These days, anyone with access to the internet can tell their life story, share every intimate detail of their interpersonal interactions with the entire world. And with such easy access to a readership comes a seeming lack of boundaries, a falling away of the moral codes which prevent us from sharing stories that compromise another person’s privacy and integrity.
I understand why the author of the Open Letter wished to communicate with his ex. I’ve written many emails to my ex partner, and him to me. But why an open letter? The recipient of an open letter is not the purported addressee, but rather the public. D’Ambrosio was not communicating with his ex; he was communicating directly with his readers. He was attempting to convey to the world what a wonderful, loving husband he was, presumably to garner sympathy and/or manipulate his ex into taking him back - or, more likely, to pull sympathy away from her and her decision. And it is not fair on his ex, who presumably did not consent to having his version of their joint narrative shared with the public. There is a line that exists between sharing one’s own stories and exploiting the other people in your life, and he crossed it.
And he’s not the only one. I am so dispirited by the myriad of pieces I read every day that ruthlessly and insensitively appropriate other people’s narratives. Mothers reveal their children’s deeply personal struggles, adult children write of their parents’ private lives, siblings write of old wrongdoings, without permission, without considering the extent to which it would compromise the other person.
Now, obviously our own narratives are shaped by our experiences in relation to the other people in our lives. Without sharing details of the way their lives impacted ours, we would have no stories. I am reading Dear Sugar’s brilliant book at the moment, and she writes of her husband’s infidelity (presumably with his consent) and her father’s abuse (presumably without). And in both cases, these stories are vital to the message she is conveying to the reader. In the first case, she is writing of the complexities of marriage, and how infidelity does not necessarily have to be a deal breaker. In the second, she is advising a girl who needs to cut off contact with her father, for reasons similar to her own.
Stories in contexts like these have meaning and purpose. They are not exploitive because they are fundamental to the story, and withhold the most personal of details. But when a story is there purely to titillate or garner hits, and it could compromise or embarrass the subject, then it is exploitation in its purest form.
Fiction writers often claim to write fiction to ‘tell the truth’, and that resonates strongly with me. If your writing could compromise other people in your life, then write it as fiction. Write it anonymously and change the names. Write it under your own name and change identifying details. And if you can’t do any of that, show some damn restraint. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Writers need a moral code too. And readers don’t like to be party to someone else’s impropriety.