The Memoirist’s Dilemma

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I’m an unrepentant memoir junkie. For some reason, I have always favored true personal stories over fiction, and this year I finally completed a proposal for one of my own.

I say finally because it has taken years — decades, actually. I’m terrified of the repercussions of exposing myself, my friends, and my family members who might prefer to stay off the page. I’ve spent many hours talking with memoirists about this, asking them how they found the courage to reveal so much, and what their personal philosophies are regarding other people’s privacy.

At The New York Review of Books — in an essay about the lingering effects of having written a memoir about the political hanging of her father in Sierra Leone — novelist Aminatta Forna writes about dealing with some of these fears herself.

The writer of a memoir must necessarily reveal a great deal about herself or himself, and often about other people, too. You sacrifice your own privacy, and you sacrifice the privacy of others to whom you may have given no choice. They may enjoy the attention or be enraged by it. “People either claim it or they sue you,” the head of press at my publisher told me in the weeks before my memoir was published. I knew who might sue or come after me—members of the regime that had killed my father. I comforted myself with the belief that they had for the most part been exiled or discredited, or had gone underground. The only person I allowed to read the unpublished manuscript was my stepmother, because I was concerned about her safety even more than my own. She still lived in the country, and the violence can ricochet for months after a civil war.

In the final draft, I changed one name only—of the man who had betrayed my father for the promise of money, agreeing to give false testimony at his treason trial on behalf of the regime. He admitted this to me during our interview. I despised him and I knew other readers of the book would despise him, too. He had a pitch selling Lotto tickets in Freetown, a small city. Anyone could find him just by asking around, as I had done. Already, one or two one or two suspected former rebel soldiers had been lynched in the city.

For this reason, I changed his name, and privately decided that I would change any other names that my stepmother wanted me to. But without saying this, I let her read the book. When she gave it back to me, she made no comment. On the final page, I found a checkmark and the words “Well done, darling!” Later, she elaborated: if we were going to do it, we would go all the way.

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