our family formation, and on my marriage.

What’s more, I could have waited a more dignified amount of time, like Donald Antrim did in his brilliant memoir The Afterlife, which is largely about his deceased mother. The recent events detailed in my memoir happened between 2005, when we adopted our sons Peter and Bohdan, and 2010, which means I made the choice to publish a book about my children while they are still growing up (we adopted them at ages three and five, and they are now thirteen and almost fifteen).

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Many people would question my choice to publish such material. In fact, when the book first received national publicity in September, I immediately had a response on my Facebook page that said I’d “subjected these especially vulnerable kids… to a permanent loss of privacy that was without their consent.” The post goes on to say that while my motivations may have been “catharsis” or “allegedly, public education,” ultimately I’ve cursed my children to a future of psychotherapy, when really my own course of therapy should have been completed.

I wrote a tactful response about how I hoped that my children would see the book as a gift to them, a gift that “put the pieces of their past together with the pieces of mine, and not as a further trauma or simply an invasion of their privacy.” In fact this is how Betsy and I had talked to the boys about the book before it was published. And while they acquiesced at the time—though I didn’t take what seemed to me the meaningless step of asking their permission to publish—one of them is ambivalent now in ways that my Facebook respondent might have predicted.

Since then, though I’ve received many comments from people who have complimented me on my honesty in making my own struggles part of public discussion about adoption and the impact of childhood trauma, that negative Facebook post has stuck in my mind. And it’s occurred to me that Google searches could have more of an impact on my sons than the book itself.

It’s easy to dismiss such concerns: you could argue that personal revelation is part of memoir as a genre, or that writers as artists have license to use whatever materials they want, or that such a book is just my subjective take on events that affected the members of my family. The first two of these arguments are circular, and the last one also evades ethical responsibility by falsely suggesting that all of us have the same access to public attention.  

Of course I’m not the first writer to struggle with the ethics of using family members as material. Susan Olding, in her book Pathologies: A Life in Essays (2008), deals with writing about her adopted daughter in a compelling piece titled “Mama’s Voices.” In a key passage her creative writing instructor tells Olding that “to write a book about my daughter’s trauma would be to re-inscribe it. It would be a huge betrayal.” Olding responds:

“Suppose I wrote a book of poems?”
“Oh.” She pauses. “That would be okay. That would be different.”
But why? Because nobody would read it?

And indeed here we are in a unique area of literary hypocrisy, as Olding implies. Confessional poetry is a literary convention that apparently insulates the author from ethical censure, and quite possibly also from an audience, which might be the real reason it’s safe. My own experience as a poet includes publishing poems like “Advice on being a Man,” which bears the dedication “for my son Jeremy at seventeen,“ and while I’ve read it numerous times in public to audiences across Canada, no one has ever questioned whether it was appropriate to give my oldest son advice about his sex life in a public forum.

In the world beyond books, popular culture has normalized the most extreme forms of personal confession on reality television as a form of entertainment. And even though I find much reality TV vulgar and distasteful, I admit to being fascinated enough to have watched numerous seasons of Survivor.

The same kind of material in a much older format, the autobiographical book, can both attract readers and repel members of the author’s family, who may feel that a line has been crossed. For example, when Karl Ove Knausgaard published A Death in the Family (presented as an “autobiographical novel,” but treated by the public as his life story), his fellow Norwegians eagerly read and discussed the book, but some of his family members were appalled by the embarrassing revelations about their secrets, and even initiated legal challenges.

No one in my family has tried to sue me, but I’d like to come back to Olding’s essay. She describes how, at the writers’ retreat she attended, her instructors had encouraged her to

Write about what obsesses you. Write about what bothers you, what you can’t get your head around. Write what keeps you awake.

My daughter is what obsesses me. My daughter keeps me awake.

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I had the same problem in a slightly more complicated form. When I began writing what would become Detachment, in 2003, I was going to write a book about my Mennonite father’s childhood. His earliest memory is witnessing a Holocaust atrocity in Ukraine. His father was killed by the Stalinist government, and he has largely repressed the memory of his mother being gang raped by Russian soldiers at the end of the war. However, the gaps in his story, even with the extraordinary help of his older sister as a witness, were too large: I would have needed to write fiction in order to make a book out of my dad’s childhood experience.

Two years later, in 2005, we adopted our sons in Ukraine, and I became obsessed with their story, and with the relationship of their story to my father’s. It would take six years of attempts and 300 pages of discarded manuscript before I understood the relationship between those stories and myself well enough to write a memoir. What I didn’t realize yet was that the act of telling the story for others, for people beyond my family and circle of friends, was going to improve my ability to empathize with my sons, my father, and my wife.

And there a voice cackles in my mind, asking if this latest rationalization is not just a form of narcissism that justifies airing the family’s laundry in the name of personal therapy: my original sin as cited on Facebook.  

In “Answering Moneta,” Olding’s astonishing essay about the poet John Keats, and about her father, who was a pathologist, she follows a discussion of body snatching in nineteenth-century England with this observation:

Personal or “confessional” writers, who tell about ourselves, violate the taboo against showing. We must not put ourselves at the centre, for that is solipsistic, narcissistic, limited, self-indulgent. And writers who focus on the lives of others are no less feared or deplored. To write about another person—especially without the drapery and disguise of fiction—is inevitably, like the anatomist, to use a human being in the service of a truth. To write about almost anything, it seems, is to trespass against decorum and “decent burial.”

Decorum, though sometimes convenient, is the enemy of truth. Violating that surface of decorum, of acceptance of the status quo, is what literature ought to be doing: telling us the truth about our lives, in all their complicated pains and joys.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking—I’ve now transformed myself into a martyr for the truth, as brought down from the mountain by Literature. Philip Lopate, in an essay “On the Ethics of Writing about Others,” says that “writing about one’s family or intimates can be an aggressive, vindictive act,” but that it also can be “a ‘gift’ of the truth of your feelings.” However, he suggests two rules: first that you never attempt to settle scores, and second that you “try to write as beautifully as possible.” Lopate concludes that “the quandary remains obdurate”; he’s not prepared to waltz off into a sunset of beautiful sentences, and urges writers to “accept the guilt” if people are offended.

So in accepting whatever guilt comes my way, I won’t even bother with the argument, amplified for me by media coverage of Detachment, that the challenges of adoption ought to be more widely discussed in public, for the benefit of prospective parents and others involved. I happen to believe this, but does such a discussion necessitate blurring the boundaries between public and private the way my book does?

One night in 2009, when I was struggling with how to begin the book so it would be compelling to a reader, I asked my wife Betsy’s advice—she’d read my early drafts. She said that I had to “go deep” and delve into my own emotional life; she thought I needed to get out of the past and not focus so much on World War II. The book now opens with a section called “Shrinking,” where I talk to a psychologist about my fights with Betsy, and Peter’s running away from home, among other incidents that would normally be kept private. I consulted with Betsy extensively while writing and editing, and she let me make nearly all the final decisions, but she too has her ambivalences and discomfort about what I did include.

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In the years it took to write this book, I tried my best to follow Lopate’s second rule, and write as beautifully as possible, whether the events I described were joyful or among the most painful that anyone can experience. Here is the passage from Detachment where we meet our son Peter:

Peter lay on the bed nearest the door, in a light blue turtleneck and sweatpants. He had a block-shaped head, long eyelashes, and luminescent silver-green eyes under short brown hair. His face was pudgy and handsome; right between his eyebrows was a big X-shaped bandage. He had just awakened.

Another child pushed Peter into the bedpost last night, the director explained, just at the time Oleg phoned to say we were coming. It was an accident. But Peter had needed three stitches to close the wound.

The orphanage director seated herself on Peter’s bed and stroked his hair. She said mom and dad a few times, the only words that I understood. Peter looked at us with his eyes pulsing. Then Oleg spoke to him, and Peter responded with a high-pitched, rapid-fire barrage of words that Oleg translated.

“I dreamed about an elephant, a bear, and a fox, in a big forest,” Peter said. “I was running and scared. And then I slept in my bed. Down the road through the forest came my mother and father, to take me away.” He smiled and I noticed that his ears stuck out. Betsy looked at me with tears tracking down her cheeks. I decided to kill anyone who might laugh at Peter’s bandage even if his broad forehead did remind me of Frankenstein.

Through Oleg, Betsy asked Peter if he had any brothers or sisters.

“Yes, I have a baby brother, Bohdan! Where is he? Can I see him?”

Oleg said that he’d have to wait, and showed Peter a picture of Bohdan on his digital camera. Peter’s face lit up with joy.

“Pampushka!” he said, laughing and pointing at Bohdan’s fleshy cheeks in the picture. Pampushka, Oleg explained, were little garlic buns. Bohdan had put on baby fat in the orphanage.

As I stood there staring at Peter, I thought of my father’s escape from eastern Germany in 1945: a little boy, running to a soundtrack of Russian rifle fire through a beet field, running toward safety and the death of his mother.

Peter held a plastic bag that contained all his property — a scribbler filled with doodles, a single wooden block, and the candy we’d given him. He sat in Betsy’s lap, chattering as if she understood him. Then he plunked himself on my lap. He clutched my hand to his chest like he was afraid of drowning in the open air, pulled my arms tight around him, talking and talking without a pause for breath. Oleg was no longer translating but I didn’t care…

In the end I don’t know that any logical justification is possible for writing about your family in ways that might compromise their need for privacy. What I’m left with is perhaps a form of magical thinking: an almost mystical belief in the power of narrative to help us empathize with others by imagining, as vividly as possible, their experience and their sufferings. If I’ve achieved that even partially, then maybe, now or in the future, my sons will understand why I dedicated Detachment to them, and why I still see the book as a gift for them and for readers in the world beyond my family.  

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Born in Indiana, Maurice Mierau grew up in Nigeria, Manitoba, Jamaica, Kansas, and Saskatchewan, and now lives in Winnipeg with his family. You can watch a video trailer for Detachment: An Adoption Memoir here. Maurice is also the author of several books of poetry, including Fear Not, which won the ReLit Award in 2009.


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