Ethics in Writing Lives

Confessional accounts are popular today. Memoirs seem to compete to tell the most secrets. A Martian reading these books would think all American families are full of abuse, alcoholism, and conflict. Accordingly, some biographers expose every failing of a subject to the neglect of its virtues. These books offer solace to those readers who have similar histories, and give entertaining voyeurism to others. They have useful functions, which is why they are so popular.

But what about the effect of the story on individuals? What about the ethics of writing about others or one’s own life? Can life writing do harm as well as good? Thinking about this topic, I found only two books that examine these questions. (G. Thomas Couser, Vulnerable Subjects , Paul John Eakin, The Ethics of Life Writing.)

When I started writing biography I faced these questions with little guidance. Since my subjects, Charmian Kittredge and Jack London, were long dead, they had the distance of time to separate them from their ancestors. But previous biographies, ones full of errors, had left the descendants wary. They wanted an honest account, but not one full of invention for sensation’s sake. Being a trained researcher assured them I would look to the best evidence. I also emphasized it was not my role to tell their preferred version if I found otherwise.

While researching another book, the archivist handed me a file about a lesser known family member. That person had an astonishing life, one that promised to offer an entertaining diversion from the key members. Wow, so much sex and other sensational tales!. After taking copious notes I closed the file to note a comment on the front: Not for Circulation. It is common for parts of family archives to be closed from view, as Jackie Kennedy did by placing a fifty-year ban on readers. I alerted the archivist and affirmed I would not use the material. Although it was his error, I was bound by ethics to keep silent.

In a way, fiction is worse because a character necessarily has features and experiences unlike the person modelled. Those who do biographies of writers know to separate the fiction from the person. Jack London the person was quite different from the male characters in novels that seem autobiographical.

I also think about the ethics of my informants. Are they trying to manipulate me? How can I verify their stories? Few do, but a touch of cynicism always aids the research.

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