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Friday essay: Can you keep a secret? Family memoirs break taboos – and trust

Memoirists who write about divorce, addiction or suicide can start important conversations – and leave families feeling exposed or humiliated. Where do you draw the line? fosa./Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Friday essay: Can you keep a secret? Family memoirs break taboos – and trust

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.

Benjamin Law’s memoir The Family Law (2010) has been adapted for TV. Black Inc

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.

Whose struggle?

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.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memoir Min Kamp (My Struggle) (2009) caused serious family conflict. Forlaget okober

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.

Familiar characters

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.

Hanif Kureishi’s ex-wife accused him of writing about their marriage in Intimacy (1998). Faber and Faber

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.

Doris Brett wrote Eating the Underworld (2001) to tell her own version of her childhood. Vintage

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.

Tangled lives

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).

David Sedaris' book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) was the first his sister Tiffany allowed him to include her in. Little Brown & Co.

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.

Social secrets

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.