Is Omission in Memoir Writing Cheating? – Writing about Sexual Abuse & Other Horrors

In his play Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare said, “All Are Punished,” and I believe that to some extent, all of us are punished by the workings of life, and I believe that many innocent people are punished by  memoir writers who are not scrutinous. Many will disagree with my saying this, but I do not believe that in writing a memoir, we are obligated to punish tales that expose those who have outright violated us in our pasts, and I especially believe that unscrupulous accusations are an abomination. Moments ago, I wrote an article saying that I do not condone lying in memoirs. Here I believe that most people would agree with that opinion, but they may not agree with what I say next:

I Do Not Believe that A Memoir Is Obligated to be a Tell-All

Yesterday, I posted what Mary Karr wrote in The Liar’s Club about her being sexually abused by a young teenager when she was 7-years-old Here.  I believe that Mary Karr had every right to report that abuse in her memoir, but I do not believe that she was obligated to do so. In William Zinsser’s book Inventing the Truth, he quotes Annie Dillard as saying, ” ‘You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arm, like a drunk, and say, ‘And then I did this and it was so interesting.’ ” Zinsser, Inventing the Truth, p. 16.

As Dillard has pointed out, every fact of our lives is not destined to become part of our memoirs. In my opinion, this is true for things that are simply too mundane, but it is also true for other things, like things that are horrifying or distasteful. I honor the author’s right to choose what he or she publishes and what he or she does not.

In my previous post about lying in memoirs, I shared Karr’s statements about how memoir writing is cathartic, and I do believe that writing about painful things is cathartic. I do not, however, believe that we must publish everything that we write. I am not critical of people who write about sexual abuse and other horrors, but I want to make a case for people who do not want to publish everything that they write.

Ask Yourself Why You Want to Include Horrors Like Sexual Abuse in Your Memoir

I believe that we need to examine our reasons for deciding to include and to exclude the things that ultimately land in our published memoirs. Yesterday, I discussed the book Game Over, which exposed the Pennsylvania coach Sandusky Here.  Apparently, that book had a great impact on ending years of sexual abuse and violations that were being swept under Penn’s rug. The movieSpotlight performed the same sort of civic service. In many cases, however, people were sexually abused by others who have died before the abused publish their memoirs. There are other types of sexual abuses that were limited to a specific period of time and have discontinued. Afterwards, a generation or two of innocent family members were probably born, and reporting some instances of abuse may harm more people than it helps.

When there is nothing to gain from blowing a  public whistle decades after an unfortunate series of events took place, silence may be advocated–simply to protect the people who are in the line of fallout. Writing about one’s abuse is no doubt helpful, but publishing that writing is something else.  It would seem to me that in some cases, the primary reason to include one’s sexual or other abuse in a published memoir would simply be a way to get revenge. Otherwise, it might be a bit of sensationalism to gather attention or at least, to beg for sympathy.  No doubt, all of this might result in more sales, but in all of these latter cases, I question what is good writing and what is something else entirely.

Bottom line about lying in memoirs is that yes, I do believe that Lying in Memoirs is Cheating.

Omission in Memoir Is Not Always Cheating.

I do not, however, believe that when we elect to omit sordid details from our memories that we are always Cheating. Perhaps, sometimes in omission, we cheat ourselves, but that does not have to be the case. As I said before, I respect the writer’s freedom to choose what he will and will not elect to publish.

©Jacki Kellum August 28, 2016

This was originally published on Blog to Memoir, my blog about writing Here.



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