Not long ago, I went to hear physician Michael Stein talk about his memoir, "The Addict," which describes his treatment of a young woman for Vicodin dependency. In this book, Stein opens his office door, revealing what the jacket copy calls "the very private world of prescription drug addiction."
After the presentation, a man in the audience asked whether Stein had gotten his patient's permission to tell her story. After an awkward pause, the doctor read aloud his author's note.
"As an author of nonfiction who is also a doctor writing about his patients, I have particular storytelling challenges," he recited. "When I began 'The Addict,' I knew that I would have to change names, places, and many details of her life to protect her privacy. If she were ever to read this book, I wanted her to remember things about herself but feel safely disguised."
The phrase "If she were ever to read this book" felt like a punch in the gut. Was it possible that this patient not only hadn't agreed to be portrayed in the book, but did not know Stein had written it? And if so, wouldn't that be a terrible violation?
As the author of six books of memoir and as a professor in an MFA program, I've spent a lot of time considering the ethics of personal storytelling. Perhaps the most obvious issue is what might now be called "the James Frey fallacy" -- that is, including details that are demonstrably false. In the author's note Frey added to "A Million Little Pieces" after the book was discredited, Frey says, "I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection."
While few memoirists see themselves as journalists, most believe it's important to get the details right. And yet, all of us labor under the limitations of what Frey terms "individual recollection." In fact, other people in our lives have different recollections, and often our versions can't be fact-checked against a single, reliable truth.
So if we tell other people's stories, what do we do?
When I published my first collection of essays in 1994, lawyers marked every "actionable" sentence, every instance where I mentioned someone else's drug use, homosexuality or criminal behavior. There were a lot of them. I have a memo dated Sept. 9, 1993, which includes the following bullet points:
p. 11 I suggest we omit a specific street address. It invites trouble from owners or landlords (called a junkie on page 13.)
p. 41 If Carolyn Mahoney is a real name I suggest a change since she appears several places and here we described her taking drugs.
p. 129, 130 Nancy and Steven. Steven is dead so no problem. Nancy's privacy is being invaded. We should get her consent even if we change her name since as the author's sister she will be identifiable anyway.
p. 155 Anita should be disguised completely due to heavy drinking and lesbianism.
Anita, Carolyn Mahoney and my sister Nancy all read the manuscript and signed releases. The address of the building was omitted. And Steven was dead -- so no problem!
But while I was learning the legalities of the memoir, I also had to face some issues that were less cut-and-dried. When Nancy read the essay "My Sibilant Darling," it wasn't the law that concerned me. It was her reaction to my public confession of our past drug use (Nancy is a CPA), as well as the intensity of my competitive feelings toward her and my sadness and frustration at what I perceived as our growing apart.
To my relief, nothing bad happened. Though she corrected me on a few minor details, the distance between us actually narrowed as we talked about the piece.
How different it would have been had she first seen it in print.
This was the beginning of my understanding of the most serious moral principle of memoir: The act of writing about another person occurs not just in the world of literature but in real life. It cannot help but change your relationship, and this should be the first thing you think about.
Of course, as the great Ringo Starr once sang, it don't come easy. Martha Frankel, author of "Hats and Eyeglasses," tried to make sure everyone who had a role in her story saw it before publication -- including her husband, who was unaware of the extent of her gambling losses until he read the manuscript. Including the guy she outs as a cheater at cards, who seemed disappointed that his name and profession had been disguised.
Then, a few months after the book came out, she ran into a woman she hadn't seen in years at the gas station.
"I heard you wrote a book," said the woman. "I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list."