Click here to read more from Slate’s Memoir Week.
The other week, Slate posed the following question to a group of memoir writers: How do you, as memoirists, choose to alert people who appear in your books that you are writing about them—or do you not alert them at all? If you do, do you discuss the book with family members and friends while the work is in progress? How do you deal with complaints from people who may remember events differently than you? The following is an answer from Sean Wilsey, author of Oh the Glory of It All.
As far as I can tell, the difference between serious fiction and serious memoir is that the former consists of stories that did not happen and need to be told, and the latter consists of stories that did happen and need to be told.
If you accept this need-to-be-told premise, it also holds true that memoirists take on a bigger challenge than novelists by naming names and facing the sometimes-dreadful consequences. Unless, of course, you make a career out of writing memoirs, in which case you are probably going out of your way to generate incidents that wouldn’t ordinarily happen, just so you can write about them—essentially, you are fictionalizing your life, in reality, which is an interesting reversal, and one that I haven’t seen discussed nearly so much as the contemporary lazy man’s version of just making stuff up and calling it true.
The way most memoirists have handled still-living people has been to outlive them and then publish. Or publish, then flee. Robert Graves described his memoir, Goodbye to All That, as “my bitter leave-taking of England where I had recently broken a good many conventions; quarreled with, or been disowned by, most of my friends; been grilled by the police on a suspicion of attempted murder; and ceased to care what anyone thought of me … I wonder how my publishers escaped a libel action.”
Instead of waiting or fleeing—and because I definitely cared about what people thought—when I wrote my memoir Oh the Glory of It All, I went about the process in as reportorial a style as possible. I wanted to tell not only my own story, but the stories of my mother, my late father, and my stepmother. Mom was one of eight children raised by a pair of Nazarene ministers who traveled all over West Texas and Oklahoma building churches; she moved to San Francisco, became a local TV star and socialite, and married my dad. When he left her for her supposed best friend, Dede Buchanan, the daughter of the ambassador Wiley Buchanan, one of Richard Nixon’s circle, Mom went through an extended period of depression, and among the many things she did in order to stave it off was take groups of children around the world to meet leaders and plead for peace. Meanwhile, my stepmother took advantage of my mother’s diplomatic absence from San Francisco to replace her as the reigning queen of San Francisco society (which, I was surprised to discover, not only exists, but takes itself seriously).
I interviewed just about everyone I could think of: family members, friends, friends of family members, long-lost family members, lovers of family members, haters of family members, ex-business associates of family members, teachers, current and former students from my former schools, all (five) of which I revisited at length. I read transcripts and court reports, sorted through the many hundreds of hours of videotape my mother had kept from her strange, beautifully funny meetings with world leaders (hard to explain in a parenthetical)—¾-inch tapes documenting her single-minded, always-theatrical pursuit of world peace, which, beyond being useful for my memoir, could be the basis for a fascinating documentary. I also turned to the published record, searching out a lot of newspaper clippings and combing through old social notes from Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. (A lot of this source material, including video, will be on the Web in April, at ohtheglory.com.) When I was done, I showed the manuscript to many of the people I’d written about, but only those I knew would respond truthfully and constructively on factual matters.
My mother was horrified and proud at the same time. After providing me with a lot of source material, putting me in touch with people who could be helpful, allowing me to interview her, quote her, talk to her at length—after all that—I had, she felt, betrayed her. I wrote an unsparing version of the things that she’d done, and she was hurt. Still, though, she agreed that I had the right to tell it as I saw it. She said, “Sean, it’s such an accurate portrait of so many people that I know that I’ve had to conclude it must be an accurate portrait of me, too. And so I’m really going to have to take a look at the fact that I come across that way.” It was a very big thing to say. Then she paused and said, “Or at least that I come across that way to you.” Now, next month in fact, she’s publishing a memoir of her own, called, at the insistence of her publisher, Oh the Hell of It All.
My stepmother, Dede, whom I did not consult, was so enraged by what I wrote about her that she hired a lawyer and threatened to sue me. Then, she hired a publicist. She’s been making regular appearances in glossy magazines ever since.
Beyond my immediate family, I’ve received five factual complaints: One was for identifying a retired Marine as an “ex-Marine”—there are no ex-Marines; another was for not giving proper credit to the author of a song about children being teachers of peace; a third was for mistaking a statue of Shiva for a statue of Vishnu; a fourth was for identifying a tertiary character as being from Oklahoma, when he is actually from Kansas; and the last one was from an ex-girlfriend, who wrote: “I will forgive you for just referring to me as a pack a day smoker who laughed at your jokes in history class instead of your girlfriend who gave you lots of blow jobs, because I understand that in a memoir there is not room enough for everyone.”