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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The First Case of Ebola in America Has Been Diagnosed in Dallas

Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister

Damned Spot

Now Stare. Don’t Stop.

The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 5:19 PM Social Outcasts Republican candidates are retreating from debates on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception.
  Business
Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
  Life
Education
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 4:45 PM Steven Soderbergh Is Doing Some Next-Level Work on The Knick
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 5:47 PM California Gov. Vetoes Bill Requiring Warrant for Police Surveillance Drones
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.