When I read your “Scrubbing” piece today, I teared up at the vulnerability, and I was so overwhelmingly relieved when I saw the person you wrote about responded to the piece. As you write your memoir following the divorce, how do you write about yourself honestly while also protecting your son and (if you even want to) your ex-husband? -Ashley
This question is SO timely for me, since I spent most of last week dealing with some negative feedback on the Scrubbing post, and then spent all weekend working on From Shitshow To Afterglow, the book I’m writing about the process of healing from my divorce last year.
As for the Scrubbing article, I got a chunk of pretty negative feedback from a web community called Metafilter. The tl;dr of the feedback was that, based on what I wrote, people had concerns about consent, safety, me being “creepy,” and whether the whole situation was a gross abuse of power.
This feedback sat really, REALLY heavy with me… especially when some of my friends shared with me that they felt similarly. (One friend was like, “Uh, you should really read The Gift Of Fear.”)
First, I just had to sit with the discomfort of criticism. That’s a major challenge in itself, especially when what I was writing about was pretty emotional and raw. (And, honestly, I’m generally just more emotional and raw than I used to be.)
I had a couple writer friends who were like “Fuck those people, they don’t get it” which I felt like was a reaction that denied me the opportunity to learn something… and God knows I like learning things! I spent days considering whether it was that my writing missed the mark, or whether the experience itself was gross.
I found truthful affirmatives to both questions… which is uncomfortable! I could see where my writing had failed (by not giving more context, I made things look even weirder than they already were), and could also see where the situation itself was a little off (I over-extended myself, and my motivations may have been as much about my own need to feel helpful as they were about helping someone else). There was lots for me to learn, and I’m still processing all the lessons.
Focus on telling only YOUR story
With my book and the scrubbing article, I make a concerted effort to only tell MY STORY. This has always been my goal with my memoir writing — it is not my place to tell other people’s stories, nor to put words in their mouths.
My first line of defense is just generally not to write that much about other people, and then my second line of defense is to ensure that what I do write about others is nothing that anyone could argue with.
When I talk about my separation publicly, generally all I say is “I felt blindsided.” There is nothing to argue with there. Even the similar phrasing of “I was blindsided” leaves room for argument — “I felt blindsided” is just about me and my experience of my emotions.
You can argue that I wasn’t actually blindsided, or that I shouldn’t have felt blindsided (hell, I’d even argue that point myself!) but there’s no debating the fact that, well, that’s how it felt to me at the time. I own that reaction. I felt that thing. No one can say I didn’t feel that feel.
I’m extremely sensitive about this with my ex-husband — he’s not in Shitshow at all, and the book isn’t about our divorce. I don’t want to write that book, nor do I want to be responsible for someone else’s narrative. His story is his to tell.
Shitshow is a book is about my process of emotional recovery, which is MY story to tell.
I’m even more sensitive about stories involving my son, Tavi. Ten years ago, I watched many of my early blogging colleagues become “mommy bloggers” where their primary narratives were funny and often embarrassing stories about their children.
This always made me a little uncomfortable, and once I had a child, I had a lot of clarity about why. My son’s stories are his to tell.
I can share my parts of the story (for instance, I wrote about my choice to dress him in gender-neutral baby clothes), but when it comes to sharing HIS life experiences? Nope. Tavi owns those stories.
Tavi can choose to tell them when and if and how he wants. I’m not going to force that choice on him.
Err on the side of over-respecting other’s privacy
Of course things get really sticky when your story overlaps with someone else’s story. This was a significant issue in my marriage. 15 years ago, my partner asked me not to write about the fact that our relationship was open.
This also meant not writing about my other relationships, which were usually with women. Keeping my bisexuality private was a compromise I was willing to make for the sake of my marriage… but it was a sacrifice and it’s a huge relief to be fully out without feeling like I’m stepping on someone else’s story.
It’s worth noting that I’m still careful about this stuff: I talked with my ex-husband just this month about whether he was now comfortable with me acknowledging that our marriage was open. (He said he’s fine with it.)
Is that weird, that I’m asking my ex-husband about talking about my own sexuality? Maybe, but I always want to err on the side of over-respecting other people’s stories — and our stories overlapped for almost 20 years.
My ethics around not sharing other people’s stories involve all sorts of compromises — in the case of the scrubbing story, by trying to respect the scrubbee’s privacy, readers were denied some information, which I now understand may have contributed to me coming off poorly.
(Although some of the creepiness was all mine. I’m intense and odd in ways that can make some people pretty uncomfortable! I totally get it.)
In the case of Shitshow, of course some people will want to know WHY we got divorced and HOW it all went down, and, well: they’re just not going to get those stories. This denies readers some context, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make, and hopefully I can compensate for by clearly setting expectations about the book.
Furthermore, my unwillingness to tell my son’s stories means I risk looking like a selfish asshole — does Tavi even exist? Doesn’t Ariel have 50/50 custody? Why isn’t this book about single parenting?
It’s going to be a tricky balance. I don’t know that I have a good strategy yet, but generally speaking I’d rather risk looking like an asshole than risk selling out my kid’s privacy.
Integrity in storytelling
In terms of getting permission from people, it’s an interesting line. When I write about people, they pretty much always know. If someone voices privacy concerns, I always respect them by either not writing about that person, or making the story completely anonymous.
Some folks want to make sure I write about things in a certain way — for example, I have a chapter in my book about how I did a sound healing on my VW van (HA!!!) and it’s very much played for Portlandia-style comedy.
My friend who did the sound healing was like, “I’m fine with you writing about me, just make sure it’s clear that I’m extensively trained and skilled at non-silly healing work.” …Totally! Yes! Of course!
My goal with any storytelling involving other people is that the person I’m talking about could be sitting in front of me, and hopefully they’d be stoked at what I said.
If I know they’re probably NOT going to stoked, I try to at least make sure they’d have to acknowledge, “Well, yeah. I guess that’s how it was for you. That sounds about right.”
Part of how I work toward this goal is wording things carefully around “I statements.” For example, there’s not much you can argue with the statement “I felt surprised,” but there’s a lot to argue with “They surprised me.”
Separate from any special strategies, I also just generally try to be a good human when I’m telling a story. I fail sometimes (…we all do), but my integrity is my everything as a writer, so it’s critically important to me not to sell out myself or the people I care about in the interest of a good story.
Even if I’m upset with someone, it’s not worth getting my hands dirty. That doesn’t serve me, nor do I think it actually serves the story. When I read a story that throws someone under a bus, my first question is almost always, “Huh, I wonder what that other person’s perspective is?”
As for the scrubbing post, I’m pals with the guy I scrubbed, and we’ve talked about the reaction to the story. When the negative criticism came up, I was like “ACK! Did the evening feel creepy to you?! Were you uncomfortable at any point?”
He was like, “These people don’t know me, and they don’t know the context we had for the night. I had a great time, and part of that was that we were on the same page about the whole thing, the whole time.”
He recounted reading my article out-loud to friends, and how they all laughed through it all. He recounted telling the story to his mom, and how tickled she was. Sure, there are some things I’d do differently in terms of how I handled the evening, and even more things I’d do differently in terms of how I’d write about the experience… but what matters the most to me is how the actual person who was actually there feels about the story.
When I’m working on Shitshow, I try to imagine sitting in a room with my son and his father, reading it aloud to them. It’s a pretty solid guiding principle.