Two stories in the news have captured the attention of this neophyte blogger. They touch on important issues of privacy vs. the right to tell all. I think that as long as writers are clear and aren't hurting anyone, it's their prerogative to do either, or both, at any time.
First, fine writer and memoirist Dani Shapiro wrote a wise, on-target open letter to "a dear disillusioned reader who contacted me on Facebook" that touched me so personally, I had to comment like this: "Thank you, Dani Shapiro. It's good to know I'm on the right track and shouldn't be cowed by those who want 'more.'" It's not that I need the justification, it's just always nice to have backup, for what is this blog but personal memoir?
Shapiro starts by clarifying this important distinction: memoir is not autobiography. Amen. "When a writer sits down to write memoir, she is not sharing her diary," she writes. "She is not confessing. She is not doing some sort of public striptease. Her whole entire life is not up for grabs. Can I tell you how many times I have been the recipient of precisely the gotcha! moment you so furiously leveled at me on Facebook? I’ve had readers angry with me for not writing about certain members of my family. Other readers have been angry that I’ve written too much about certain members of my family. I’ve had readers inquire as to why I haven’t written much about my husband. Or my ex-husband. Or my other ex-husband. (What can I say? Memoirists! We have complicated lives!) Then, I’ve had readers approach me with tears in their eyes, telling me that we are soul sisters. Separated at birth. You told my story, they sometimes say."
She continues that those who write, and read, memoirs, are "looking to make music" out of the "random, merciless jumble" of our lives: "The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we? We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts."
Shapiro is describing exactly what I hope to do, in at least some small measure, with my blog. I stated early on that I've avoided writing one until now because I am a private person. Now that I am doing one, I have chosen to focus mostly on myself, for better or for worse–my experiences, past and present–leaving my family out of it much of the time. In the past, editors and other writers have questioned my choice of not focusing more on my son and marriage, but I've always had a gut feeling I didn't want to do that.
Perhaps my motivation has something to do with my experience with out domestic open adoption. From the get-go, the agency impressed upon us that the story is our son, M's, to tell, if and when he's ready. (He's 10 now.) So when someone would ask a seemingly innocent question about him like "who are the birth parents?" I had my pat answer ready: "That's not my story to tell. M will share, or not share, what he wants to when the time comes." I'm sure some people were taken aback but I couldn't worry about it.
I also don't post recent photos of M on Facebook, for reasons that go well beyond the latest warning that our images may be co-opted by advertisers and whoever else feels like it.
Back when I first got active in social media, I proudly made my profile picture a shot of my then 4-year-old, Botticelli-beautiful boy (someone else's words, not mine) with brown cascading curls and almond eyes.
We were on vacation and he was wearing swim trunks. The photo stopped at his soft shoulders, but it was enough exposure for my sister-in-law, D, to warn me to take it down right away. She felt it could be used for online kiddie porn, something she knows about due to her work with a foster care agency. Part of me thought "rubbish, she's far too paranoid," but there was a little voice that said, "What if she's right?" And so down it went.
While I do not judge what others choose to reveal on social media, I remain strongly protective of what I share, both in terms of words and images. I have been warned that by not doing that "striptease," it will hurt my readership. If that's the case, I can only hope that as I try to make sense of the jumble, at least a few people along for the ride will recognize something from their lives, too. There are universal truths, happy and sad, about love and life, loss and death, after all.
Which brings me to the strange, disturbing case of Lisa Boncheck Adams, who has chosen to tweet and blog about her battle with Stage IV breast cancer. Columns by married writers Emma Gilbey Keller of The Guardian and Bill Keller of The New York Times have fired unseemly rounds at Adams for sharing what they see as misguided (at best) details she should have kept to herself. Keller's take: As the ultimate act, Adams should go softly into this good night, something his father-in-law did under palliative care in England. (The Guardian has since taken down its post.)
Only Adams has three children she wants to stick around for, and I daresay she's years younger than Keller's wife's dad was. Writing as a cancer survivor, I say she's doing a service by exposing the realities of cancer and cancer treatment, minus the pink ribbons. Adams is not the first and she certainly won't be the last to share her cancer journey; in fact, the Times ran an acclaimed series titled "Life, Interrupted" about a young woman battling cancer. But most importantly, it's her business.
When I went through my treatments some 14 years ago, there was no such thing as social media as we now know it. Were I to have a recurrence or some other health crisis, you better believe I'd consider strongly sharing it in some way or another.
For an observer to feel she has the right to grill someone for not sharing enough, or sharing too much when it's about something as personal as how one chooses to deal with one's cancer, is wrong, plain and simple. Privacy vs. exposure: I say it's a question of choice. The writer's choice.
And in this space, my choice.