I’m writing a story about what happened during my sister’s recent coma. She was in a coma for weeks, on a breathing tube, and there were times when we worried that she wouldn’t make it. I drove up to Birmingham, Alabama to help my parents, who were also suffering from the flu that had flattened Laurie. She was the person who usually took care of them, and even though my stubbornly independent parents didn’t want me to come, I felt that I had to.
So I wrote an essay describing what those days were like, worrying about Laurie, trying to help Mom and Dad, trying to help Laurie’s son, Nate, who was also ill. My writer’s group suggested I call it, “While You Were Out,” which is the new title. When I went up to Alabama again recently, I decided to ask Nate and my other sister, Valerie, if I could use their Facebook posts.
When I described to Laurie what I was writing about, she became very indignant. “Aren’t you going to ask me for permission?” she asked.
“I’m not using your Facebook postings – you didn’t have any Facebook posts.” After all, it’s kind of difficult to post on Facebook when you’re unconscious!
“But it’s my story,” Laurie said.
“It’s not your story. It’s about me coming up here while you were in the hospital.”
“But that’s my story.”
I was rather surprised. I’ve been told by my family that I should write about this, that or the other, that I shouldn’t post this picture or that picture on Facebook. I was told that I had invaded their privacy. I have come up with a solution for this. If they don’t want me to post their pictures, I take them down. But when it comes to the stories I write, those are MY stories. Nobody in my family is planning to write the story of my life. My mother is very interested in tracing her ancestry, and I love helping with that. It’s fascinating to find out where you came from, what types of people are in your background. All of that information is fine to write about.
But when it comes to what happened yesterday, they are intensely private and can’t imagine sharing their lives with the world. I mean, come on, they didn’t even want to have a home health nurse even when everyone in the family was flattened by the flu!
But I have come up with a solution to this problem. I have them read the material I wrote. I gave my sister the essay and we talked about the information in it. She corrected some of the things I had written, items I didn’t know. The dialogue was very helpful – I got the real story on some events and she got to see that what I was writing wasn’t negative or hurtful in any way. On the contrary, I was impressed as always with the strength of my relatives, how my crazy family manages to pull it together when things go wrong, how they support and strengthen each other, and how their humor always manages to come through, even in the most critical situation. Here was my sister, literally dying in her bed, and she sent a text message to her friend, Diana, that said, “Houston to my brain, I’m not getting enough oxygen.” Diana called her son, Nate, who checked on her and began the process of transferring her to the hospital, a process that ultimately saved her life.
When she read the essay, Laurie relaxed a bit. She said she’d like to write about her experiences in the hospital and I told her I’d love to help her put that together. And my nephew, Nate, came up later and hugged me. He said, “You can use my Facebook posts if you want.” I was startled – I hadn’t even asked him yet. But see, that’s the thing, in my family, communication occurs constantly. There are so many of us, it’s like that old game of telephone, where one person whispers something to another who whispers it to another, who etc.
I suggest that if you’re going to write about family members, you let them know of your plans. If the material you’re writing about is very sensitive, remember that they have the option of suing you for slander.
Per Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamation:
In common law jurisdictions, slander refers to a malicious, false,[not specific enough to verify] and defamatory spoken statement or report, while libel refers to any other form of communication such as written words or images. Most jurisdictions allow legal actions, civil and/or criminal, to deter various kinds of defamation and retaliate against groundless criticism. Related to defamation is public disclosure of private facts, which arises where one person reveals information that is not of public concern, and the release of which would offend a reasonable person. "Unlike [with] libel, truth is not a defense for invasion of privacy."[not verified in body]
So be careful. Be truthful if you’re writing memoir. And make sure the people you love know that you’re writing out of love for them, and not out of some crazy desire for self-promotion. Let them know you’re writing because you respect and love them and want to record their lives because they’re part of yours. And if you ARE writing out of a crazy desire for self-promotion, maybe you should become a reality TV star, Honey.