The link below is to an article reporting on the State Library of New South Wales’ (SLNSW) 2020 National Biography Award shortlist.
The link below is to an article that looks at the boundaries of memoirs.
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Many of us enjoy writing in a diary, reading autobiographies or nostalgically reflecting with others about past times.
Why is remembering our past so important? Are there downsides? And what can we do if dwelling on the past bothers us?
Explainer: what is memory?
Memories make us human
Over several decades, researchers have shown remembering your past is fundamental to being human, and has four important roles.
1. Memories help form our identity
Our personal memories give us a sense of continuity — the same person (or sense of self) moving through time. They provide important details of who we are and who we would like to be.
2. Memories help us solve problems
Memories offer us potential solutions to current problems and help guide and direct us when solving them.
3. Memories make us social
Personal memories are essential for social interactions. Being able to recall personal memories provides important material when making new friends, forming relationships and maintaining ones we already have.
4. Memories help us regulate our emotions
Our memories provide examples of similar situations we’ve been in before. This allows us to reflect on how we managed that emotion before and what we can learn from that experience.
Such memories can also help us manage strong negative emotions. For example, when someone is feeling sad they can take time to dwell on a positive memory to improve their mood.
Memories help us function in our wider society
Dwelling on our personal memories not only helps us as individuals. It also allows us to operate in our socio-cultural context; society and culture influence the way we remember our past.
For instance, in Western individualistic cultures people tend to recall memories that are long, specific, detailed and focus on the individual.
In contrast, in East Asian cultures people tend to recall more general memories focusing on social interactions and significant others. Researchers have seen these differences in children and adults.
Indeed, the way parents discuss past events with their children differs culturally.
Parents from Western cultures focus more on the child and the child’s thoughts and emotions than East Asian parents. So, there are even cultural differences in the ways we teach our children to dwell on the past.
People from Western individualistic cultures tend to recollect specific unique memories that reaffirm someone’s uniqueness, a value emphasised in Western cultures. In contrast, in East Asian cultures memories function to assist with relatedness and social connection, a value emphasised in East Asian cultures.
Memories and ill health
As dwelling on the past plays such a crucial role in how we function as humans, it is unsurprising that disruptions in how we remember arise in several psychological disorders.
People with depression, for instance, tend to remember more negative personal memories and fewer positive personal memories than those without depression. For example, someone with depression may remember failing an exam rather than remembering their academic successes.
People with depression also have great difficulty remembering something from a specific time and place, for instance “I really enjoyed going to Sam’s party last Thursday”. Instead they provide memories of general experiences, for instance, “I like going to parties”.
We have found people with depression also tend to structure their life story differently and report more negative life stories. They also tend to remember periods of their life, such as going to university, as either distinctly positive or negative (rather than a combination of both).
Disturbances in memory are also the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is when unwanted, distressing personal memories of the trauma spontaneously pop into the mind.
People with anxiety disorders also tend to have biases when remembering their personal past. For instance, all of us, unfortunately, experience social blunders from time to time, such as tripping getting onto a bus or spilling a drink at a party. However, people with social anxiety are more likely to be consumed with feelings of embarrassment and shame when remembering these experiences.
Explainer: what is social anxiety disorder?
Finally, an excessive, repetitive dwelling on your past, without generating solutions, can be unhelpful. It can result in emotional distress and in extreme instances, emotional disorders, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I don’t want to dwell on the past. What can I do?
If dwelling on the past bothers you, these practical tips can help.
Set aside a certain time of the day for your memories. You could write in a diary or write down your worries. Writing about important personal experiences in an emotional way for as little as 15 minutes a day can improve your mental and physical health.
Practice remembering specific positive memories from your past. This can allow you to engage differently with your memories and gain a new perspective on your memories.
Learn and practise mindfulness strategies. Instead of dwelling on painful memories, a focus on the present moment (such as attending to your breath, focusing on what you can currently see, smell or hear) can help break a negative cycle
When dwelling on past memories try being proactive and generate ideas to solve problems rather than just being passive.
See your GP or health practitioner if you’re distressed about dwelling on your past.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Women have always been central to true crime stories: as victims, perpetrators, readers, and (increasingly) as tellers of these tales. Indeed, these tales, often dismissed as sensationalised violence, offer important opportunities to reflect on crime and crime control.
Many true crime writers today – including numerous women, working in a once male-dominated market – have been biographers, coroners, detectives, historians, journalists, lawyers, and psychologists. These backgrounds bring a style of storytelling that educates us about, not just merely entertains us with, crime. Importantly, many privilege complex and nuanced storytelling over simplistic stereotypes of women as just “bad” or just “good”.
The first Australian true crime stories were transmitted orally, jotted down in journals, and entered into official records. George Howe, editor of our first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, enthusiastically embraced the topic of crime: the paper’s first issue in 1803 included stories of fraud, attempted murder, and the brutal rape of 17-year-old Rose Bean.
The first Australian publication dedicated to true crime is Michael Howe: The Last and the Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land (1818), by T.E. Wells. This short work is also the story of Howe’s companion, then victim, Mary Cockerill a young Indigenous woman. Cockerill supported Howe in a landscape forbidding and wild to the European settlers. After being betrayed by Howe – he shot her as they were being pursued, facilitating his own escape – Cockerill then used her knowledge of the bush to help authorities. Howe was captured and killed in 1818, bringing his bushranging career to an end.
In the colonial era, a woman’s status as a victim was upheld, or denied, based on her character and her ability to conform to social mores of the time. Today, women are often still judged by what they say and what they wear; their education and their occupation. How many sexual partners have they had? Are they too emotional? Are they not emotional enough? Likewise, some perpetrators have been seen as more heinous because they are women.
Women as perpetrators
In Captain Thunderbolt & His Lady (2011), Carol Baxter skilfully tells the story of Frederick Ward (“Captain Thunderbolt”), a bushranger in the mid-1800s, and his Indigenous partner-in-crime Mary Ann Bugg (“Mrs Thunderbolt”). Bugg – an intelligent, gutsy, trouser-wearing woman – is brought vividly to life, as she breaks the law and defies the feminine expectations of her time.
As Baxter notes, Bugg was dissatisfied with the social status quo, and, like many bushrangers, she received support and sympathy from the wider population. She was not all “bad” but not all “good” either. Indeed, some suggested Mrs Thunderbolt was merely blamed for the deeds of her husband. Bugg outlived her outlaw partner by 35 years, dying in obscurity in Mudgee in 1905.
One of the more dramatic true crime tales of the late colonial period, is the story of Louisa Collins. Caroline Overington looks at the life, and death, of Collins in Last Woman Hanged (2014). Accused of murder, Collins famously endured four trials in 1888, which, as Overington argues, were effectively trials of all Australian women. If women wanted equal rights, including the right to vote, “then, such equality had to be universal: women, too, would hang for murder”. In the first three trials, the juries failed to deliver a verdict. In the fourth trial, the jury found her guilty and Collins was hanged in 1889.
The Worst Woman in Sydney (2016) by Leigh Straw documents the life of Kate Leigh, born Kathleen Beahan, an icon of Sydney’s underworld from the 1920s through to the 1950s. A “famed brothel madam, sly-grog seller and drug dealer”, she is best known for her involvement in the “Razor Wars” when Sydney gangs used razors instead of guns. Leigh could handle a rifle (or any other weapon) and was “an intelligent criminal entrepreneur” who quickly capitalised on opportunities as they emerged. A hardened crook (who was in and out of prison), Leigh was also very generous; her Christmas parties for poor children, in Surry Hills, were legendary for the food and presents given out.
In Nice Girl (2011), Rachael Jane Chin looks at the many dreadful secrets kept by Keli Lane. Found guilty of murder and of lying under oath, Lane’s case is one that is still difficult to believe. Gender, and gendered ideals, stand out within it. Chin unpacks how Lane was a solid, middle-class young woman. She had her boyfriends but was not promiscuous. She was a teacher and had worked hard to become an elite athlete.
But underneath Lane’s “good upbringing and clean-cut appearance”, which earned her the benefit of the doubt from those around her, were five secret pregnancies during the 1990s. Two pregnancies were terminated, two infants were put up for adoption and one baby, Tegan, was murdered. Lane is serving her prison sentence, the crimes she committed as shocking now as when they were discovered. She will be eligible for parole in 2023.
Women as victims
In 1921 the body of 12-year-old schoolgirl Alma Tirtschke was found in an inner-Melbourne alleyway. Colin Campbell Ross was charged with rape and murder, as described in Kevin Morgan’s Gun Alley (2005, updated 2012). We learn the victim, just a child, was quiet but also clever and creative. As readers, we cannot help but speculate who Tirtschke could have grown up to be.
Ross was hanged in 1922: a result of false allegations, a flawed investigation, and a trial held in the press and in the courtroom. He received a posthumous pardon in 2008. This case is particularly important in the history of Australian true crime writing because, as Tom Roberts explains, it highlights the commercialisation of crime, focusing on the headline of the defenceless female, and media-driven moral panics.
One of Australia’s most famous crimes is the “Pyjama Girl Case”. In 1934 the remains of Linda Agostini, born Florence Platt, was found. She had been shot, beaten, and burnt. Most notably, Agostini was wearing yellow, silk pyjamas, patterned with a dragon: a flamboyant garment in Depression-era Australia. Agostini’s body was placed on public display in an attempt by the police to discover the name of the murdered woman but it took 10 years to identify the victim. In the 1940s and 1950s, Frank Johnson published his Famous Detective Stories series, which included The Pyjama Girl Mystery. Like many of Johnson’s true crime storytelling efforts, the woman at the centre of the criminal case is presented as a sexual object.
The story of Anita Cobby, born Anita Lynch, has been told many times. The first major telling of the brutal rape and murder of the 26-year-old in 1986, is Julia Sheppard’s Someone Else’s Daughter (1991). Sheppard contrasts Cobby and her numerous contributions to the community, as a charity worker as well as a nurse, with the senseless cruelty of the men who took Cobby’s life. Stories like this one, which have stayed in the public imagination over decades, highlight how the impacts of crime extend beyond the victim, family, and friends. They also show how women can be victims of completely random acts of violence.
Many women are victims of domestic violence. The murder of Lisa Harnum, by her fiancé Simon Gittany, is described by Amy Dale in The Fall (2014). Gittany threw Harnum to her death from their apartment balcony, situated on the 15th floor of an inner-Sydney building in 2011. This is a story of control, surveillance, and toxicity. Harnum was trapped in an untenable position: too frightened to leave but also too frightened to stay. When she did try to escape, the result was tragic. Gittany was sentenced to 26 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 18 years.
Changing true crime narratives
The once “either/or” binary of “bad/good” women has given way to demands from readers to see women as complex figures within these works. As a result, more and more writers are now increasingly focussed on the human cost of crime.
Kerry Greenwood, known for crime fiction and true crime, has curated two important volumes On Murder (2000) and On Murder II (2002). Rachael Weaver, in The Criminal of the Century (2006), offers a rigorous exploration of colonial serial killer Frederick Deeming. More recently Alecia Simmonds has written on the terrible consequences seen when drug use, violence, masculinity, and psychosis collide in Wildman: The True Story of a Police Killing, Mental Illness and the Law (2015). A dominant force on the landscape of true crime writing is Helen Garner with several compelling works including Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) and This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial (2014).
Women are also telling their own stories, as seen in Lindy Chamberlain’s work Through My Eyes (1990). Chamberlain was falsely imprisoned for the murder of her baby daughter, Azaria, at Uluru in 1980. This book delivers a very personal account of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Australian history.
Crime is never without context and is never straightforward. Many writers – women and men – know that simplifying these stories with stereotypes, female or male, is just not good enough: for the innocent, for the guilty, or for readers.
This is a story about stories. Who writes them. Who owns them and what happens when the two things get muddled. It’s a story about true stories, life stories, stories written by amateurs and professionals. It sounds a warning to the growing number of readers who aspire to publish their own memoirs, and those who write the lives of others.
“Who owns the story?” is the question that lies at the heart of Sonya Voumard’s new book The Media and the Massacre, published this month to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Martin Bryant’s murderous rampage at Port Arthur in Tasmania.
In it, Voumard ponders the case of Bryant’s mother, Carleen, a woman widely reviled by genetic association for the sins of her son, but driven as a mother to tell her side of the story.
It goes like this. After two suicide attempts triggered by the reporting of the 10th anniversary of the massacre, Carleen Bryant writes a 15,000 word memoir of her life before and since that terrible Sunday, April 28th 1996, when Martin Bryant slaughtered 35 men, women and children.
She is not a fluent writer, so friends suggest she seek help from professionals. A literary agent is found, and a journalist, Robert Wainwright of The Sydney Morning Herald is recommended. A $200,000 book deal with a major publisher is mentioned.
Ms Bryant forwards a copy of her memoir to Wainwright, but there are hiccups early on when he passes it on – allegedly without her knowledge – to her daughter, seeking the daughter’s involvement in the project.
A June 2007 meeting in Hobart, at which Wainwright’s wife – another Herald journalist Paola Totaro – joins the writing team, smooths over the trouble. However, when the journalists’ nine-page draft outline of their proposed book – entitled Martin My Son – arrives, relations deteriorate rapidly.
In Voumard’s words, Carleen Bryant became “convinced that the story they (the journalists) wanted to tell was not hers but theirs”. In October 2007, Bryant withdrew from the project, and requested that Wainwright and Totaro return her personal documents and other materials. They did so some months later, by which time all contact between the parties had ceased.
There was, therefore, as Voumard tells it, considerable surprise on the part of Bryant and her friends when, in May 2009, Wainwright and Totaro published Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: the making of a mass murderer. In it, they included at least 29 extracts from her as yet unpublished memoir, allegedly without her permission.
The ins and outs of the legal proceedings that followed cannot be briefly summarised. They are, in any case, subject to the confidentiality clause of an out of court settlement. Bryant also complained to the Australian Press Council, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), the Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Books claiming breach of copyright. But the publication and sale of Born or Bred? was not impeded.
Voumard, a Sydney-based former journalist and now a writer and academic, and some of the people she quotes in her book, including the criminal lawyer Greg Barns and Ms Bryant’s lawyer Steven Lewis of Slater and Gordon, feel that an injustice was done. Wainwright and Totaro reportedly claimed they were given the memoir “freely and without caveat”, but in Voumard’s view, Bryant had simply agreed to the preparation of a draft outline.
The literary intersections of journalism, creative non-fiction, book publishing and “ghost-writing” are crowded, with a variety of conflicting interests but no single code of ethics.
Is a journalist bound by copyright laws when someone eager to tell own their story hands them their unpublished account of a highly newsworthy subject without conditions attached? Are they bound by their various journalism codes of ethics when writing books, rather than news stories?
As Wainwright and Totaro wrote in the preface to their book, it was Carleen Bryant who withdrew from “their” project, not the other way around. “When she withdrew, the project turned instead into a hunt for the truth and answers.”
This statement, however, sits awkwardly with what appears to have been a lack of any attempt at fact-checking with their albeit uncooperative star source in the months immediately prior to publication.
Voumard’s book, though far from perfect – neither Bryant nor the journalists could be persuaded to talk to her – it is a useful contribution to our understanding of these important issues and the questions they raise.
Although primarily focused on the Bryant-Wainwright-Totaro conflict, she engages with a range of other journalistic and literary approaches to reporting on violent crime, including Carol Altmann’s After Port Arthur (2006).
Voumard talks to a number of senior Australian journalists who reflect on the fact that Port Arthur inspired a new and more mindful approach to the impact of their craft when interviewing traumatised people – a theme later expanded on by Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center Asia-Pacific.
As a journalist herself, Voumard knows where to look for the Fourth Estate’s ethical weaknesses, and is critical of her own.
“Not all journalists are the same …,” she writes. “At our best, we do good work – bear witness, seek truth, give voice, explain. At our worst we exploit our subjects.”
For Carleen Bryant, having her say via the agency of professional writers was a once in a lifetime chance to achieve a longed for public understanding of the cross she has had to bear.
As one of her close friends tells Voumard, Bryant
wanted to establish herself in the minds of the people of Hobart as she was, rather than as others believed. She wanted them to know that she wasn’t a terrible mother, or the mother of a monster, that she did her best in every way for her son, that she had a loving husband.
But when a story involves hot button issues like mass-murder, journalists’ ethical compasses veer toward the perceived “public interest”, an approach that is not known for its sensitivity to the feelings or views of anyone associated with the killer.
Journalists remain publishers’ first pick for ghost-writing assignments because they write quickly and colourfully, are not afraid of imposing a given meaning on a set of available facts, know what makes headlines and meet their deadlines. But for some stories, that is not the ideal approach.
As Voumard writes,
Carleen Bryant lost the ability to say to others who she was. Her life story and that of her family had been appropriated, attacked, raked over and profited from by so many media organisations for so many years that her identity effectively disintegrated.
Ms Bryant, whose only son was sentenced to 1,035 years prison without parole, has spent most of the past 20 years living alone in a caravan park an hour’s drive north of Hobart. She eventually published her own book, My Story (2010), with a small, but empathetic Hobart-based publishing house
The publisher, Michael Ludeke, took the unusual step of inviting his new author to collect her book from the printers, telling her,
You should come and see this too. This is your book. The people at the printers would like to meet you.
A happy, if not perfect ending to an amateur life writer’s long struggle to be heard.
Several years ago, Oxford professor and Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate decided to write a biography of the British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. Initially it seemed he had the support of Hughes’ widow, Carol Hughes – who had inherited copyright of her deceased husband’s writings, along with those of his more famous first wife, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963.
Jonathan Bate embarked on his biography with great seriousness. Yet somewhere along the way, Carol Hughes became worried he was going to chronicle her late husband’s personal life, in addition to his poetic one. The result? In order to avoid a lawsuit, Bate was forced to give up all hope of being allowed to quote more than a token number of words from Hughes’ – or Plath’s – diaries, letters, manuscripts or jottings. He ended up contorting his original vision into a pretzel.
Bate recently published “Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life.” Now Janet Malcolm, the venerable journalist and essayist of the New Yorker, denounces Professor Bate in The New York Review of Books for daring to write openly about Hughes’ private and public life.
Malcolm’s review is full of insult and a kind of Victorian outrage in defense of Hughes’ second wife Carol, a nurse whom Hughes married in 1970. It’s meant to wound not just Bate, but all those who attempt to write about the private lives of major figures.
In fact, Malcolm adds to a rich tradition of censorship by those who have deemed themselves the arbiters of what can and can’t be written in biographies – even those of the dead.
Tastelessness or truth?
Malcolm’s review is titled “A Very Sadistic Man” – a reference to the accusations of a distinctly sadistic, often violent and rapacious approach to adulterous sex that some of Hughes’ mistresses have detailed in recent years. Malcolm argues that Bate, by including these previously published anecdotes, has blown Hughes up “into a kind of extra-large sex maniac.”
Beyond Bate’s “tastelessness,” there is, she writes, “Bate’s cluelessness about what you can and cannot do if you want to be regarded as an honest and serious writer.”
Malcolm excoriates his “squalid findings about Hughes’ sex life,” and his “priggish theories about his [Hughes’] psychology.”
Moreover, she declares that it is “excruciating for spouses and offspring to read what they know to be untrue and not to be able to do anything about it except issue complaints that fall upon uninterested ears.” After having read only 16 pages of the 662-page biography, Carol Hughes put the book down and released a statement through her lawyer, saying she found the tome “offensive” – and demanded that Professor Bate apologize.
Malcolm claims that biographers should simply not be permitted to address the private lives of their subjects.
“If anything is our own business,” she declares, it is privacy – “our pathetic native self. Biographers in their pride, think otherwise. Readers, in their curiosity, encourage them in their impertinence. Surely Hughes’ family, if not his shade, deserves better.”
The beautiful and the base
Impertinence? Biography has been here before. For thousands of years, the genre – like great fiction – has been contested.
And dating back to Suetonius and Plutarch, there have been almost endless examples of its antithesis: anti-biography, and attempts at censorship.
The Roman historian Suetonius was, it is believed, exiled from Rome for daring to research and write his “De Vita Caesarum,” or Twelve Caesars. British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh was executed, in part for having annoyed King James I by his impudence in his “History of the World.”
Lady Bird Johnson took exception to Robert Caro’s series on LBJ, refusing to speak to him for decades after Caro portrayed Johnson as something of a sexual and political monster in his first volume. As a result, Caro was not allowed to speak at the presidential library, a federal archive – and the papers he wished to see were withheld until 2003.
We should not be surprised, however, that Malcolm has chosen to attack Hughes’ posthumous biographer – for Malcolm’s review of Bate’s book reprises her infamous attack on biography while Ted Hughes was alive.
Twenty-two years ago, Malcolm wrote a series of New Yorker articles that became a book – “The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.”
There, she openly challenged biographers and readers of biography with the argument that private life should henceforth be off-limits.
“The biographer at work,” she wrote in 1993, “is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.”
She refused to accept that there was more to biography than a pretense “of scholarship.” In her view, biography was simply about scandal, with biographers no more than peeping toms “listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.”
Those of us who knew anything of the history of biography were appalled, even then, that Malcolm would so disregard the words of the great 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson, the father of modern biography.
Johnson had decried the stilted approaches to life writing of his own time by mocking whitewashed accounts that failed to get behind the public facade. As he put it, “more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative.”
The greatness of biography, according to Johnson, was in tackling “the beautiful and the base,” and in embracing “vice and virtue,” rather than relying on the “sober sages of the schools.”
His most famous put-down of the puritanical approach to biography was to his own biographer, James Boswell. If a man wants to indulge in a spotless eulogy or “Panegyrick,” he told Boswell, “he may keep vices out of sight, but if he professes to write A Life he must represent it really as it was.”
Is the journalist’s goal to protect or reveal?
Why, then, has Malcolm been crusading against serious biography which embraces both the beautiful and the base for more than 20 years?
Malcolm claimed she had spent years interviewing and corresponding with serious biographers for her Plath project, “The Silent Woman.” Why, as a professional journalist, was she content not to interview Hughes himself, or even speak to those men and women who actually knew the real Ted Hughes? What kind of a journalist is that?
In her new review, Malcolm pours scorn on Professor Bate, but she fails to reveal that in her earlier book, she’d defended Ted Hughes against the many biographers attempting to reveal the truth about him, and about the tragic story of Plath’s suicide.
In Malcolm’s view, Hughes had every right to use libel, property and copyright laws to protect his reputation as a husband and a poet by threatening legal action against anyone who snooped – or threatened to spill the beans – about his louche, often manic private behavior.
Though the law of libel ceased its protection of Hughes upon Hughes’ death 18 years ago, Professor Bate’s book has aroused Malcolm to new fury. Now she is determined to defend the second Mrs. Hughes; no snooping, revelation or even literary criticism of her late husband without her inherited copyright authority – and certainly no revelations of what Hughes was doing on the night of Sylvia Plath’s suicide.
As in her “Silent Woman” articles and book, Malcolm once again declines to question this utter misuse of copyright. (The world’s first copyright act was originally passed in 1710 to protect income, not reputation, for a maximum of 14 years – and especially not to protect posthumous reputation.)
With continuous, almost annual lawsuits and moves to amend copyright law, the battle between “authorized” and “unauthorized” biographies will thus go on, more than half a century since Plath’s death, and almost two decades since Ted Hughes’. Any “unauthorized” biographer of either Plath, Hughes or both must continue to write with his or her arm tied behind the back, unable to quote more than a few authentic words without Carol Hughes’ express permission.
Samuel Johnson would be appalled. And it would be a sad day for biography if Malcolm’s injunction were to be followed, given the major contributions to critical interpretation, history and memory that the genre has become in the many centuries since Suetonius.
The television premiere of Benjamin Law’s adapted memoirs The Family Law may have had us laughing last night, but a foray into the recent past of the family memoir genre reveals an ethical minefield of sibling conflicts, clashing memories, and unwanted exposés.
In response to biographies scrutinizing his marriage to Sylvia Plath, the poet Ted Hughes said, “I hope each of us owns the facts of his or her own life”. In family memoir such hopes are dashed.
When writers tell the story of their lives they also divulge the experiences of siblings, parents, and lovers. They make the private public, often with a unique spin on events and not always with the consent of those involved.
Given the intimate nature of family life these tangles are perhaps unavoidable. The facts of our lives are always shared.
But life writing still raises important ethical questions. The memoirist’s candid account of family struggles can destigmatise taboo topics – such as divorce, sexuality, and suicide – but at what cost to those whose lives are laid bare? What should come first for a writer, loyalty to the truth of their own experience or respect for the privacy of others?
These questions have troubled a series of high-profile memoirs and autobiographical novels. Writers such as Karl Ove Knausgaard, Hanif Kureishi, Lily Brett, and David Sedaris have upset family members by using personal details in their literary works.
These cases alert us to the difficulty of narrating shared life stories. How do we get to the truth when people remember the past differently and have conflicting investments in how the story is told?
But we might also see the potential social benefit of tell-all family memoirs. By representing the conflicts and silences that families live with writers can introduce more diverse and honest accounts of family life into public culture.
By the time literary sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard published the first volume in his six part autobiographical series, My Struggle (2009), several members of his family were no longer speaking to him.
The Norwegian writer’s aim was to describe the banality and drama of his daily life in raw detail. Critics have hailed the result as Proust for the 21st century. Readers have said they feel as though he has written their innermost secrets onto the page. For Knausgaard’s family this is more than just a feeling. It is their reality.
Knausgaard doesn’t pull any punches. While much of the series is devoted to vivid descriptions of ordinary life, like brewing a cup of tea or going for a run, there are also details that most of us would shudder to have on the record.
Gossipy, post-dinner party conversations that he and his wife have about their guests are recounted verbatim. The rancid excrement that stains his incontinent grandmother’s couch, his father’s descent into squalor and alcoholism, the spoken and unspoken insults of his marital rows, the fumbling sexual encounters of his youth, his second wife’s struggle with bipolar, his feelings of frustration and boredom as a parent: it’s all there on the page.
Not surprisingly, when Knausgaard sent copies of the first manuscript to his family, they were unhappy. His paternal uncle tried to halt publication, threatened to sue, and attacked the book in the Norwegian press. Tonje Aursland, Knausgaard’s ex-wife, recorded a radio program about the experience of having her private life exposed in the novel, and then again in all of the media scrutiny that followed.
Knausgaard admits that the series also took a toll on his current marriage. The relentless attention caused his wife, Linda Boström, to have a breakdown, which Knausgaard details in the final episode of My Struggle.
Knausgaard made a decision to publish a tell-all book. He exposes his own struggles to be a good husband, father, writer, brother, and son with disarming candour, sometimes even to the point of self-humiliation.
But the people who share his life did not make this decision. They didn’t know that their words and actions, sometimes at very vulnerable moments, would be published let alone read by millions of people, almost half a million in Norway alone. In a country of five million, that’s roughly one in ten people who know the intimate details of your private life.
The author is well aware of his indiscretion and what it costs him and his family. “I do feel guilty,” he has said, “I do. Especially about my family, my children. I write about them and I know that this will haunt them as well through their lives”. Knausgaard also understands his father’s family’s response to the novels:
I wish this could have been done without hurting anyone. They say they never want to see or talk to me again. I accept that. I have offended them, humiliated them just by writing about this.
British novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi is less remorseful about using his family as source material. In 2008 his sister published a letter in the Independent titled Keep Me Out of your Novels.
She claims that most of his works use family members as characters. These include his parents in The Buddha of Suburbia (1991), his uncle in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), his ex-girlfriend in the film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), and an account of leaving his wife and children for a younger woman in his novel Intimacy (1998).
Yasmin Kureishi is most upset about her brother’s portrayal of her in the 2003 film The Mother. “It made excruciating viewing,” she says, “It was like he’d swallowed some of my life, then spat it back out.”
After reading Intimacy, Tracy Schoffield, Kureishi’s ex-wife, criticised him for thinly veiling the break-up of their marriage as fiction:
He says it’s a novel. But that’s an absolute abdication of responsibility. You may as well call it a fish.
In defence, Kureishi argues that by writing candidly about his life he gives voice to a collective experience:
Why would you vilify me? I’m just the messenger. I’m writing a book about divorce – an experience that many people have had – or separation, children, all that. … That book was a record of that experience.
I don’t see why I should be vilified for writing an account of it. … If you’re an artist your job is to represent the world as you see it – that’s what you do.
The same has been said of Knausgaard’s work. He disregards the privacy of his family. But he also challenges the rules of what we can and cannot say. He drags the darkness of our everyday thoughts into the light. In doing so, he de-shames social taboos, or at least offers the truth of what he thinks rather than what he should think. He sees the role of an artist as that of a social truth-teller.
But the tension around family memoirs brings into question the idea that an artist is simply documenting the truth. In some cases families are not upset that their lives are being represented so much as that the representation is, to them, inaccurate.
That’s not what I remember…
Can the memory of one person capture the true complexity of social events? What happens when people recall things differently? Kureishi’s sister and mother insist that he is not simply a messenger. His descriptions of his roots support the identity he desires in the present. Yasmin Kureishi, for example, recollects a very different image of her father than the one her brother paints in The Buddha of Suburbia.
In the radio documentary Knausgaard’s ex-wife recorded in 2010, Tonje’s Version, she says what annoys her is that her memories will always be secondary to his work of art. People assume they know the truth of what happened in her life because they have read My Struggle.
Doris Brett was so opposed to her sister Lily Brett’s autobiographical renderings of their childhood that she published her own counter-story. Lily Brett has written novels and essays based on her experience of growing up in Melbourne as the daughter of Holocaust survivors.
In Eating the Underworld (2001), Doris claims that her sister wrongly depicts their mother as depressed and sometimes cruel. Doris doesn’t recall her mother screaming in the night. The two sisters seem to remember their mother as two very different women.
When Lily Brett and her father received copies of Eating the Underworld, Lily issued a statement:
There are some things not worth replying to. This book is one of them.
Her father, 85-year-old Max Brett said:
This book by my daughter Doris, is a book of madness. … I recognise very little of our family life in this book.
Doris Brett chalked their public response up as further evidence of the bullying and favouritism she describes in her book.
For Yasmin Kureishi, Tonje Aursland, and Doris Brett the issue is not simply about privacy. They are all willing to tell their own stories in the public eye. Rather they want their life represented accurately, as they remember it. They insist that there is more to the shared story of their family than what is seen through the quixotic eyes of the memoirist. But of course the same question of memory’s unreliability also applies to them.
With tongue in cheek, David Sedaris addresses the blurring of memory and imagination by describing his family memoirs as “realish”. Sedaris has forged a successful career by recounting the foibles of his family life in best-selling collections such as Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004).
Along the way, his sister, Tiffany, requested to be left out of his stories. In a 2004 interview with the Boston Globe, she said “I was the only [sibling] who told him not to put me in his books. I don’t trust David to have boundaries”. Like Aursland, she became upset by the consequences of the stories. People read them as fact, and an invitation to discuss her private life.
In 2014, Sedaris came under fire for an essay he published in the New Yorker, Now We Are Five. The essay describes the Sedaris family’s attempt to deal with their grief over Tiffany’s suicide.
A friend of Tiffany, Michael Knoblach, published a letter in the Somerville Journal accusing Sedaris of ignoring her request not to be a subject in his stories and exploiting her death for artistic and monetary gain. (The letter has since been taken down, but a similar version is reposted in the comments here).
Should Sedaris have published Now We Are Five after his sister’s death? Some may argue that he should have respected her request not to be represented in his stories. On the other hand, the story is also about her parents, and her siblings. It speaks candidly about grief, guilt, and the way death jolts us into reality. Even when faced with estrangement and loss, the life of the family remains intertwined.
The Family Law
Australia’s own David Sedaris, Benjamin Law, has written a memoir about growing up in a large Chinese-Australian family in 1990s Queensland. The Family Law (2010) was adapted for television and premiered on SBS yesterday. Law’s memoir offers a funny take on the everyday quirks of family life, but it also deals with sensitive issues such as his parents’ divorce.
The Family Law is unlikely to draw the kind of scandal that greeted Kureishi or Knausgaard. In a recent keynote at the Asia Pacific Auto/Biography Association’s Conference, Law noted that when he gave his family the manuscript to read before publication, they were mostly concerned with correcting his grammar. Law’s father insisted that audiences are smart enough to know the story is told from only one point of view, and with comedic license.
Law may win our hearts with the help of his siblings. They weren’t to know their teenage travails would be re-staged on national television. It might also be strange for his parents to hear the public weighing in on their divorce. But Law’s story will be a welcome addition to a television landscape that currently doesn’t come close to representing the diversity and richness of Australian families.
In her research about family secrets, sociologist Carol Smart talks about two kinds of families: families “we live with” and families “we live by”. Families we live with are our actual families, which may be ridden with tensions. Families we live by are the ideal versions of happy, cohesive families that Smart says we draw from popular culture.
We tell family secrets, Smart thinks, to bring the reality closer to the ideal. We edit certain experiences from the public eye so our family fits with dominant ideas about what a family should be.
In this context, to reveal a family secret might be to refuse pressures to pretend. To disclose conflicts within families can open up a space to talk honestly about family life, to question social norms, and acknowledge different kinds of relationships. It can be a way of bringing the ideal closer to the reality.
Revealing family secrets can be insensitive and ethically dubious when the teller is not the only one who has to live with the repercussions. But it can also be a way to rethink the reasons why we keep certain things secret in the first place.
For family memoirists, where is the line between rattling social proprieties and respecting others’ privacy? This is not an easy question to answer. And the answer would be different in each case.
But it is worth remembering that the true stories that enrich our public sphere are often drawn from the intimate and shared lives of their authors. It is not only Law who gives generously of his life to bring a new story to Australian viewers this week, but also the supporting cast, his family.