Tomorrow, I leave for Adelaide for the Story of the Story Conference to be held at Flinders University. The conference theme centres around the ethics of life writing.
I have been reading Margaretta Jolly’s book, The Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism, in preparation. Jolly is taking a master class at the end of the conference where we will discuss issues relevant to the ethics of life writing.
I have a great deal of trouble with the issue of ethics and life writing. I see from my reading that if we life writers are to take our work seriously then we must be more than careful about what we publish. We must be vigilant.
From what she writes, Margaretta Jolly went to great pains to get permission from all the people whose letters she had sought to publish even as the letters were found in many instances in university archives and the like. Many were in effect already in the public domain.
This has to do with the issue of freedom of speech versus the individual’s right to privacy. Because we are relational creatures whenever we write our own story inevitably we involve aspects that touch on the lives of others.
The ethics of life writing, as I understand it, involves an attempt to build a bridge across the divide between one’s right to speak in writing of one’s experience as honestly as possibly while at the same time recognising the rights of others, whose presence is included in the writer’s story, the other’s right to privacy.
Even as I write about this here, I fell vexed. It is hard for me to write now without feeling hot under the collar. Is there some emphasis on political correctness that I must tackle?
I get mixed messages. One of my supervisors suggests I write it all. I should be like Janet Malcolm, who writes in detail about what people do and say. Though to be sure, Malcolm’s had her share of trouble. She uses transcripts of interviews and the like. I’m not talking about interviews and transcripts by and large. I’m talking about having the freedom to write thoughtfully about my experience from my own perspective without feeling the need to ask people who might feature in my writing whether I have their permission to publish it or not.
Several years ago I wrote an essay about my analytic experience. The essay was published in the ‘Shrinks’ edition of Meanjin. I was happy with my essay. I felt it offered a good enough version of my good enough experience in my analysis. I stress it was a good experience.
My analyst thought differently about my essay, however. She believed that I had violated her privacy. Even though I was writing about my experience in analysis, her presence in the essay is central. So I disguised her to some extent. I changed certain identifying features and I gave her a pseudonym.
I suspect she has not forgiven me for it. At the time she was angry and I decided that I should avoid any further contact with her, but later I met her at a conference and she seemed to have calmed down.
Since then I find she has published writing about me, in a much disguised form, to the point that I have become a man, with no other identifying features. I would probably be one of the few people to read her essay who is able to identify myself. Though my husband also recognised the sections in the essay that describe me.
I’m not troubled by this myself. I do not mind that my analyst has written in some detail about the way I once thought during the course of my analysis: namely, 'that I turned against the church with venom when I went to university…and found a belief in psychoanalysis as saviour’.
I have written about this myself, the degree to which I imagined that by giving up Catholicism for Psychoanalysis I had entered a better world and that my world was then a better world than that of those misguided people who still preferred religion.
I do not think the same way now and perhaps for this reason I consider the person whom my analyst describes as someone of the past, not me now and therefore not someone I need be ashamed of.
Nevertheless there is a view in contemporary psychoanalytic thinking that if an analyst/therapist were to write about a patient, how ever well described, then they should first seek that person's permission.
In Freud’s day people did not bother to get permission, but we’ve moved further along the track now and recognise the difficulties inherent in the appropriation of someone else’s story for our own purposes. Think of Thomas Couser’s work. He writes about ‘vulnerable subjects’, those who cannot speak for themselves, including our own children, the disabled, and the disenfranchised about whom others might write.
Appropriating someone else’s story for our own ends may well be unethical and yet in some ways it’s what we often do when we write. And it’s what I find so troubling. Where’s the dividing line?
More recently I have encountered a drama within my professional association. I’m toey about writing any details here. See how paranoid I have become. I, who value openness, have become wary of ‘self-disclosure', because of what others might make of it. So now I must be careful. Nevertheless, this issue of self-disclosure will be the basis of my talk at the conference in Adelaide.
I don’t know about you, but I’m of the view that when things are written down they take on a certain ‘unreal’ quality. They become something else. I try to write as honestly about my experience as I can, except when I am writing fiction, and I don’t do much of that these days. I do not enjoy the fictional process as much as I enjoy the process of letting ideas and words form in my mind and then tumble out onto the page. Inevitably, for me at least, these words tend to be autobiographical. And yet at the same time, once these words are down on the page they become somewhat artificial simply through the process of construction, and I would not want ever to be held to them as gospel truth, not that I believe there is any such thing.
It’s weird, words on the page have a substance and solidity that spoken words lack and yet the words on a page also have the fluidity that each individual reader brings to them.
I remember the writer, Elizabeth Jolley, once talked about her experience of having her fiction read. She described how one day a woman in her audience asked Jolley about the lesbian references in Mr Peabody’s Inheritance. I think this was the book. Elizabeth Jolley asked whether they talking about the same book?
‘No,’ the woman replied. ‘There’s a scene in the book where you describe rumpled sheets on a bed. Clearly this refers to a sexual encounter between two women.’
This had not been Jolly’s intention. Never mind. Who cares these days about authorial intention. One reader read a new image behind Jolley’s words and this indeed is what happened for her, the reader, regardless of what Jolley thought she had written.
After writers have written their readers come in with their own experiences and interpretive devices. It is as if the readers then re-write the text on the page in their minds to their own satisfaction and a new construction, several new constructions emerge. I call it subjectivity.
We all do it. Everyone knows this and yet there is still pressure as a non-fiction writer somehow to provide a clear cut and factual account of events. Now, if we are to take on board the extremes of ethics in life writing, we need to get permission from many others to put our words out.
How much does this requirement then strangle the writing? I ask you.