Monday, December 17, 2012

Writing lives that aren't yours

Everyone seems to be talking about this piece at the Huff Post today. Opinions and emotions are running high, which isn't surprising, given both the subject matter and the timing. Originally posted on her own blog, The Anarchist Soccer Mom, this is Liza Long's story of her teenage son, his problems, his violence, and her fears - for him, and of him. At the Huff Post, the piece is entited "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother."

There is so much that can be unpicked (or, as is so often the case with our beloved Interweb, picked upon) with this story, and I've already read impassioned defences of Long, scandalised takedowns, and really unsettlingly detailed forensic examinations of every blog post she has ever published - in quest of what exactly, I'm not sure, unless it's 'evidence' that Long is a) A Bad Mother, or b) A Liar. Neither of which characterisations are exactly novel when it comes to women writing on the Internet, let's be honest.

The thing that struck me the most forcibly about the whole business, though, was how sharply it illuminated the dilemma of writing life online, when your life involves (as everyone's must) other people. Long was making a powerful, albeit incomplete, point about the consequences of mental health care inadequacy, and offering the counterpointing of Adam Lanza, actual murderer, and her violent son, who she (possibly unjustly, and certainly pejoratively) invites us to see as a murderer-in-potential. I think the point itself would be hard to argue with - although it does rather beg a question, as Lanza's mental state has not been and may never be established with any accuracy. Nonetheless, the lens through which she presents it, her teenage son's rage and violence, and her fear of that, is at once profoundly compelling and profoundly disrespectful of her son's privacy as a human being who has not yet, and hopefully will never, committed an act of severe violence, let alone killed people.

It made me think of how this tangled knot can ever be unwound in life writing (that's what personal and parenting blogs are, really - streams of life, flowing on the screen, sometimes cloudy, often choppy, occasionally dangerous, and carrying sunlight too). When you write your life, it's not like you write everything - you select, you self-censor, you recast, you shape your stories.

The thing is, other people are part of your life - in the case of your children, a critical, consuming part - so to write your own life, your own experience, means writing about them and of them, at least sometimes and in some ways. And sharing what's difficult and scary can be a potent way to both garner a community of support - online communities can be incredibly important to many people - and to release the anxiety in a tangible way. I think this is something that people who don't blog in the parenting / personal space don't perhaps quite see or understand; that, for bloggers like Long (and like me), life writing comes to both inform and infuse how you both perceive and represent your own relationship to the big questions of the world and the hard struggles in your own life. It becomes natural to have those conversations on blog. And it's your life, it's your choice.

Except, of course, when it isn't.

I think, at the end of the day, that what I can't reconcile in Long's piece is not that she's written about her son and his struggles as such, but that she's done so immediately after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, and has explicitly tied her son and her fears of / for him to that horror. I think that, in trying to make a doubtless passionately felt and valid point about mental health, she has fallen into a storyteller's trap of using a person as a cipher, of inviting readers (strongly) to see a before / after cautionary tale at work. To say that the notoriety this is attracting will do him (and ultimately her) no favours is a massive understatement.

Even when the case is not so extreme, it's a dilemma we all have to face. What can I, ethically, write about another person? What should be the limits? Are they different when I write about children? How does or can consent work in this space? And if I don't write about others in ways that shed light on my own experience, how does this limit my life on screen?

I don't have great answers to these questions, but I ask them, every time I write here. (This may be why I am writing a lot about books, politics and baking, aka Less Personal Stuff, right now :-)

1 comment:

  1. Wow, thanks for pointing that piece out, Kathy. All I can say is that it must be harrowing for the mother and that most of the commenters on that article have no idea whatsoever what it's like living with a violent, mentally ill child. My family currently does and it's a constant stream of new drugs, new drug combinations and other therapy which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't and the wild anger that you can encounter is terrifying. It's bad enough in an eight year-old, I shudder to think of how it's going to be like in five years when my cousin is the same age as Michael.

    But you are right, the mother of Michael has irrevocably tied her son - who has committed no real offence (yet) to this day - in with the likes of the the Lanzas and Bryants of the world in a very public way. That in itself is horrible.

    I would say that writing about your kids and family is perfectly fine - but being selective about the information you share and how you share it is important.