But I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd. – Pulp Fiction
What do writers owe the people in their lives? What do we owe those who have helped to shape us, in good ways and bad, when we write about them?
Everyday writers face these questions. Some ignore them and write without a second thought about trivial matters like privacy and consequences. They name names and share intimate details. They argue that all they owe anyone is the truth and vow to get it right.
Others discuss their ambivalence openly. Mary Karr wrote an entire book about it. Multiple interviews in many venues discuss this topic: memoirists, columnists and novelists exploring the ways they’ve come to terms with sharing intimate details about people who, more often than not, wish to remain anonymous.
I’m a writer. I write for Florida newspapers and a few national blogs and magazines. I’m not big on secrets and am a horrible liar. My job, and mission, is to share my thoughts about the human condition, including my own. Strive to tell the truth. Longtime readers will be surprised to learn that I do keep some stories to myself, for one reason only: I won’t hurt or shame someone I love.
But even with that personal guideline in place, the question has occasionally come up: What if I have a compelling story to tell, and the person involved is no longer in my life? Do I still owe them my loyalty and silence?
If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you. – Genghis Khan
I have some doozies. I wrote a few down, shared them with an editor or two, and now I’m wondering what to do with them.
I look to my previous work for guidance. In the past, and most assuredly in the future as well, some of my work has resulted in altered lives. These were essays exposing public figures and something they said or did. As a result, their careers or personal relationships suffered.
I have no guilt or regrets about publishing those stories.
You shouldn’t feel sorry for them either.
If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there. – Gross Pointe Blank
But that’s very different from writing about personal experiences. Or it should be.
My dear friend Michael is fond of saying, “I will always be loyal to us, in whatever shape us takes.”
When us no longer exists, all bets are off.
If I publish these stories, the persons about whom I’m writing will be exposed and hurt. There is no way I’d hide identifying and prurient details because those are what needs to be explored. It’d be out there for the world to see. Mutual friends, readers, and relatives would spread the work on social media and the resulting carnage will be vast and bloody. Marriages damaged. Careers jeopardized.
I’m not going to pretend otherwise, as if a betrayal can be painted with pretty colors and labeled differently. It can’t. Even if I justify the exposure, and I can, it’s still premeditated and, to some, unforgiveable.
I do try to live by the Buddhist creed: to do my best to do no harm. I find it interesting that the creed focuses on doing our best. It could easily have been written do no harm, but that’s unrealistic, isn’t it? If an essay, on one of many sites I’m hired to write about me, my life, and the process of evolving, helps someone make sense of their own predicament, and helps me get through some challenging episode, then that good far outweighs the harm done to a person who never should have crossed me in the first place.
My mother used to say, “Do not strike out at others. You think it’ll make you feel better, but it won’t.”
I never had the heart to tell her that it did feel good. Before, during, and after. Long after. Even today.
I once ran this by my therapist, Susan, and she seemed alarmed at the coldness that lurks just beneath my surface. It surprised her. She also pointed out, rightfully so, that I’m way too fond of quoting bad guys.
Years ago, I shed the last name I was born with…Furey…taking Durkin, my mother’s name, officially and legally aligning myself with the side of my family most familiar and comforting. I hoped my mother’s quiet, innate goodness might rub off on me, but it never quite took.
Katie Furey is still there. Just beneath the surface. Ready to go.
She doesn’t owe anyone anything.