The memoir minefield

Winik teaches at the University of Baltimore and is the author, most recently, of "The Glen Rock Book of the Dead."

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.”

“Great,” said Frankel, feeling sick. This was the erstwhile girlfriend of a close friend, described in the book as follows: “Then he fell for a woman who was so gorgeous that it felt good just to be in her presence. She was a natural beauty with a mass of golden hair. We assumed -- incorrectly, it turned out -- that she was a good person.”

There are a couple more sentences, but they just dig the hole deeper.

Frankel’s insides turned to ice as she considered the woman reading this description. I tried to comfort her by saying that the woman would be so elated by the description of her beauty that she wouldn’t notice the rest of the paragraph. When I, on the other hand, trashed an unnamed ex-boyfriend of my sister’s for being a hypocrite, I did not praise his good looks -- not that he had any. I certainly didn’t expect him to get back together with my sister, marry her and start recommending my book to his friends and clients. Finally, one of them urged him to read what his wife’s sister had written about him.

That was a bad day at the beach club.

But he is dead now -- so no problem!


Memory as property

There’s an interesting moment in Abigail Thomas’ “Three Dog Life,” a memoir of her husband’s traumatic brain injury. “Six months ago,” she tells us, “a friend was angry with me and I with her. I had written about something someone had said many years ago, but it was she who heard the words, not me, a fact I had completely forgotten. Her experience was precious, and she accused me of stealing her memory. Not only that, I also got it wrong.

“We argued, but there was no meeting place. For days the same questions went through my head. Is memory property? If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong? Wasn’t my memory of a memory also real?”

Later that week, Thomas visits her husband in the institution where he lives. He has become something of a Chance the Gardener, saying things that seem powerful and significant despite his inability to reason. Out of the blue, he begins to talk about storytelling and ownership, concluding that “The art of storytelling is too various to have any one person have complete control.”


It’s good he felt that way, because he had no idea he was being written about. I don’t say this as criticism -- I too wrote a memoir of a husband who was not around to comment, and I imagine Thomas worried as I did about how to be fair, how to be decent, how to suggest the existence of a subjectivity not your own.

As to why such ethical concerns are important, look at Linda Gray Sexton’s 1994 book “Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton,” which is nothing if not a cautionary tale.

When Linda was 3, she and her sister were sent to live with relatives because their mother was in the hospital, and then not interested in reclaiming her kids. Linda stayed with an uncle who beat her, and the six months she spent in his house were a nightmare. She didn’t have to wonder whether her mother understood how horrible it was, because Sexton wrote a poem about it called “The Fortress.”

Sexton wrote many poems about her daughter, some loving and sweet, others exploitative and threatening. When her psychiatrist remarked on this, she argued that Linda, by then in college, was a writer and understood that the “writing comes first. This is my way of mastering experience.”

After her mother’s suicide, Linda became her literary executor. She spent years sorting through her archives and working first on an edition of her letters, then with Diane Middlebrook on a biography. Finally she buckled under the weight of all her mother had said or written: her correspondence, her notes, her diaries, her poems, her dramatic, sometimes hate-filled effusion.

So she wrote a memoir.

To Stein’s patient, wherever you are, I hope you are as pleased with “The Addict” as its author intends. But if you’re not, follow Linda’s example. Take back your story.