You survived a hard childhood or a crazy marriage or got kidnapped by Oompa Loompas, and now you want to write a memoir about it. Some of your biggest obstacles are family members. Aunt Tilly accuses you of not honoring your parents and your kid sister is calling you a liar. What to do?
Let’s start with honor. The fifth commandment says to “honor your father and mother so your days will be long upon the land the Lord gives you.” Even non-religious people use the word honor. The big buzz phrase in the blockbuster movie Gladiator was, “Strength and honor.” I think it’s fair to say if you’re thinking of writing a memoir, you’ll definitely need strength and honor to finish the task.
You’ll need clarity and emotional strength so you can focus on why you want to tell this story. No one else gets to call this shot. Only you can decide the why of what you write. Your task is to remain curious and honest to facilitate your understanding of events.
Once you begin writing your story, you can tell it with honor because honor shares the same root word with honesty and there can be no honor without honesty. Allow me to repeat this very vital truth — there can be NO honor without honesty. It doesn’t matter if your father hid under the porch drunk as a skunk and made you lie to the bill collectors. To tell your story, you will have to utilize honesty to give honor to it, and that honesty includes what it was like for you as a child lying to the authorities and giving at least some honor to your father’s story which most likely involves his struggle with alcohol.
Relatives often accuse writers of trying to hurt everyone by “making up stories to get even.” It’s a lame argument. First of all, you didn’t make up the events of your childhood — your parents’ choices and other factors did. Plus, if you really wanted to make up a story, it would be soooo much easier to write a novel. You’d have a lot more fun with no one complaining about your manuscript. The third reason this accusation is bogus is it would be insane to write a book just to get even–despite what the spiteful sisters say. If you were a vindictive person, you might try suing people instead; it involves a lot less personal bleeding on the page, and you can hide behind a lawyer.
People write a memoir because they want to understand what happened in their own lives or they’ve got secrets they need to get off their chest. It takes strength to break open the secret vault of stories that nobody wants to talk about. If your life intersects with these stories, they are public domain as long as you are sharing from your perspective.
Perspective is an import factor in honor. If four people standing on different corners witness the same traffic accident, they will each give a unique report because they saw it through their lens. It’s the same with family stories. Perspectives can be due to birth order, age, time and place.
While each person in the family has the rights to their version of the story, some people wish to shut others up, and that’s not fair. As I told my sister, you have the right to tell your story, and I won’t put you down for it. Will this give her permission to write about what an awful monster I am? Even if she decides to lie? Or if she becomes mentally unglued in the telling and veers from the path of honesty and honor? She’s still free to tell her side of the story. It will be up to the readers to decide if she is engaging with honesty. Credibility is a factor for all of us who tell our stories.
There’s also a certain dishonor you’ll find when you’ve grown up in a narcissistic family. This is where the narcissist recruits flying monkeys and scapegoats you for telling the truth. It’s a game you can never win because you will never get the approval of the narcissist or the flying monkeys if they want to cover up their behavior. Being scapegoated is like a permanent shunning, so if that happens then, it just makes you all the more free to tell your messy, crazy family stories. Just keep in mind narcissistic people are the most litigious people in the world so do yourself a favor and use pseudonyms and make it clear you are only sharing your experience and not claiming to assign motives to someone else’s story.
When it comes to honoring, it’s import to tell the best version of the truth we can find. It’s honorable to acknowledge your alcoholic father was also a loving dad when he was sober who taught you many good things. This is also why it’s honorable to allow your little sister who can’t remember this incident to tell her side of the story about her wonderful sober father because he began to go to AA before she was old enough to know about the secret benders he went on while she was still in diapers.
So let’s get this straight. When you tell your story, you aren’t telling your sister’s story or your father’s story or the gospel truth in any way. As a matter of fact, even the gospels don’t agree on everything; this has been stated as proof of their credibility because four witnesses saw four versions of what happened.
When your relatives fight over the family stories, it simply means their arguing over which version they believe is the best and since everyone has their own script, they might call yours a lie. Your job, should you accept it, is to tell your own story and engage it with curiosity, strength, and honor and ignore the critics. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “It’s not the critics who count.”