My last blog was about likeable versus unlikeable characters in fiction and a comment I received about it prompted me to ponder a related issue...and story.
The issue is writing about family members directly and the sensitivity associated with it. My general practice is to avoid writing about anyone close to me. I "make characters up," as they say, and don't borrow details and incidents from my family life. In fact, I rather object to someone reading a story and asking how it relates to me as a person--where do I see myself in it, in other words? This annoys me because fiction engages the imagination more than one's biographical being; at least that's how I view it. If "life" were enough, why write?
But about twenty years ago I decided to write something that could be called a family memoir, and it was quite factual and openly so. Big mistake. The problem cropped up with how I described my grandmother, who died when I was seven. I remember her clearly, but what I know about her comes mainly from my mother's tales.
Today we would call my grandmother bipolar; she had deep suicidal depressions and wild manic highs. As a nurse, my mother got involved in treating her because sometimes she would put her head in an oven or buy things she couldn't afford or didn't want or get tangled up with people she shouldn't be tangled up with. As my mother told me, she would get word that Pep, that was her nickname, needed either an upper or a sedative. Remember, these were the 1940s, an important fact. So my mother, who didn't drive, would take a taxi to our family G.P., Dr. McGinnis, and get a hypodermic needle filled with the appropriate medication and then head over to Pep's, inject her, settle her down and turn her back over to her numerous addle-brained friends.
Pep did have friends, lots of them, because she made good money running a lunch house at a big quarry and was generous to a fault. Drinking, dancing, pearls, fur coats, perfume... you name it. My grandfather, you would correctly assume, had divorced her when all this was going on, so she was a free woman, and she liked to kick up her legs.
Once Pep bought a brand new Chevy--two-toned white and blue--drove it a single block and gave it to my Uncle Kenny. Another time she and my father conspired to give my mother "riding lessons" and arranged for the horse to be an old racehorse who took off wildly down the track with my mother barely holding on. Then there was the time she badgered Dr. McGinnis to let her have one of his prize beagle puppies. McGinnis didn't trust her, but she was a force of nature, so they went to his country place and he showed her his latest prize litter. Her comment: "They're the size of rats! Who'd want one of those things in her house?"
So I wrote some of these stories and let my oldest brother see them, and he became violently angry...so angry that he told my middle brother to tell me that I didn't have any idea what I was talking about, didn't know Pep, was a little kid, and had her all wrong. He never wanted to read another word I wrote. And he didn't want to discuss Pep with me, either.
So...what was going on here? Well, he was the first-born and Pep's favorite and she showered him with every toy and cowboy suit and bike and water pistol imaginable. To him she was a saint except for one inconvenient fact: she died just before giving him the car she'd promised for graduating from high school. (Uncle Kenny still had the Chevrolet and wasn't giving it up.) So I was desecrating Pep's memory, or was I? Of course I didn't know she was bipolar when I was a little boy, but neither did he. All we knew was that when she stormed into the house, the cigarettes started burning, the whiskey started flowing, the music came on, and people "laughed until they could scream."
The one behind the scenes in all this was my mother, always watchful, apparently, for Pep to blow some kind of gasket. And when I was in my twenties and thirties and we would sit up late at night reminiscing about the characters in our family, my mother told me what had been going on.
Of course, Pep was long dead by then, and even more decades passed before I wrote what my mother told me, but time wasn't the issue. For my brother, this was a matter of the heart, so much so that I hesitated to include things I really had witnessed, notably the astonishing scene at Pep's funeral. First, everyone seemed convinced that she shouldn't have died and McGinnis could have saved her if he'd been in the E.R. at the time. Debatable. Second, my aunt, Pep's daughter, became hysterical, something of a family symptom, it would appear. Pep was in her mid-sixties and lived a crazy life and was bound to die sometime, but it couldn't and shouldn't have happened. It was impossible. Not Pep! Third, a personal note: my father for some perverse reason wanted to know if I had "seen her" in her coffin. I told the truth when I said yes, but I was lying, too. I came into the funeral parlor, saw the ruckus and commotion and my aunt being carried back behind the curtains and picked out the gray fringe of Pep's hair and her forehead in the coffin, but that was it. I was frozen with fear. Pep the immortal was dead, and at seven I wasn't about to take one more step in her direction.
Well, my brothers are both still alive, and my middle brother might read this note, but my older brother has kept his word. As far as I know, he's never read anything I've published since 1992. Pep was his, not mine, and that's the way it's going to stay, no matter what I write here in 2012.
My advice is only to myself: stick to the rule of leaving family members out of what you write. You can do what you want, but be careful, it's not just speaking ill of the dead, it's saying anything about the dead that can cause big trouble.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund