Today I’ve read some powerful articles drawing on the tragic events in Sandy Hook in order to illustrate really important social issues. And I’ve felt a deep tension within myself as I read them.
On the one hand I am a storyteller who believes our stories have incredible power to help us connect to each other, empathise with each other’s experiences and begin to see the world in new ways. I believe stories can lead us to change the way we act and – therefore – bring about profound social transformation.
And on the other hand, I’m a human being who chose this year to put some of my most intimate and vulnerable stories out into the world and I know just how raw and exposed that left me feeling - even when I was the one holding the pen. So I’m very aware of how incredibly sensitive and careful I want to be when it comes to drawing on other people’s stories to advance social change that I believe in.
Recently I’ve had to come back to the question: which stories do I have the right to tell?
When I set out to write Zen Under Fire I decided that I couldn’t tell the stories of the people I met and learned from in Afghanistan if I wasn’t willing to tell my own story. Equally, I couldn’t tell my own story without telling, or at least touching on, other people’s stories. So how could I decide which stories to tell? What right did I have to tell them?
I came up with my own set of criteria for deciding whether or not to include in my book a story that reveals information about another person. Then I came up with a second set of criteria for deciding whether or not to then conceal the identity of those people.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Claire Dederer, author of Poser, and this was one of the main topics of our conversation: how we had come up with our own criteria to decide what to include in our books about other people – our partners, parents, colleagues and neighbours. There are no easy answers. Each writer has to decide for themselves.
And each writer then has to accept responsibility for the impact of the choices we make.
Which scared the heck out of me.
The thing I’ve been most afraid of since the book was published is that I might have made an error of judgement in applying my criteria, and someone would be harmed as a result.
Last month my publishers received the first complaint from someone mentioned in my book. She said she felt my use of her name put her at some risk as she was still in Afghanistan, although not in the same part of the country. On the positive, it didn’t appear from her letter that anyone in her current work environment had yet recognised her from the book and no direct harm had yet been done.
But I had put her at risk.
I felt terrible. I had failed to forsee the possible harm to this person and had therefore failed to protect her sufficiently from recognition.
I wrote back, apologising for my error in judgment. My publisher agreed to make changes to the book for future reprints that would better conceal her identity. It was an imperfect response, but I reminded myself that risk is subjective, and differences in opinion are inevitable. I took some comfort in the knowledge that I had a process and a criteria to try to assure the safety of people appearing in my book, even if it was flawed.
This week I’ve been working on a radio story about the effect of 15 years of humanitarian work on a NZ aid worker who also happens to be one of my best friends. So I’m once again very aware of this risk. And in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Sandy Hook, many of us might be asking ourselves just how much of another person’s story any of us can – in good conscience – tell.
We’ll all arrive at different answers to that question, but as someone whose story-gathering and story-telling work brings me regularly into contact with people who have experienced trauma, I found a lot of useful guidance in this article by Jina Moore – non-fiction editor at Guernica magazine and human rights journalist.
In that article, Moore presents “Five Ideas on Meaningful Consent in Trauma Journalism” – in summary they are:
1. Meaningful consent comes from the survivor.
2. Meaningful consent is given for specific use.
3. Meaningful consent is given at an appropriate time.
4. Meaningful consent repeats itself.
5. Trauma journalism has different standards.
On the last point, she says:
This is the fraught territory that is trauma reporting … We write about people’s moments of greatest vulnerability. … That’s what trauma reporting is. And that literally turns journalistic practice on its head. … We have to rewrite our playbook. The premise is still the same – protect the vulnerable – but now, we’re not the vulnerable. Our sources are.”
Whenever I choose to write about war, sexual violence, crime, human rights violations or any situation in which I am writing about people in their moments of greatest vulnerability, I place myself in a position of great power. Even when I place myself in the story, even when I choose to make myself vulnerable as well. I am still holding the pen, I am still holding much more power than anyone else in my story. And my first duty is to protect the vulnerable.
Whose story is it to tell? Sometimes that question is harder to answer than it might seem. Which is why we need criteria for determining what constitutes meaningful consent, what stays in, what is kept out and what gets altered to conceal identity.
I’m not convinced I’ve found the right criteria. Which is why I’ll keep asking myself the question.