Does anyone remember that song from the 70s called “Don’t Make Love to a Country Music Singer?” It was recorded by Willie Nelson and Mary Kay Place and the lyrics warned against getting intimate with a country music star “cause he’ll tell the world about it in his country music song.”
I have friends who’ve published memoirs or even novels loosely based on their lives who got into serious trouble with their family members about how they were depicted in their works. One woman I know was practically disowned after her relatives read her book and didn’t like how another family member came across even though I saw it as a very loving tribute. I always dismissed the concerns of the rankled family members and assured my friends that as long as they exercised a modicum of sensitivity, anything they did for their ART was fair game. I’m starting to have second thoughts.
I often write about my family but I’ve rarely felt the sting of such criticisms. I remember when a 1998 piece about my junk food-obsessed childhood appeared on Salon, my mother ran around her office showing the article to everyone and screaming about all the great, nutritious food she made for us. But she was laughing through her “Oys!” and flattered to be the subject of the piece. I’ve ruffled a few of my flock’s feathers with this blog from time to time but always felt my inner censors were enough to prevent me from really crossing the line. Although I’ve written about some pretty difficult times in my family history, there are certain specifics that I would never share. On a few occasions I’ve called family members to ask if it would be okay if I referenced a particular anecdote.
In my previous post about the hippie movement, I never dreamed that the short excerpts I included of letters by my uncle and my grandfather would cause such a ruckus. Not that I wasn’t warned. When I mentioned to my sister last week that I had found these letters and was thinking of putting them on my blog, she immediately sounded the alarm and said that at the very least I should get permission from our Uncle Paul. “Oh, he won’t mind,” I said. “Why would he? They’re amazing artifacts from another time and place, written over 35 years ago, and they say so much about what was going on in our culture. Besides, he comes across great in his letter!” Sue continued to express strong reservations but I wouldn’t budge. “Don’t be silly,” I insisted. “These fit my post so perfectly, I have to use them!”
I emailed Paul only after the post appeared to see if he was upset about it. He seemed fine and said he wanted to see the full letters—he didn’t even remember writing that one about the business venture and commented that he was glad that my grandfather refused the loan. I promised to send the letters to Paul right away and repeated my thoughts about their sociological value. Then I started hearing from other members of my family who were open-mouthed aghast at my chutzpah for publishing these private words for all the world to see. Yikes.
It took me a while to get off my “But I Am the Family Archivist!” soapbox and admit that I had crossed the line. My sister finally broke through by having me imagine that a cousin of ours had come into possession of some letters between me and my mother that contained some rare harsh words. How would I feel if he posted those letters online, letters that weren’t rightfully his to begin with and which gave a very skewed view of those two people and that relationship? How would I feel? Outraged and appalled!
I apologize to my Uncle Paul and to all my family members who thought my actions were inappropriate and self-serving. I admit I got carried away with excitement at finding such golden relics of that time period and I could only look at them as Smithsonian-worthy documents that needed to be shared. If I can yank off my curator’s hat for just a moment, I can see how hard-hitting that letter from my grandfather is as he rips into my uncle’s beliefs and choices. Of course I know the backstory—how close the two of them were until the day my grandfather died in 1995. The conflicts they had with each other during the 1960s and early 70s when each was responding to the era’s intense social and cultural boundary-pushing did nothing to alter the love and support they felt for each other. I sure hope it comes across in my posts how much I love both my grandfather and my Uncle Paul, the man who kept our family together following my grandparents’ deaths and continues to open his home for all family events.
I finally understand the negative response I received and if I could go back a few days I’d certainly discuss it at length with my uncle. But I’d still want to post the excerpts, they’re just too damn good! I know I will continue to mine my cache of family memorabilia, but I won't make the same mistake twice.
So much for those plans to publish my sister’s diary entries...