Writing about Family
Why is it so hard? What do we owe people?
I used to put little thought into what I wrote about people. I didn’t consider their feelings. What they would say. How they would feel. I wasn’t being willfully malicious, but I also wasn’t being sensitive or considerate. Naïveté doesn’t equate to innocence.
The first time I got pushback for something I wrote was in my mid-20s when I penned a blog post on a popular social media website (Migente? MySpace?), a letter to a now former friend (whom I didn’t name) about a heartbreak she experienced. I’d had my heart broken by the same man (we won’t even go into the details of how problematic that was) and wrote the letter as admonishment/finger wagging and solidarity. It was an I told you so kind of letter. The guy heard about it and told me to take it down. He didn’t ask. He was firm. I did as I was told though I didn’t want to. I’d definitely handle this very differently today. One, because no one tells me what to do. (My favorite thing to say to my wife is: I do what I want. I say it teasingly. Ask her and she’ll say: Vanessa does what she wants. Then she’ll roll her eyes.)
I also know that at 46 I wouldn’t post a passive aggressive letter like that again.
My father’s family has written to me pissed off about stuff I’ve posted about him online. I wasn’t trying to upset anyone. In fact, when I wrote what I wrote, I didn’t think about them reading my words. I didn’t think about them at all. No shade but these people aren’t my family beyond social media, so why should I? What do we owe people who are related to us by blood but aren’t present in our lives, don’t call or check in to ask how we’re doing?
My father died when I was eight, and wasn’t really in my life before that. What I know about him I know through hearsay and things I’ve put together over the years…like that he may have been one of the early victims of the AIDS epidemic. There’s no proof. His medical records have likely been destroyed since laws on medical record keeping require that they be saved only for a certain period of time, but that’s less than 30 years, the last time I checked. And the family won’t talk about it. Not that I’ve tried that hard to get the truth out of them.
What I know for sure is that I don’t have an idealized image of my father. I know he was flawed, like we all are. I know that he tried to beat me out of my mother when she told him she was pregnant. Mom was on birth control when I was conceived, and didn’t know she was with child until she was 4 months pregnant. My father accused her of setting him up. He didn’t claim me until months after I was born, so my initial birth certificate and social security card did not have his name. This caused a lot of headaches for me later in life.
I know the story of how he and my mother met because she finally shared it with me when I was in my 30s. I know that he was a good man, from what my mother says…until he wasn’t. Until he got involved with drugs and prostitution and things got away from him. (It’s rumored that he trafficked a 14 year old girl from NJ when he moved back to PR in the late 70s.)
I know that he came to see us in April of 1983, and that’s when he shared with my mother how sick he was. He had night sweats, diarrhea for weeks, was extremely weak. He’d hoped my mother would take care of him but by then she was with my second mom Millie (the self-proclaimed butch who raised me) and she was having none of that.
When we saw him again in October, he was a wisp of the man he once was, a skeleton with a colostomy bag on his abdomen. He died two months later, nine days after my eighth birthday.
I still have the last birthday card he sent me.
I heard that they burned everything in his room when he died. We were told that it was cancer that took him, but I’ve never heard of a cancer patient whose belongings were incinerated after they died.
This was 1983, the height of the AIDS epidemic.
When I posted about this, I got angry messages from my father’s family. Some said that was a lie, some defended his character.
I confess that I probably shouldn’t have stated this as fact. I should have been clear that this was conjecture, that the signs pointed to this, but I didn’t have factual evidence.
Would it have mattered?
In May of 2018, I wrote a letter to my brother on my blog on what would have been his 46th birthday. In it, I shared this about my sister:
Dee and I haven’t spoken in a year and a half. I remember what you told me about her. You were in the hospital then. You had that ugly gown on that you had to clutch so you wouldn’t show the world your ass when you walked. We were talking about her. About how cruel and mean she can be. Well, you called her a bitch and I just nodded and agreed because what else could I say? We talked about how neither one of us was ever close to her, though I worshipped her when I was a kid. I told you that she is much of the reason why I am a writer; how I would sneak up to her top bunk to read those Harlequinesque novels she wrote when she was a teen. You saw the sadness in me. You pursed your lips, sighed and said, “You gotta accept that Dee is jealous of you. When you accept that, it’ll be easier for you to deal with her and her shit, gurl.” I laughed. You didn’t. “I’m serious. She’s a bitch to you because she’s jealous. She always has been.
That November, my sister read that blog post and flipped out. I never expected her to read it. (Naive again, I know.) By then we hadn’t spoken in two years. She and her husband went on a three day smear campaign online and to my family. It was wild. Sad. She was vicious. She was who she’s always been to me.
Did I mean to hurt her? No.
Did I hurt her? Yes.
Will I write about her again knowing it will upset her? Yes.
If fact, I did exactly that a few days after she came for me. I took my power back by writing another blog: I am my own anti-venom.
I told you I do what I want.
See, my sister (who is only my sister because we shared a womb, nothing else) is more concerned with what I write than her actual behavior. She and my mother were my first bullies. My sister treated my brother and I terribly. She was cruel. It was devastating to learn again and again that I could not trust or rely on her.
When she was angry at me, she would reveal all of my secrets to my mother. That’s how my mother found out I’d had an abortion.
In an essay “Dirty Feet”, I write about how as kids she’d walk around the apartment barefoot all day. When I was lying on the fold out cot I slept on, she’d climb up to her top bunk and wiped her dirty feet on my head. I still remember the look on her face when she did it. The memory still makes me wince.
I am still examining how that relationship shaped my relationships with women for decades. I’ve often blamed my antagonistic relationship with my mother for my years-long distrust of women, but my relationship with my sister was just as impactful.
I know this: Do I or have I ever set out to hurt her (or anyone, for that matter) with what I write? No. I’m not malicious like that.
Will what I write about her hurt her? Probably.
Will that stop me? No.
In 2014 I wrote an essay that went semi-viral on Wordpress called How We Rationalize the Privacies We Invade. I’ve thought long and hard about privacy, what I write, why I write it, who will be hurt, angry, feel betrayed. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just want to write my stories, what and who has shaped me, the trauma I endured, how I healed and am still healing, how all that has influenced the woman, mother, wife, educator, writer I’ve become. I’m no fool—people will be hurt, upset. It’s the nature of autobiographical writing. When you include people besides you in your story (how can you not?), someone will not like what you write about them. They will call you liar. I don’t think that should stop you.
(You should know you are not writing THE truth. You are writing YOUR emotional truth.)
It’s my responsibility to constantly interrogate myself and my motives, as should you.
A few months ago, my sister and I spoke after years of no contact when our nephew (my brother’s son) was murdered. Tragedies like this have a way of bringing people together. The first thing she told me was not to write about her. I told her I never meant to hurt her. She responded: I’ve never disrespected you like that. I was floored. But it wasn’t the time nor the space to contest this absurd claim. I know without question that she’s done much more damage than a blog post could ever do. That relationship wounded me in ways that I have write about. I have no interest in protecting abusive people. If that makes me a bad sister, a terrible person, selfish, insensitive or whatever else is hurled at me, so be it.
I know my truth. That is enough. It has to be.
That said: it’s important to me that I show the different sides to this story. If writing my life has taught me, no, gifted me, anything, it’s empathy. I’ve thought about what it must have been like for her growing up in our family. My brother had my mom to lean on. He was always her favorite, no matter how much she denies it. I had Millie. My mom has said: Millie loved one of my children—you. Where did that leave my sister? Who did she have?
On top of that, my brother and I were always really close. Again, who did she have?
I’ve said she and our mother were my first bullies, but where did my sister learn this behavior? She had a model: our mother.
How did all this shape her into the sister she was to me and to my brother? How did that shape her into the woman who showed me just days after we started communicating that she is still willing and ready to flip out and berate me whenever she feels the least bit slighted or provoked. (Reader: I am clear that she and I will never be close. I lost my first best friend when my brother died. I’d be lying if I said that doesn’t pinch my insides a bit. I’ve often felt like an orphan since he passed.)
My Family Trouble Class came out of this questioning and interrogation. When I was in the thick of the guilt that silenced me for so long, I read about how other memoir and personal essay writers navigated writing about family. How did they cope? What rules did they give themselves? Because, yes, there are limits, though you decide what yours are.
I am facilitating this one day intensive again on Wednesday, June 29th, 7-9pm. If you too are dealing with the issues of how to write about your family and loved ones, this class is for you.
Price is $30 for the class. Can’t make that date? For $40 you get two weeks of access to the private video recording, during which you can watch the video as many times as you want.
Anne Lamott wrote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
This is true. And it’s also more complicated than that. Let’s discuss why next week. I hope to see you.
your fearlessness in writing your truth is an inspiration. 👏🏽 🙌🏽
This was heavy and totally resonated with me and my own experiences with my family. Look forward to the workshop!