Monday, September 28, 2009

Uh-Oh, Mom's a Writer: The Ethics of Memoirs About Kids

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

It's so tempting: One minute my seven-year-old son is a goofball, the next he's a sage. The anecdotes overflow my journal, the Post-it notes on my desk. Before long, he's my lead.

I'm not the first parent-writer to realize I've stumbled on to the greatest subject of my life. Writing about myself in relationship with a constantly evolving, inscrutable other person takes me beyond narcissism, I hope.

But do parents have a right to tell a child's story, even anecdotally? And what justifies the telling? These questions have begun weighing on me, as I write more frankly in print about my experiences as an adoptive parent. I've also started several blogs—and there's my biggest problem. With the touch of a few keys, my son is exposed and parsed in a new viral medium.

Blogging revels in the personal and in many ways demands it, as do memoirs, from the literary to tacky tell-alls. At least one recent book has sparked new concerns about a perennial dilemma for writers: the ethics of family memoirs. But I have a feeling those outraged by Julie Myerson's The Lost Child haven't yet cruised through

Myerson, a literary writer, has been exoriated in the British press for "incontinent exhibitionism" in detailing her son's addiction to skunk—a high-powered form of marijuana. An excellent piece by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times discusses The Lost Child blow-up and the ethical ambiguities it poses.

The few excerpts I've read of The Lost Child are moving as well as cringe-inducing. I suspect this is the reason it's set off such howls among other writers. I cringe in part from my own recognition of ethical lines I might have crossed.

In the coda to her book, Myerson describes her son's response to reading the manuscript: "You and your short, snappy little sentences, he says. I know what you're doing, you know."

Even the most honest memoir writer turns herself and family members into characters. Professional writers know how to make their constructions appear more "real" than reality itself. Those who are skilled like Myerson are experts at creating emotional impact.

“You have to write the book you have to write," she says in the Times Online. "I write with a piece of my heart that I don't really have full control over."

But confusing the "uncontrolled" writing process with the published product is disingenuous. The more such writing moves readers, the more it seems true. And riveting stories often fool us into thinking that one author's take on the world translates into everybody else's.

This is the most treacherous ground for writers. The hyper-reality of good memoir and feature writing can expand our understanding of the truth. But depending on blind spots, it can easily become self-congratulatory. That goes for all those cute stories about toddlers that populate slick magazines and parenting blogs, too. I like to think I know what the ethical boundaries are when writing about my son. But I'd be lying if I said he'll thank me as an adult for the articles I'm writing now. I simply don't know how he'll feel.

Adoption memoirs provide a good case study of the ethical dilemma for parent-writers. Who's verison of an adoption is true—the adoptive parent's? the adoptee's? the social worker's? the birth parent's?

In the past decade, a growing crowd of white adoptive parents have written memoirs about adopting internationally, including investigative reporter Jeff Gammage's China Ghosts—the "No. 1 adoption book on Amazon." A smaller number of memoirs by adult Asian adoptees (Jane Jeong Trenka's The Language of Blood, Katy Robinson's A Single Square Picture, Mei-Ling Hopgood's Lucky Girl) counter such parental visions with more complicated identity struggles. As for birth parents, their side of the story is rarely heard.

While the debate about who gets to tell an adoptee's story is healthy, the fuss over Myerson has reduced the dilemma to a clash between those who think she's a bad mom and those who call her brave for speaking out.

But there's another slippery slope for writers as well: not saying enough about difficult topics, especially in the short format of a blog. Anita Tedaldi's controversial New York Times post on a terminated adoption, "My Adopted Son," is disturbing not because it's so heart-breaking (it is) or because she reveals too much (she doesn't). I applaud Tedaldi's honesty—as many have—but I'm troubled by all that is not explained.

Tedaldi, the mother of five biological daughters, describes her failure to bond with a baby boy she adopted from South America:

"[W]hile it was easy, and reassuring, to talk to all these experts about D.’s issues, it was terrifying to look at my own. I had never once considered the possibility that I’d view an adopted child differently than my biological children. The realization that I didn’t feel for D. the same way I felt for my own flesh and blood shook the foundations of who I thought I was."

In many ways, this is an amazing admission, and she's right that this child has likely gone to a better home. Tedaldi does her best to keep his identity anonymous. Yet does she really believe it's easier for a mother to attach to a biological child? Or is it just her? She skirts a hard answer, which leaves this zinger in readers' minds, reinforcing all sorts of stereotypes about adoption.

If she had answered this question, she probably would have received even more criticism, especially from other adoptive parents like me. But at least there would have been a real debate about the elephant in the room.

Tedaldi's post appeared in Lisa Belkin's Motherlode blog, and Belkin defends her in a later post, detailing the extremes some commenters went to in unearthing the son's real name in Tedaldi's past work. In "Protecting Your Child's Privacy," Belkin presents this all as a cautionary tale about the ethics of parental memoirs. Yet her discussion has far less bite than an e-mail comment she included from one reader:

"In light of the post by Anita Tedaldi I have a suggestion for a future topic: parental blogging and how it might affect the kids. What’s going to happen in 5 or 10 years (depending on the age of the kids) when they learn how to use Google and find what their parents have been posting about them for the entire world to read?"

Belkin says her basic rule is "no column is worth a relationship”; she clears all references to friends and family with them before publishing anything. Fair enough, but sometimes getting the truth out really does matter. In the bad old days, adoption, for example, was considered a dirty secret that couldn't be discussed.

My rule is to make myself more vulnerable in print than my son, to out my own weaknesses, to call myself to task. So here I sit, typing out my worries, ready to send another post into the blogosphere. I think of my sweet child, sitting beside me and typing his own story on a laptop.

In a recent feature in Brain, Child magazine ("What's My Heritage?"), I consider the aftermath of a difficult family trip we took to Vietnam, his birth country. I close the piece with this anecdote: "He's my son, on his very own planet of one. Last week, he talked about hexagons, all the geometric shapes he's learning about in school. "I wish I could make my own shape.' He smiled to himself. 'I'd make a Saigon.'"

He was delighted to see his name in this article. But to rely on his happy desire "to be famous" now is to fool myself. If I'm not cutting close to the emotional bone, I'm not doing my job as a writer. If I don't feel some guilt—and shut my mouth when appropriate—I'm not doing my job as a parent.

This post originally appeared as an Editor's Pick on Open Salon.

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