Ethics in Memoir

As part of Elwood Writers online anthology launch, host Lee Kofman had prepared a question for me on the ethics of writing about one’s family. 

‘Margaret, your memoirs in this collection feature various family members. What are your main ethical challenges when you write about others and how do you deal with them?’ 

The launch took off with great élan, and there was no time for this question. What would I have said about my story, The Lamb’? On this occasion I had asked my mother’s permission to write about her, but on many other occasions I have not. Honestly, I don’t think there are any ethical guidelines in memoir that will shield you entirely from familial rebuke. The memoirist might write with the best of intentions, but that doesn’t mean that someone, somewhere, doesn’t get hurt.

When one of my brothers found out I was writing about my life with our veteran father he immediately wanted to know when he could sue me. He was being funny, of course, but there’s truth in every joke. ‘You can’t sue yet,’ I answered ‘because I haven’t written it’. But that doesn’t mean he won’t.

Mum agreed to the publishing of ‘The Lamb’ one rainy day when we were driving together. The windscreen wipers flashed back and forth in time to her thoughts. Finally she nodded, ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Those days must be accounted for.’

In personal essay, I try to be toughest on myself. But what I might find an amusing family anecdote, could make someone else feel uncomfortable.

In the end, none of this can stop the memoirist. The bottom line is that it’s our story, and we have to tell it in the best way we know how. In the end it’s our job to reach for the truth – at least, the truth as we see it.

‘The Lamb’ appears in Every Second Tuesday, an anthology by Elwood Writers. It’s available at Readings or any international online outlet.

Categories: memoir writing, non-fiction, families,

One thought on “Ethics in Memoir

  1. You are so right Margaret – in the end it IS our story as we see it and want to tell it. Hard though as you say as you never know the reaction from family members and others.


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