Is it Violating Someone’s Privacy to Write about This?

It's important to think through not only the degree of exposure you are comfortable with, but also what's fair to others involved.

Yesterday I wrote about one cause of procrastination in memoir writing. Today, I want to write about another, one that applies to all personal experience writing, from memoirs down to the tiniest of personal stories shared briefly in a note to a friend or on a BLoG:

Is it violating someone else’s privacy to tell the story?

HUGE obstacle, this! Rumor has it even Jackie Kennedy Onassis had her memoirs sealed until a certain number of years AFTER the death of all the main players! (Ma is heartbroken about this.)

* * *

Okay. You have a powerful experience and you think it may benefit others if you told it. But should you? And how much? And in what way?

There was a time when strict rules applied to such things. One simply did not tell stories that reflected poorly on one’s family, one did not speak ill of the dead, etc. THEN people discovered that secrets can do a lot of damage and the pendulum swung the other way. Everything was thrown out into public view.

As in most things, extremes of the pendulum are risky choices for guidance.

* * *

When privacy questions arise, it usually isn’t because the story is a glowing tribute. Often one person has been victimized by another. Or someone we love may not be cast in a good light. Still we suspect we have a story worth telling.

Degree-of-exposure decisions are not easy to make. In workshops, we can spend a lot of time discussing key considerations, but there is NO one-size-fits-all answer. Each writer/storyteller/blogger must decide for himself/herself.

Yes, there are ways to obscure identities,
convey events with power but without the nitty-gritty graphic details
AND let’s not forget the beauty of the pseudonym!
But in the end, you may decide there’s no way to craft it that satisfies both your need to tell the story and your desire to guard the privacy of others (if only out of your own moral code, not because you think someone deserves it).

* * *

Some people think about this too much. (I may be one of them.)
Others don’t think about it enough. (Have you been around the ‘Net lately?)

Sometimes we put off thinking through this issue because we aren’t ready to face the memory of the event fully. We think we already have, but the mere suggestion that this issue deserves consideration assumes a willingness to push past “I’m just so mad about this” thinking. And let’s face it: We may not be ready to push past.

There is healing in writing, or can be, and part of it comes from going where the writing takes you and discovering what’s coming out. There IS such a thing as a DRAFT, after all. So write away! But before you go public with your story, you may discover there are turns and choices and sculpting you want to do.

“I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence;
I possess knowledge and discretion. –
Proverbs 8:12

About Marilyn

Reading, thinking, listening, writing and talking about faith, creativity, ESL for refugees, grief and finding the story in a story. Student of Spanish. Foe of procrastination. Cheez-it fan. People person with hermit tendencies or vice-versa. Thank you so much for reading.
This entry was posted in privacy, procrastination, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Is it Violating Someone’s Privacy to Write about This?

  1. Belinda says:

    Such good wisdom. As you know, I have shared some difficult parts of our family history and I have a reader in Switzerland; a cousin; who knew none of it. My mother was open about our past but her sisters and brothers weren’t.

    Someone in Holland was doing historical research on that era and my blog popped up–our audience can be wider than we guess. I couldn’t have told our history without it; it is so much a part of my own forming as a person, in good ways, but now that I writing about more recent years–within 30 years of the present, the need to balance being real with discernment is a delicate dance and I hope I always err of the right side–that of respect for others.


  2. Deidra says:

    Such good advice, and you said it so well. I’ve been on the other side of this…hearing my story told by someone else, without my permission. It’s not a good feeling. The teller believed there was value in telling my story, but it was my story to tell and I wasn’t ready yet.

    Just this morning I was considering this very thought…how what I write ripples and impacts the lives of others in the story. Writing is often a trust and, as Belinda has said, a “delicate dance.”


  3. Marilyn says:

    Two excellent and thought-provoking comments!

    BELINDA: How true it is that our audience can be wider than we expect. Again this week I received email from very far away (the other side of the world!). If I’m going to err, let it be on the side of caution.

    DEIDRA: I’m sorry someone told your story without your permission and before you were ready. I only hope God used it for someone’s good.

    Thank you both!


  4. grace4gomer says:

    This is a question I have been asking over and over again. I have suffered alone in silence for so many years because I could not find any one to relate to. I was searching for a story similar to mine and found none because so many people are so descrete. Even now, I am nervous to write the words abuse or betrayal.

    But when I did hear of others possibly suffering of multiple betrayals and/or abuse, their stories were so vague and they sound something like, “I prayed for 17 years and finally my husband came around.” Well did your husband have 3 affairs, 8?, 20?. Was he just a little indifferent and aloof or are you talking abuse? It’s hard when you are not allowed to even say the word “abuse” in the church for so many religious reasons.

    Well, I just began a blog to help other victims of abuse. My prayer is it leads all who read it to forgiveness, peace, love, and Christ. Thank you for this very provoking article. I will continue to pray about this and I LOVE the scripture at the end. Never had seen it before! 🙂 And my writing is not so much for my own healing, my healing comes from offering any amount of hope and encouragement for others. If I can encourage just one person, I am living!

    And my heart really went out to Deidra. I would not want to make anyone feel this way!


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