Debating the Ethics of Biography: How Close Is Too Close?

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In a roundtable discussion with Gary Giddins, John Matteson, Benjamin Anastas, and Carol Levine, authors discussed and debated the tricky waters of ethics, personal relationships, slander and more in the world of biography.

The Paula Broadwell-David Petraeus affair raised one obvious ethical question: When it comes to biographers and their subjects, how close is too close? In early December, the Leon Levy Center for Biography brought together a distinguished panel to debate boundaries and best practices for biographers and autobiographers. As ethicist Carol Levine defined it, the task of her field is “to make distinctions,” but ethical lines are not etched in stone. Instead, she said, ethics in biographical writing comes down to relationships with other people, and writers should try to abide by the doctor’s obligation: First, do no harm.

When the writer is also the subject, however, that rule can be hard to observe. Benjamin Anastas’s memoir, Too Good to be True, described in painful detail events in the author’s recent past, inevitably ensnaring his friends and family. The book’s setting, in close-knit literary Brooklyn, and Anastas’s use of thin disguises such as “The Nominee” for his ex-wife’s new partner, sparked an eager online pursuit for the real identities of his subjects. As he mentioned in an earlier Q&A with Signature, Anastas said that he allowed the central figures in the book to read the manuscript and pass on their comments (and also consulted a libel lawyer), but that he made the final decision himself about what to publish—running the risk, as Levine noted, that others might feel harmed without his knowing. Anastas wryly countered that, in a social-media age, publishing a book is no longer the most open forum for airing grievances: “If you write something and publish it, it’s kind of private.”

For both memoirists and biographers, ethical questions are at the heart of their work. According to John Matteson Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller, the writer’s task is not just to tell the truth but to shape the story, so all narrative decisions are also ethical decisions. Chair Gary Giddins executive director of the Leon Levy Center, asked whether biographers feel obligated “to use everything you find, just because you find it?” In other words, is his or her central loyalty to the story, or to the subject? For Matteson, as for Levine, the question turned on the biographer’s attitude and intent—anyone writing what might be termed a “pathography,” or a deliberate hatchet job, was violating a basic ethical principle.

The question of attitude was particularly pertinent to Matteson. It is a legal impossibility to slander or libel the dead, but that does not prevent the biographer from feeling a sense of moral obligation toward long-deceased subjects. In such a case, the subject can be a guide. Matteson drew a distinction between his main female subjects: Louisa May Alcott was extremely private, so he felt reticent about pursuing, for example, suggestions of lesbianism. By contrast, Margaret Fuller wrote passionately and openly about her desires, so it seemed appropriate to include those elements in writing her life.

However, in researching Alcott’s life, Matteson found he was amassing compelling evidence that the writer—who would often write for weeks on end, barely sleeping, then take to her bed with an unidentified illness—suffered from a mild form of bipolar disorder. Drawing on his training as a lawyer, he suggested that the best way to present a potentially shocking revelation was to lead the reader gradually to the point by means of hints and details, rather than announcing it too soon. Debating the ethics of using private letters as source material, Levine and Giddins suggested that the act itself, of writing and of preserving a letter, reveals its importance to writer and reader—and Giddins observed that if we strictly respected writers’ wishes about what should be published after their deaths, we’d have none of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

The issue of accurate citing of sources provoked some impassioned responses from biographers in the audience, who lamented, with Giddins, the trend towards biographies published with no endnotes. Everyone on the panel had examples of errors and inaccuracies that had appeared in print, from the minor technical quibble to the character-defaming distortion—errors often compounded by appearing in subsequent books with no checking of the original. Fact-checking is now a process mostly left to the author, with some input, usually minor, from the publisher. One of the best correctives for errors of fact, John Matteson noted, was the reader… a week after publication.

As an ethicist, Levine said she was more concerned with larger distortions that skewed the record—or skewered a person. Taking details out of context and using facts to distort the story for political ends, were practices that troubled the biographers in the audience. Yet the line between ethics and free speech is also fraught and blurred. For John Matteson, even though the notion of a fair fight in the “marketplace of ideas” might be an illusion, it is still better to allow people to speak, and fight it out in public, than to attempt to censor or repress a distasteful story. Ultimately, the goal of a writer should not be to have the last word on a subject: as Matteson said, “I’m much more interested as a biographer in starting conversations than finishing them.”