On Betrayal

It’s the question that always gets asked. When I’m teaching, or giving a reading, or an interview, at some point, someone will raise her hand: what did your family think of Slow Motion? Or Devotion? How do you write about those you love, those you’ve lost, those who have hurt you? Is anything or anyone off limits? Is there a line you won’t cross?

As many times as I’ve responded to this line of questioning – and as much as I actually enjoy exploring the thorniness of the issue – I feel myself tense as I begin to answer, because there is no answer. I know it, and I feel my interlocutor must know it too. After all, writing is – as Joan Didion inimitably put it – “the tactic of a secret bully.” Writing about other people is, according to Janet Malcolm, “morally indefensible.” When Still Writing came out, Cynthia Ozick, a writer I admire enormously, sent me a note saying some very nice things about the book which also included the following thought: But you are not a monster.

She did not mean this as a compliment. Implicit in her words – and Didion’s, and Malcolm’s, I think – is the idea that it is essential, in the name of art, not to care. A scorched earth philosophy, in opposition to morality. Art trumps ethics. Self-expression takes no prisoners.

I don’t know.

From where I sit in my office, on my chaise, I am surrounded by family photographs: my husband on a rooftop in Mogadishu, cupping his hands around a cigarette. my father and my aunt when they were children; my husband and me on our wedding day; my grandmother elegant in a fur stole; my husband swinging our then four-year-old son in our backyard. They watch over me as I write, and they serve as a reminder that I am part of a family, part of a community. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a sister-in-law, an aunt, a niece, a cousin, a friend, a teacher, a mentor. There’s a responsibility in all this – to others, as well as to the art.

But when I sit down to write a first draft — the one in which I discover what I’m trying to say — I look away from these photographs.  This is when I grow fangs, and my breath turns fiery. This is when I come closest to being a monster. I write to find out what I know, what I think, what I fear. And I can’t do that if I’m censoring myself. I don’t need to worry about anyone else, because no one else will be reading this draft. This is such an important point for writers to remember. We can always dial it back, revise, rethink, later. In fact, we had better do all these things. But until we let the monster out of her hiding place, we won’t even know her face.

And so, no, when it comes to releasing my work into the world, I am not a monster. I would never willingly, consciously hurt anyone I love. I would, in fact, never willingly, consciously hurt anyone at all. Does this mean no one has ever been hurt? No, no it doesn’t. But I can say that I try. I consider carefully. I weigh every word. To write is to attempt to tell a truth. Not the truth. Not another person’s truth. But a truth. And in order to tell it, first we must find it. All we know, all we have, is our own experience, our own consciousness, memory, and imagination. These are our tools. And so with deliberation and consciousness and care, we wield them.

  • Thank you for this post; so trenchant, as always. I read your words and realize: I’m not alone. And I’m grateful. Every writer should read these words.
    “To write is to attempt to tell a truth.” This is a universal truth (as it were), and the very crux of what we do; if we were monsters, we would write blithely with little care or concern for others. But we write, we lose sleep, we sweat, we worry, and we still have to come back to the art itself. I lost an entire swathe of my family for writing about something that happened nearly a century ago, for not giving them the opportunity to censor me; I toyed with the idea of excising it from my book and in several drafts, I did. And then I realized: it was the thread that tied the story together. My story. My truth. With art comes responsibility, not only to those around us, but to our own souls. I am not a monster; as C.O. said: neither are you. x

    • Danishapiro

      It always makes me happy when my words land for you, Elissa. xx

  • Evelyn Becker

    “What does your father think of you writing this story?; does he know?; do you think he’ll read it?,” they ask. And since May, as I work on the revising, the considering, the weighing, I answer, “I don’t know; yes; and no, likely not,” and I think to myself, the book isn’t about tikkun olam … it is tikkun olam. Thank you Dani …

    • Danishapiro

      :)))

  • Oh, I find this so helpful and heartening. I’m working on a memoir after decades of fiction (some thinly and not so thinly veiled) and what stopped me for years was fear of hurting others, and invoking ire. But I am seeing so clearly now that early drafts are indeed for fangs, if that’s what happens, and later ones are for shaping our story into one we can live with out in the world. Thank you for such a clear and thoughtful take on the memoirist’s conundrum.

    • Danishapiro

      You’re welcome, Dana. Good luck!

  • Owen Band

    I am currently dealing with this issue. My brother, who is essential to my memoir will not talk about the sibling rivalry that has lasted over forty years. I want to be honest and am unclear about certain events like when he was the chief prosecutor under Janet Reno and I passed on Harvard Law only to help smuggle three billion dollars worth of cocaine. I want to paint him as the good guy and dig down to the roots of how I became this different human being. Obviously, I can write it solely on my memory, but I want his input about why he thought I took a different
    path in life…

    • Danishapiro

      Have you read Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart? Or Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception? Both memoirs in which there is a journalistic component. Such a complex issue… Thanks for writing.

  • Mathias Dubilier

    Dani, Thank you for this constant reminder to be true to persona. You voice a restriction we all feel inside when we sit in front of the keys. And by doing do, you exhonerate us. Your tender acknowledgement of your brutal internal struggle sent me back to John Gardner’s “On Moral Fiction,” in which he writes: “To fail to imitate people as they are, … would reveal a lack of the true artist’s most noticable characteristic: fascination with the feelings, gestures, obessions, and phobias of the people of his own time and place.” -Mathias

    • Danishapiro

      That’s a beautiful reminder, Mathias. Thank you!

  • Rhonda Hayes Curtis

    Dani, Thank you for saying it so perfectly! You’re preaching to the choir. I tell my students and readers the same thing. And I always recommend, Still Writing. Rhonda

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Rhonda!

  • Laura Brown

    Do you ever let people read what you write about them before publication, or ask for their consent to be written about?

    • Danishapiro

      In certain rare instances, yes. There’s no rule book for this.

  • Christine Fuglestad

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Danishapiro

      You’re welcome!

  • Barbara

    Thank you, Dani. I’m writing about my Grandmother who was the essence of love and kindness set against the backdrop of my mother who worked everyday to make sure I saw each flaw that made me so different from her. As I write, I feel as if I am a monster. This mother is not the same loving person who birthed my four siblings…so I wonder if I’ve lost my mind somewhere along the way.

    • Danishapiro

      Honestly that sounds like part of your process, Barbara. And I don’t think monsters actually worry that they’re monsters… Good luck!

  • LT

    Your article surely added some balance to the issue which is the case with the Truth when I look into my past deeply enough. One of my guiding principles is to depict others’ intentions (as best as I can come to know them) as well as their actions, from a place of distance, discernment, and healing as I discover deeper truths. Then I can convey those artistically, with the ways I’ve come to see those intentions, along with possibly embarrassing and cruel actions they may have performed. This widens my perspective. Usually people, especially those who have cared for us and those we worry about hurting, act in ways that they believe are right. After all, I believe that about myself, why not them?

  • Karey B. Shaffer

    AT some point in the book I am writing now, I express, that I am not angry at… But angry that.. meaning sometimes very hurtful things can happen in our lives, and it isn’t as if anyone directly meant any harm, but the hurt remains, and sometimes deeply buried anger. It is a very fine line, to tell a story how it was without blame, with understanding all that was, while also understanding where everyone was at at that time in their own lives.

  • Dani, how do you always know what I need to read? When I read the last paragraph, I sighed deeply and felt a burden lifting. Thank you!