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Whose story is it to tell?

Monday, December 17, 2012 by Marianne Elliott

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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.



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12 Responses to "Whose story is it to tell?"

  1. Damon Lynch says:

    You used a person’s real name without their prior consent? For future projects you may like to draw upon ethics guidelines used by anthropologists, e.g those of the American Anthropological Association.

  2. Memoir is especially challenging in the way that you speak of you. The answers aren’t always clear. You are such a kind-hearted person, I know you did the absolutely best you could.

  3. Marianne Elliott says:

    Damon, I used only her first name. Doesn’t necessarily make it okay, but I thought I should clarify that.

  4. Oh, Marianne. Thank you for this post. I’ve finished a first draft of my memoir, I FORGOT TO START WITH MYSELF, and will be getting deeper into it as I revise it this winter. My most recent ex-boyfriend is an incredibly private person and asked me when we started dating to never write about him. I couldn’t make that promise, though i did tell him if I wrote about him it would have a purpose, and I wouldn’t just blabber on my blog about our daily life together.

    The relationship didn’t last, but it allowed me to grow and expand and learn to love myself in ways that i didn’t know were possible. We parted as amicably, though we decided not to have contact. I decided a few weeks later that leaving out the part of my story that includes him would prevent me from telling an authentic story.

    The book is a narrative about self-forgiveness, being brave, and learning to tell the truth. If I left out the parts with my ex I would be contradicting my theme, and I decided that was impossible. Even though he was the one who wanted no contact, he got in touch a few weeks later. After a couple of days of us talking and bonding I decided to tell him that I need to include him in my book–it’s my story, not his–but that I would do so responsibly and with great care.

    He freaked out. I don’t think I’m going to back down. It’s not like your example where someone will be put at risk. The only thing put at risk is my ex’s ego. Not my responsibility, right? And I’ll definitely change his name and identifying details.

    This comment became a lot longer than I intended! I’m new to your site and have loved everything about it so far! Thanks!

  5. Marcela says:

    This is a very tricky aspect of personal writing, and one in which I have chosen to use a de minimis criteria: I don’t share anything about somebody else’s life that they wouldn’t like to reveal themselves or that isn’t public knowledge. For some people, this may make for less compelling writing, I simply believe each story is for each person’s to tell. I can write in very general terms about how I feel about a certain subject or a conversation but I never, never, ever give details about how that conversation came to be. This has meant remaining silent about my relationship with my father, for example, because even if he is dead, his memories are not only my own but also belong to the rest of my family. And I definitely don’t talk about my children. It is a tough call, because when a story is compelling we, writers, want to share it, but I opt to share a different story.

    Jamie: You are responsible for what you write and for the effect that your writing has on people. It’s not about ego, it’s about dignity and a person’s right to deciding what, how much, when and with whom to share their life story. I believe that, as writers, the least we can do is acknowledge that we are in fact affecting others with our writing, and not discard those person’s feelings as irrelevant just because we don’t consider them valid.

  6. Marianne Elliott says:

    Thanks Marcela, ‘Is this public knowledge’ or ‘Is this information already in the public domain?’ was one of my criteria.

    But it turns out the answer to that question is also subjective. What all my Afghan colleagues knew about one organisation, which I therefore understood to be public knowledge, was perceived by one reader to have been secret until I wrote about it.

    I agree with you, as writers we have to acknowledge that our writing affects others and take responsibility for that.

    • Marcela says:

      I know that is very, very tricky, because it is very difficult to realize what is public knowledge and what isn’t.
      I was actually talking about my own experience,when my call has been whether to write about personal stuff or not, based on what I was revealing about other persons by doing so. Again, very difficult.

  7. Roxanne says:

    Marianne, this is a question I live in. I once wrote about it for a guest post (, and I have to say that reading your book was healing for me. So much of our work is devoted to listening, to fielding those stories, to seeking to allay pain or help individuals meet what they identify as their needs. I’ve always been resistant to the idea that “our story” does not matter amongst all of that, that it always needs to take the back seat. These stories co-exist and unfold in parallel and, while in our work, we have to focus on service, in our own life, we can contemplate our narratives too. I think you did a beautiful job in your book – and in what was a very delicate balancing act – and I love learning from your humility and vulnerability every day.

    Also, PLEASE put Boston on the US book tour if there is one. And if it happens to be next fall, I’m happy to help set up a lecture at my university! Until then, all my love and wishes for happy holidays! xx

  8. I appreciate the important reflection in this piece. However, I just want to add that I think there is some benefit to NOT making these decisions on a subjective individual basis, and also to get WRITTEN consent. I ask my publisher for a consent form before collecting specific names and photos, and make sure everyone I interact with understands the purpose of our conversation, how the information they share will be used, and signs only if they want their identity disclosed. It’s better for them and for me. Those are some basic standards used in research and reviewed by IRBs. I certainly don’t think it’s fair to expect every good journalist to also be an expert in ethics and be able to somehow subjectively determine consent on a case-by-case basis without written documentation & standardized crtieria.

  9. Marianne Elliott says:

    Thanks Meagan, I agree that standardisation is suitable for journalism and research and the approach you outline is the approach I use when I’m doing interviews for the purpose of reporting on them.

    I think I muddled this conversation unnecessarily by talking about journalism and memoir in the same post. Fundamentally the question is the same – whose story is it to tell? But the tools available to the journalist or researcher are not the same as the tools available to the memoir writer.

    Most memoirs are written about events that – while they were happening – the author had no plans to write about. So with memoir we need another approach. In some cases I was still in contact with the people mentioned in my book so I was able to send them the manuscript – or relevant bits of it – and ask them to let me know if there was anything they wanted me to take out. But that is not standard procedure and not always possible with memoir.

    The standard caveat with memoir is that the book records the author’s recollections of events – based on memory and therefore inevitably subjective – and that some names or details may have been changed to conceal identity. I used the standard caveat, but I didn’t think it went far enough for me, so I developed my own criteria which took account of the potential risk for people doing highly sensitive work in Afghanistan. The criteria I used would not be appropriate for someone writing a memoir about parenting and yoga in the US – as Claire Dederer and I discovered when we compared notes.

    Journalists who turn to memoir struggle with this, because the genre is so different – including the process by which the material for the work is uncovered.

  10. LG says:

    Excellent article thank you.

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