What should I keep in mind when I write about my personal life?

Rosin and Hess Trade Notes on Writing About Their Personal Lives

Rosin and Hess Trade Notes on Writing About Their Personal Lives

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July 6 2015 6:10 PM

"I Feel Particularly Bad About That Last One"

When using friends and family to make an argument feels right, and when it feels wrong.

Amanda Hess and Hanna Rosin.
Amanda Hess and Hanna Rosin.

Photo by Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo; photo courtesy of Hanna Rosin

In celebration of Slate Plus’ first anniversary, we’re republishing a selection of pieces from the past year, including this article, which was originally published on April 8, 2014.


Welcome to Politics Tuesday, where a revolving cast of Slate political writers and editors bring Slate Plus members one special extra.

Both Hanna Rosin and Amanda Hess have recently published pieces that used their personal lives to illustrate greater points about culture, political issues, and feminism. In this conversation, the two writers trade notes on what it’s like to turn your life into a reporting project.

Amanda Hess: Hanna, you recently wrote a very funny and touching piece about your many failed attempts to initiate The Talk with your middle-school-age daughter. Did writing about not talking to your daughter about sex help open up the lines of communication?

Hanna Rosin: A few readers mentioned that to me: Isn't writing this piece almost as good as actually having the talk with her? An excellent thought, one I hadn't considered myself. And it would entirely solve my problem except that she refuses to admit she has read it. I'm pretty sure she has. She reads everything else on Slate and faithfully plays the News Quiz. (She tied with David last week.) But when I ask her if she read the sex talk piece she says, "I glanced at it. It didn't seem that interesting." Which is frustrating, not to mention mildly hostile. 

But then "mildly hostile" is the correct attitude of teenagers toward their parents, I think. Since you've spent a fair amount of time talking to teenagers about sex, do you have any advice here? Do you think they even need a "talk?" Did your mom give you one?

Hess: Is your daughter a member of Slate Plus? If so, hi! If not, perhaps the passive-aggressive mother-daughter communication via Slate pieces can end now.

I couldn't remember if my mom had ever had The Talk with me, so I called her up to ask. I must have blocked it out. She says she attempted a few times over the years, but as a younger kid I was mortified, and as a teenager, openly hostile. But then again, as she told me, "You wouldn't let me talk to you about anything at that age."

I think I turned out fine, but it does make me wonder what the point of The Talk is. Is it to try to teach your kids facts they actually don't know? To communicate your values to them? Or to convince them to dish to you about what they're actually doing? I think the motivation probably moves from the former to the latter as children age into teenagers. (Then again, I didn't have sex as a teenager, so I can't say how my mom's approach would have affected me had I ever needed her help.) I've never talked with a teenager who actually wants her parents to have a more frank conversation with them about sex, but I do know that teenagers are talking about this stuff among themselves—and are often speaking very sophisticatedly about the effects of porn, for example. Maybe the best way to figure out what your kids think about this stuff is to suggest them as sources for adolescent trend story writers?

Rosin: Ha! Turn your children into sources! Then steal the reporter’s notebook! Novel parenting strategy.

Here is where I am really at fault, though. Why did I write the story at all? Why would I put my daughter in a position where all the teachers at her middle school can say to her, "Hey Noa, I saw that article your mom wrote about you. Congratulations!" What kind of mother would do that to her teenage daughter?

I realize we are many literary cycles into the age of the humiliating confessional. But the wiser among us should know better than to embarrass ourselves and our loved ones. You put yourself out there with your story about being harassed on the Internet. It was for a good cause, but what made you decide to do it?

Hess: Well: It wasn't strictly because I thought it was for a good cause. I wrote about my experiences being harassed on the Internet because I thought it would make the story more compelling. I don't always favor the personal approach, but in this case, I found myself in the middle of a disconnect between how local police forces and international technology companies deal with online threats, and my experience was useful in launching a larger investigation into the push and pull between those institutions. (Bonus: Some of the reporting had already been done, because I lived it, and had created a paper trail in pursuing legal action against my harassers.)

It certainly helped that my story didn't implicate other people to a significant degree. I've written personal essays before that tell stories about my parents, my ex-boyfriends, and my friends, and while I usually keep their identities pretty much obscured (except for my parents—it's not too hard to figure out who they are), I always struggle with how much I should reveal, and whether I should consult with the relevant parties first. I'm curious: When you dip into memoir, do you talk with people before you write about them? And do you ever hear from them after the fact?

Rosin: Deciding to write about anyone, whether you know them or not, is an act of betrayal. I am with Janet Malcolm on this one. With strangers I take the usual precautions—I keep my notebook out always and remind them as often as possible and in many different ways that we are not engaged in the dance of building a friendship but of gathering information for a story, which I will write and all their friends will read. With children it's different. I always ask them and they usually say yes but even that's somewhat manipulative, because they are eager to please and they trust me. I noticed that in the last couple of months I wrote about all three of my children, my youngest in "The Overprotected Kid," my middle in a story about Asperger's, and my daughter in the sex talk piece we are discussing. Enough already. I feel particularly bad about the last one because resentments and embarrassment are so vivid in the mind of a teenager. Dan Savage once told me that when his son DJ got older he asked that Dan stop talking and writing about him, and he complied. Might be time for me to do the same. 

How about this haunting and beautiful "Dealbreakers" story you wrote? It reads like a short story and yet it's true, which means those guys exist somewhere. Did you ever hear from either of the men you mentioned? 

Hess: When I wrote that story—about an ex-boyfriend I knew for many years and a male prostitute I knew for only a couple of nights (though not in that way)—I didn't contact either of them before I wrote the story, and didn't hear from either afterward. The former is still in my extended friend circle, and I bet he read it; as for the latter, I don't remember his name and doubt he's seen it.

I don't have any rules about how I write about people in memoir, though I take a few things into account. One factor is selfishness—if I want to maintain a relationship with someone, I give them a heads up and in some cases, decide not to write about certain personal details if they object. Another is creative—sometimes I'll discuss a past experience with other people who lived it, and they'll remember things I didn't recall, or tell me that they saw the situation differently, which can create some interesting avenues for exploration. (Gchat archives are also really helpful in reconstructing the past.) But ultimately I've decided that it's my life, too, and I'll write about it if and when I think the story is good. 

What I don't always think about is how sharing details about my personal life will affect my personal life going forward—like when I start dating someone new and they have access to a pretty intimate archive. One experience that was new for me in writing this Pacific Standard story was that it sparked all sorts of stories by other journalists about me—taking my personal experience and reframing it in any way that they wanted. I understand that's what I offer myself up for when I put a story into the world, but I bristled when I thought other journalists wrote about it too sensationally, or reduced me to just a victim as opposed to a careful writer on the subject. I also declined to be photographed for the piece, and didn't love when other publications pulled my photos to make me the literal face of the issue. That was a humbling (and sometimes uncomfortable) experience, because I'm usually on the other side. Have journalists ever made you the story, and how did you react?

Rosin: Maybe my experience talking about my book End of Men is the closest I've come to that. When you write the thing yourself you are most at home with the nuances, as you said. In that book I feel closest to the reporting, because I spend a long time with the people I wrote about. But when it goes out into the world it gets, as you experienced, a little flattened. I don't think people are wrong or dishonest to digest it that way. It just always comes as a surprise, because you are so familiar with the shades and complexities of your own writing that you kind of forget about the external packaging. 

In my many years of reporting I've learned that it's really hard to predict who will be offended by what you wrote, and what they will be offended by. I think no matter what it feels alien to have your own experience narrated by someone else, and particularly by someone who you just met. So maybe it's good for us to be reminded every once in a while what that feels like.