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The secrets of the famous: to tell or not to tell? What if they're our secrets, too?

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.

It’s worth knowing that I’m not the type to write a virulent, nasty, down-putting version of my days with my lover, just an honest one (which will, since I still admire his work, probably be more complimentary than otherwise).

One wants to honor old loves and old alliances, yet, when those who have been friends and lovers say in essence (and not always in a very friendly way), “I have the right to tell my story but you do not,” what is the choice of the would-be memoirist to be? Is it possible to tell the story yet not reveal the identity of the person with whom one experienced the moments that make up the story?

This is not a problem for me except that I feel fairly sure that the identity of the person who is not named here will be almost immediately apparent to the readers of my book. And so I ask: does a writer of nonfiction, of memoir, have the right to her or his own life story?

How would you feel if a friend, or a lover whose life had twined with yours, told you that they didn’t want people to know they ever knew you?

Or do you feel that a person, even a public figure, has the right to privacy at all costs? I would love to have your opinion. Write, post, and let me know.

About Ladybelle Fiske

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3 comments

  1. i believe we all have the right to tell our story, as long as we tell the truth.

  2. Yes, that’s one way to do it. But I really prefer memoir and autobiography to fiction….