How to write about the dead.

The stories we tell about ourselves.
March 29 2007 1:51 PM

For Whom the Memoir Tolls

How to write about the dead.

Click here to read more from Slate's Memoir Week.

The other week, Slate posed the following question to a group of memoir writers: How do you choose to alert people who appear in your books that you are writing about them—or do you not alert them at all? If you do, do you discuss the book with family members and friends while the work is in progress? How do you deal with complaints from people who may remember events differently than you?

Wish I Could Be There, Allen Shawn.

I had a very particular challenge in writing the memoir portions of my book Wish I Could Be There. I had decided to write a book that would be part memoir, part study, and part reflection—a portrait of a side of my own life and personality I wish I didn't have, and an attempt to investigate and reflect upon it. I wanted to write a serious book about an interesting psychological subject (phobias and agoraphobia), a book that could be enjoyed by people who had never heard of The New Yorker. I imagined that some phobic man who lived in Bombay, India, who found that he broke out into a cold sweat and couldn't breathe whenever he took the train from Bombay to Calcutta might read my book and learn that he had a well-known condition, suffered by many, and might find comfort in reading a literary expression of the painful reactions he had hitherto suffered alone.

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Because my father was well-known as an editor and had already been the subject of several books, and my brother is a prominent playwright and actor, there was the danger that my book would be viewed more as literary gossip, as a "memoir of the Shawn family" or a "memoir of TheNew Yorker," than as a book about personality. To tell my story, I needed to write about my personal experiences and my own childhood, but I wanted to place as much emphasis on my mother as on my father and more emphasis on my retarded twin sister, Mary, who was sent away from the family to live in an institution when she and I were 8 years old, than on my brother. Perhaps someday I might write a more rounded memoir of my life, but in this one I hoped to focus attention on a specific aspect of human personality.

My solution was to make a kind of abstraction of my childhood, trusting that its story and the psychological and family issues it illustrated would be fascinating in and of themselves. To be sure, I made use of the fact that many readers would know of my father's accomplishments, and even of his own often described phobias, by making what I thought were important points about the balance of strengths and weaknesses in all of us. But after identifying my family members and explaining my intentions in the foreword to the book, thereafter I referred to my father simply as "my father," to my brother Wally as "my brother," and to "The New Yorker" as "The Magazine." In order to suggest the centrality of my sister to my life and to the book, I made the decision to use her name throughout the text. I used my own name only once in the book.

I made the decision early on that I would steer clear of most of my adult life in my book. My children have a right to privacy, and so does my former wife. I also felt that I could tell what I needed to without infringing too much on my brother's privacy. He was, in fact, extraordinarily generous in his support of the book and willingness to be mentioned in it as I saw fit. He read the manuscript and helped me confirm or add detail to certain points of fact having to do with the family. I would have removed anything that made him uncomfortable, but no such issues arose with him.

Yet the issue of privacy Slate inquires about still haunted me as I wrote. My parents are both dead. My sister is mentally disabled and cannot communicate normally or defend her own privacy. Although I wrote a book that—because of its frankness—I could never have written had my parents been alive, I still tried to respect their dignity and individuality, and to represent, to the degree I could, how things might have looked to them. Just because your subjects are dead doesn't mean that they have lost their right to be described with fairness. As for my sister, I just do not know how to judge the ethics of the situation. I disguised the precise location of the institution where she lives, but I wrote about her as if she would never be in a position to read the book or comprehend that it exists, which in fact is the case. Whether or not that is the right thing to have done I cannot be certain.

Allen Shawn is a composer and author who teaches at Bennington College.

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