How I wrote my family exposé.

The stories we tell about ourselves.
March 29 2007 7:39 AM

Just Screw It

How I told my family I was writing about our feud over the Sweet'N Low fortune.

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?

Sweet and Low, Rich Cohen.

Hemingway once said something to the effect that there were many stories he could not write until a lot of people had died. So he was waiting. I am a fan of Hemingway, especially the early "Up in Michigan"-type stories that seem the most autobiographical, so I always thought it was a shame that either 1) those people did not die sooner; (instead of more stories about Petoskey, we got Islands in the Stream and The Dangerous Summer) or 2) he did not break his rule. Because while you are waiting for someone to die, you might just die yourself, either by falling off a ladder, or putting the barrel of a shotgun in your mouth.

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All this to say—I know it is not exactly the same—that when it came to my own stories, I decided, where reasonable, to go with a policy of "screw it." My book Sweet and Low, for example, is a memoir about my family, or that part of my family that, as they say in the Bible, came from the loins of Grandpa Ben, a short-order cook at a diner in Brooklyn who invented the sugar packet and Sweet'N Low, and with them built the fortune that would be the cause of so much trouble: the corporate scandal, for one, and the raid by the FBI, the criminal prosecution, and the disinheritance of my mother and her children; or, as we were called in Grandma Betty's will, "My daughter Ellen and all of Ellen's issue."

This book was the most painful piece of personal writing I've done—because it deals with the big dark secrets in the back of the mind of my family—so I decided, while working on it, to twist the Hemingway rule. I would not wait to write until everyone had died. I would write as if everyone had died long ago. You would be surprised what a good way this is to work.

As for telling people in my family what I was writing, getting their input, advice, etc., well, I did do this, and obviously, on these occasions I could not pretend that everyone had died long ago. Because I was sitting in their office or, in one notable case, in his office—that of my Uncle Marvin, the man we called Uncle Marvelous, the president of Cumberland Packing of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the company that makes Sweet'N Low. So yes, I did tell my family, and I interviewed them with a tape recorder and everything—Marvin, and also my Aunt Gladys, and my parents and siblings. I tried to talk to others, too, but some said they'd talk to me later, then blew me off, and others blew me off straight away. I wanted them to know what I was working on, and I had lots of questions. In fact, I wanted as many versions of the story as possible. Talking and arguing with members of my family was not only an obligation, and sort of fun, it was a crucial part of the project. I actually came to see the story as the chronicle of a family argument, with all the uncles and aunts pleading their case, as the factory chugs along, spilling out mountains of pink packets, and the money accumulates.

I was after a big, contested family saga in which Grandpa Ben's company grew into a behemoth, a fortune was made, the company was infested by criminals—all of it, in my mind, leading to the disinheritance. I could try to tell you why our side of the family was disinherited, but that would take a book. Or did. (Let's just say, if your Grandma Betty buys you a shirt made of beads, even if it's the ugliest shirt in the world and makes a racket in the drier, you wear that shirt!)

In the end, the hard part was not talking, but ending the conversation, saying to myself: It's time to write. That is where the pretending everyone died a long time ago part was so helpful. As for my uncle, I never felt he took our conversations seriously, or, until the memoir appeared on the Barnes & Noble Web site, believed it would all add up to a book. Even as my tape recorder hummed away, he regarded me with a mix of irritation and bemusement, as if I were just the oddball little nephew selling his pinch pots in the basement.

Rich Cohen is the author of several books, including The Fish That Ate the Whale and Tough Jews.

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