January 4, 2015

When Your Writing Compromises Another

Yesterday I read ‘An Open Letter To My Ex-Wife’ on Huff Post. Apart from the fact that the writing itself was sappy, self-indulgent, and utterly manipulative (Have sympathy for me! My wife left me despite me loving her so, so much I wrote this beautiful love note! How awesome a husband must I have been to be so loving! And so brave, too, to rise from the devastation of the break-up and pen this letter!) it infuriated me that anyone – the man, the editors of Huff Post – could compromise another person’s privacy so fully.

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.

26 comments:

  1. I finally managed to catch up some reading last week and the article I read coincides with this post of yours Kerri. It seems as though it may be the "thing" at the moment to air private matters whether they're yours or someone else's regardless what damage will be incurred: http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2014/november/1414760400/ceridwen-dovey/pencil-and-damage-done

    ReplyDelete
  2. As I said to to (jokingly) on Twitter the other day, with great power comes great responsibility...


    ...we all need to remember that every time we publish something, whether it be a blog, or newspaper column, or book...

    ReplyDelete
  3. I recall discovering Somerset Maugham in my early 20s (half a lifetime and some more ago) and being amazed at his imagination. In my mid-20s I read his biography (Somerset and all the Maughams) and realised many (if not most!) of his writing was either autobiographical or biographical, based on his own life or those he knew, and I learnt that those he wrote about were not happy about it! I was never able to read his stories with the same delight again. It seems to me as a writer it's either fiction or it's not. And if it's not based on fiction, then all the name and location changes are not going to mask it as so.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I completely agree - I don't want to read a story that wasn't yours to tell.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm sorry, but I disagree. I have written extensively about my ex, his abuse of me and his criminal activities relating to an underage minor. I want to expose him, I want him to pay, I want people to know what a scumbag he is. I want to ruin his life, the way he ruined mine. If I write a book one day it will include names and places, and appropriate legal advice. Some people don't deserve second and third chances and he's had both.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Lana (Sharpest Pencil)January 4, 2015 at 8:01 PM

    I agree with you in principle but I don't agree with you about this particular open letter. For centuries writers, poets and singers have told their love stories through words - for me this man's letter is the same. I do not see him as manipulative, I see him as hurt, I see his writing as a way of healing and he is only telling his side of the story - except for the part where he says he told her he would tell the world about his love - and now he is doing that.

    He doesn't tell her story, he doesn't even name her. He talks about his love and I thought it was beautiful.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Yup. I wasted a couple of minutes of my life that I cant get back reading D’Ambrosio's piece. All I could think is what a wuss and no wonder the woman left him. Wish I had expended the time on The Onion or something similar.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Having had rather personal aspects of my life exposed on the internet, I completely understand where you're coming from. It's very difficult to have someone else telling their side of a story. I try to be quite careful with how much of other people's stories I am telling. There is a story I would like to tell but there are aspects of it that only make sense if I talk about someone else... and that's not something I'm willing to do.

    I've always been most careful about not writing things about my stepdaughter as I strongly believe they're not mine to tell. Even whenI wrote about being a stepmother I tried very hard not to give examples of things she had said or done.

    Then there are stories I have told that clearly are about other people, like the stories I have told about my abusive ex. I've never said which ex it was I'm writing about, but most people in my personal life would know.

    It's a tricky tightrope to walk.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I haven't read the open letter you cite Kerri, but I certainly agree with you in principle. Reading this sort of material always feels like voyeurism or schadenfreude to me, so I avoid it. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. It is a very difficult line to navigate at times.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I read it completely differently- I didn't find it sappy or self indulgent- I thought it was quite sad. I could see he was clearly in pain but I don't think it compromised her privacy- he shared lovely memories and wished her well. If only all exes handled the parting of ways so gracefully.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I suspect many people read it as you did because it was very popular! But I hated it x

    ReplyDelete
  13. It's amazing when I write how often someone asks if I'm referring to them and I NEVER am! It is NEVER about the person who thinks it's about them. So hopefully I'm doing a good job of disguising them.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Agree that there is a difference between telling your story and your experience and exposing someone else. And I think you generally know when you've read one or the other. I read the first 3/4 of that piece and found it to be pretty insincere.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Sappy and self indulgent just about sums this up - for some reason it's just making me angry. It's not just the sentimental twaddle, I mean seriously? I'm sorry everyone hated me despite me being the very best person I could be and doing everything in my power to make you happy? It's clearly not the whole story and I find it incredibly manipulative. I don't see this as a love story, to me this looks like a controlling person. I don't feel I've learned anything about their life by reading it just a very distorted image of someone who feels sorry for themselves. I'm not sure why I feel so passionate about this, maybe because I've encountered that kind of person myself. I didn't find it at all genuine or sincere.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I worry about people telling others' stories on their blog. When I write about people in my life, I always ask their permission. If I write about someone else - like a story of discrimination or something that's been said to me that I found uncomfortable/hurtful/rude, I am writing with the purpose of highlighting this behaviour.


    There's a blogger I follow whose blog is around her child and the child's disability. This blogger has over 70,000 FB fans. The child is a toddler. I wonder how the child feels when they don't have a say in the level of fame they're getting?


    As for open letters - I think certain things should be kept offline, between two people, but I think that for some, online is the only way they know how to communicate. I once read a heartbreaking blog post. The blogger's spouse responded to the post in the comment section. I was so sad that these issues could not be discussed or resolved in person.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I felt EXACTLY as you. Other people had a completely different reaction. But I felt, and still feel, it was manipulative and insincere.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Water Park in Delhi NCRJanuary 10, 2015 at 7:37 PM

    This is the precise weblog for anybody who needs to seek out out about this topic. You notice so much its almost arduous to argue with you. You positively put a brand new spin on a subject that's been written about for years. Nice stuff, simply nice!

    ReplyDelete

Thanks! Love hearing from you.

Like it? Share it!