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Whose Life Has It Been, Anyway? Memoir and Famous Friends

One of the biggest issues a memoir writer confronts is this: is one’s life one’s own?

What about the right to privacy of others whose lives have intersected with ours?

I’ve been at work for a few years now on a memoir, as the daughter of an “anti-guru” who never went to school, among many other incarnations jumbled up into this one life.

Despite some dangerous wrong turns, such as joining a Manson-like urban commune (not my father and mother’s artist colony, but a whole other adventure on the darker side of things), I had the chance to enjoy the Sixties, as some benevolent God or Goddess (ourselves, my father would have certainly stated in no uncertain terms) apparently meant them to be enjoyed.

I was in my teens, I was apparently innocently pretty and definitely bright, I had never been forced to follow any conventional rules of any kind, and I had a forward-looking father (my mother had had a nervous breakdown, sadly, but that’s another story) who wanted to see me have as much fun as possible.

Under these circumstances, I had very interesting adventures.

As it turns out, I had some of them with an artist and writer who is now extremely well known, and deserves to be. Unfortunately, he doesn’t want me to include him in this memoir—a near-impossibility, as we were pretty important to one another.

My parents, while fond of this swain of the Sixties, were extremely highbrow…even though my mother had been a cartoonist herself at one time, they valued “real” art—figurative painting, of which my mother was, and is, a master.

They felt that I ought to avoid hooking up with a commercial artist, which was what my friend was at that time. I saw that he had a special ability, if not a genius, that only needed development, and that he would one day come fully into his own. That is exactly what happened—in time for my father, who died in 1990, to agree that I had been correct in saying my boyfriend was a great artist, if not always a very generous person on the creative level.

Oddly to me, once most people reach a certain level of renown, they seem to turn into Oreo cookies. That is, famous people come to consider themselves a sort of brand name, and they feel the need to protect that brand. In the case of my former lover, he was at first enthusiastic when he heard I was writing a memoir. However, he later called me up and said that he and his wife didn’t want the world to think that he had been “weird.” I pointed out, with some justification, that he had, indeed, been weird. “Well, yes, but not that weird.”

The problem seemed to be that he did not want me to reveal that he had once gallivanted around the sunny meadows of any family’s Vermont community, or as some think of it, a “hippie commune.” Though he had created a book that laid bare many aspects of his own life and that of his family, he didn’t want people to know that not only in the Sixties, but also for years after, he’d often visited the oldest community in Vermont.

However, as he did finally reveal in his own work that he had visited a commune in Vermont (though he claimed he had only visited in the Sixties, when in fact we were well into the 1990s before he stopped coming up), I wonder whether the problem is not that he’s ashamed of his hip past, but that he actually does not want people to know that he had an important, deep, and loving relationship with one of the women in that past.

The question then is, do I have the right to tell the story of my own life? At a writer’s conference not too long ago, the memoirist Mary Kerr told me, “Take no guff.” If she had bent to the will of her mother that she not publish her most famous book, The Liars’ Club, it would have been lost to the many who read and enjoyed it.

About Ladybelle Fiske

  • David W. Moritz

    I can certainly understand where he is coming from.. many of us had completely different life styles in the past then we we do now and I know that the me of 1010 wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with me of the late 60s!

    That said, we have all to accept ourselves for who and what we are. As long as we are true to our memories of others, I see no reason we shouldn’t be free to write about them. We do not, after all, own the memories others have of us.. they do.

    And I am now the result of the me I was in the past, my failures and my successes. Since I am the person I chose to be, for better or worse, I would not go back and rethink the decisions of the past.

    Ok, there are a few things I would do differently, but who is to say that the pain of those mistakes wasn’t just what I needed to become what I am now?

    Having been to the community you are writing about a few times myself, I can’t see why anyone would be ashamed of associating themselves with it.

    For one thing, it is a very novel community that demonstrates that physical punishment of children is not a necessary ingredient in the making of a well balanced adult. It is also strong evidence that home schooling can be a very good alternative to government schooling. Many children that grew up there are now parents themselves and responsible members of society at large.

  • Nan Simon

    This moral issue, of whether to protect another’s identity when they request it, certainly has multifaceted considerations. I don’t feel that I can stand in judgment or in any way comment on whether or not to keep secrets. If the author feels that choosing to tell her side of the story and reveal her entire cast of characters is the only possible personal choice she can live with, so be it. I chose to withhold in some of my writings, mainly because it was requested by someone important to my story, and it had an immediate effect of lessening my interest in the whole project.

  • Barb Corona

    The author, LB Fiske,is a close friend of mine. I have known for many years. In fact, I became close to her during the years that she was living with the “unnamed artist.” The idea that she would be able to tell her story without including this person is perfectly ridiculous. I admire and respect this man tremendously. I still consider him a friend although we have not seen each other for many years. I cannot understand what he could possibly be thinking. But then, I have little understanding of the thoughts and motives of “the rich and famous.” I cannot imagine that the man I knew well for quite a while (albeit a long time ago) would have this attitude toward my friend’s memoir. They went through a lot together and I know they loved each other. She remained his friend for many years after their relationship changed from lovers to good friends. That friendship (which included his wife and children) continued for a very long time. Furthermore, I am fairly certain that what she would say about him would be about 99% positive.

    We should all remember that we are, up to any given point in time, very much the some total of all of our past experiences. Each person has a right to tell their story in their way. And hey, if you consider something that is said about you to be libelous, there are legal remedies. But that’s not the point here is it? There would be no libel here, just someone’s story told the way she remembers it. (And believe me, she checks her memories against those of others who were present at the time she is writing about.) Who does not have THAT right?

  • http://quarryhillcreativecenter.blogspot.com Ladybelle Fiske

    Thanks very much to everyone who has commented on my piece! I am grateful to you for your time, energy, and thought.
    It’s a tricky issue any way you look at it, but many have said that I should be free to tell my story the way I saw it. (As Barb Corona says, I have no intention of libeling anyone, and I do check my memories against those of others. Thanks again, and please keep feeding back more thoughts if you like!

  • Steve Ellman

    Very thoughtful. Good questions.

  • http://quarryhillcreativecenter.blogspot.com Ladybelle Fiske

    Thanks, all!

  • Joya Lonsdale

    An interesting piece. You are raising some important questions. I would imagine that most, if not all, of us would have a similar dilemma if we were writing a memoir. Who doesn’t have people in their lives who would be affected by us telling our personal tales as we experienced them? It complicates things when the person is famous, given the social weight we give to our idols. I think you should have the right to tell your story as you experienced it. Why should an unknown or less known writer have fewer rights than a famous writer? He may not agree with your version of the story, or agree with it but not want it known, but then he would have the right to comment on it if he so chose. Life is short; we don’t have feathers and can’t fly without the help of machinery, and sometimes the written word is our only way of singing.

  • Larry Plesent

    Excellent point! Tell your story. As long as the other actors in the drama of your life are not diminished by it why worry?

    Having written two memoirs styled novels about delicate subjects, I recomend changing the names and places and putting it in the Fiction section to protect the “innocent”.

  • Lyra Fiske

    Ladybelle, this is an interesting dilemma. These days, because of our litigious society, we have to unfortunately think like lawyers. I read years ago about a lawsuit involving “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath because one woman did not like how Plath portrayed her in the author’s allegorical story of her own life. If I remember, this woman lost the case; I think the suit was brought after Plath’s death. I would suggest possibly combining aspects of different people into one “character” as it were in your memoir so he may not be identifiable, or somehow altering parts of the story, if there is a way to do it. You may need to seek legal advice is these approaches won’t work and including this story would be integral to your book.

  • Mishcka O’Connor

    We’re talking about YOUR memories here. The risk we all take in life is how others will remember us. It is not up to someone else to ask us to rewrite our history for their sake – whether we are famous or not. Your truth belongs to you to express as you wish.

  • Jojo Bean

    ART SPEIGLEMAN

  • http://quarryhillcreativecenter.blogspot.com Ladybelle Fiske

    Dear Jojo… I wish I knew who you are. That particular name is not spelled correctly.
    Art Spiegelman is the correct spelling.