Family Trouble: Respect and Responsibility in the Craft of Memoir

Editorial Note: Family Trouble, out today, is an essay collection from memoirists exploring the ethical and personal challenges to writing family memoirs. The idea for the book was originally conceived by editor and creative writing professor Joy Castro. Here, Joy explains the natural inclination for readers to wonder how family members are affected by an author's memoir, and how Family Trouble hopes to both answer and add to that ongoing discussion.

Family trouble:  everyone has at least a little, and some of us have more. Memoirists, it might be said, invite the most when they publish material about their family members.

After I gave readings from my memoir The Truth Book, hands in the audience always went up. "How did your mother react?" "What did your brother do?" Since The Truth Book includes such unfortunate issues as violence, suicide, and prison, they had good reason to wonder. After hearing the same questions in town after town, on campus after campus, I realized what a provocative issue this is, for both readers and writers.

We all come from families; we all decide how much of that private history to reveal in social situations. Memoirists are simply the most public version of a question that affects us all.

As a university teacher of creative nonfiction, I regularly hear related questions from my students. Sometimes they’re apprehensive -- scared that if they reveal their family’s dirty laundry, even to just a workshop of other students, the heavens will open and lightning will smite them. Sometimes they’re determined to explore family material, like the young woman who wrote about her mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s, but want clear strategies and ethical guidelines for doing so responsibly, respectfully, and sensitively, without exploiting their family members’ experiences in a way that would feel -- to themselves as writers, to their readers -- gratuitous.

Show, don’t tell, writers are urged. But how much can we show of our families’ private lives before we become crude carnival hawkers, selling out their oddities and crimes -- See the bearded lady! -- for our own art?

With my earnest students and curious audiences in mind, I began to imagine the book that would become Family Trouble:  Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), a collection of essays by twenty-five distinguished memoirists. The authors in Family Trouble come from a range of cultural backgrounds and approach the topic from a diverse array of standpoints. The father of an autistic son. The daughter of a mentally ill mother. An ER doctor whose job damaged his family. An adopted daughter adjusting to her birthmother’s dance of acceptance and rejection. A woman mourning her grandmother. A man trying to get his mother to face a troubled past. With rare candor, humor, and grace, their essays explore the painful costs and surprising rewards of publishing work about their families.

With such a range of backgrounds and experience, it’s no surprise that the authors arrive at varied conclusions, develop diverse strategies, and draw different boundaries. Rather than tidy consensus, Family Trouble offers a rich, complicated conversation among writers who do not agree. Wry, thoughtful, tough, and funny by turns, the essays reveal the hard-won insights of successful writers who've plumbed the difficult depths of family stories -- and found it all worthwhile.