When Telling Your Truth Means Telling on Others

memoir mindset memoirs Feb 25, 2024
Breaking family loyalties

Last year I was working on a memoir project with a client. Every couple of weeks we’d meet to discuss various aspects of their life related to the story they wanted to tell. I’d record our sessions and have them transcribed so we could assemble all the pieces of their life into one full narrative. Everything was going great, and we were making good progress. Until I started probing for information about their family of origin.

At first they shared some lighthearted experiences and occasionally some sad, poignant, telling moments that hinted at deep emotional neglect—even anger—at their parents’ lack of comfort and care when they needed it most. It felt real and true and important to include in their story.

I poked around for more details—anything they could share to paint a fuller picture of their childhood. Suddenly, like a turtle poking its head out furtively and then quickly pulling back inside itself, my client withdrew. I tried to help them see why sharing about their parents was key to telling their trauma story. In an angry tone, they laid into me. “Don’t you know it’s not right to speak ill of the dead?”

“But they’re gone,” I tried to reason. “And how they treated you directly affected the trajectory of your life. They’re key to your story.”

“It’s not right to speak ill of the dead,” they repeated, like a rote mantra that had worn a path deep in their brain. I couldn’t tell who they were trying to convince—me or themself. “What’s the point of digging up the past anyway,” they went on. “I can’t change anything that happened, and they’re not here to defend themselves, so why talk about them at all?”

I left the conversation feeling defeated and sad for my client. The next day they pulled the plug on the project.

Sadly, too many memoirs never get written because people don’t know how to tell the truth when it means breaking codes of loyalty. Or they end up telling stories that are partially true to avoid the distressing possibility of ruining relationships or disrupting family harmony. 

Avoiding the Truth

Loyalties to friends and family show up in memoirs in several ways.

  • Missing characters. Sometimes writers leave family or others out of their stories to avoid incriminating people and raising their ire toward them. Or they give a hint of a character—maybe you mention your dad sitting in the cornerbut that's all you tell about him. They're in the scene but silent. Or you write about a traumatic incident at home and your mother is conspicuously absent. Why is she missing? Did you leave her out to avoid making her or others mad by mentioning her, or to avoid calling out something she did or didn’t do at that time? As you’re writing scenes about the past, try to recall everyone present. Would including them better represent the truth of the incident? if you're leaving characters out, take some time to explore why.
  • Rationalizing behavior. Sometimes we make excuses for people's behavior as a way to protect their image or diminish the pain we feel. “It was a different time,” or “I know my parents loved me; they did the best they could”—these are common refrains we say to acknowledge what we assume were our parents’ best intentions. We don’t want to seem harsh, judgmental, or ungrateful toward them. But while acknowledging possible reasons for their behavior may be a sign of respect, it can also diminish the truth that we needed something from our parents or other family members—protection, nurture, comfort, guidance. Instead of holding main characters accountable for their part in our story, we give them a get-out-of-jail-free card. Where in your story are you attempting to explain away or excuse someone's behavior or inaction? Is it possible to acknowledge the good they offered and the needs you had that went unmet? 
  • Perpetuating beliefs. Every family has core beliefs, which are often handed down through the generations and repeated as mantras to reinforce expectations for behavior. Like my client at the beginning of this article, these engrained beliefs become obstacles to telling the truth. Do you break rank and risk telling the truth about things that happened in your family that affected you deeply, or do you stay silent to preserve the family system? Here are some questions to probe further on this point:
  • What are some of the core beliefs in your family?
  • What are some of the mantras that you grew up with and still hold?
  • Do you believe them, or are they just engrained as part of your family’s operating system?
  • In what ways are you opposing your family's belief system by telling your truth?

Brene Brown says, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.” Letting people off the hook is a way of denying your story. But telling the truth can come at a cost—both to you personally and to those involved in your stories. And too often, the price is just too high. The fear of being ostracized by your family for disclosing long-held family secrets can keep you from publishing—much less ever writing—your memoir.

Push Past Your Fear

So how can you push through your fears and write stories that tell your truth even when it means telling on others? Here are five ideas:

1. Write like no one’s reading. Your first draft is for you. You get to tell the whole truth as you remember it. Say what you must say as if no one else will ever read it. Because guess what, no one ever needs to read your first draft! You get to decide if and when you ever want to share it. After you’ve written your raw, unfiltered draft, you’ll have time to review everything. When you're ready to edit, you can carefully consider what to keep in and what to leave out. But don't shortchange the healing benefits of getting everything onto the page. Your job is not to protect the people who caused you harm. By writing the truth, if only for yourself, you can process your pain, which is always the first step of healing.

2. Know your ‘why.’ Most people don’t write a memoir to “out” people who hurt them. There’s no satisfaction in speaking ill of the dead just for the sake of having the last word. Typically people write life stories as a way to understand themselves better, to capture important memories for future generations, and to share hard-won wisdom and transformation in hopes of helping others find freedom too. When you bring in other characters, you’re telling about the part they played in your story—how they affected your life.

3. Change names if you must. Anne Lamott’s quip, “If they didn’t want me to write about them, they should have behaved better” is mostly true. But it sidesteps the very real ramifications of telling tales that cast people who are close to you in a bad light. Judiciously telling the truth about painful incidents involving our parents or others requires discernment and wisdom. You are the main character in your story, but ultimately the reader is the one you’re serving. 

  • When you include others in your story, decide how much you need to tell about them to stay true to the main point of your story. Strive to write about memories and experiences that illustrate the journey you’ve been on—what you’ve experienced and how it’s changed you. Your readers will be drawn into your story by the universal themes you touch on, such as grief, powerlessness, loss, fear, and more.
  • If someone isn’t essential to the story or doesn’t advance the action or theme of your work, consider leaving them out. Do your readers need to know all the names of your aunts and uncles just because you’re describing an incident that happened with one of them? Maybe not.
  • Some writers will give a key character a name based on a trait—something like “Snake Eyes” to describe a slimy, evil relative or coworker instead of using their real name. You can play with trait-based names to avoid using real ones.
  • If you’re writing about your parents, changing their names won’t do much to protect their privacy. It’s easy enough for readers to fact-check their names. But others, especially those who aren’t part of your immediate family, can take on a name change with little effect on your story.
  • If you don’t feel you can write about family members without changing their names, you may want to change your author name too. This will protect you and the people you write about. Don’t jump to this option though. Writing under a pseudonym may rob you of the experience of truly owning your story.

If you decide to change names, be sure to let readers know that you’ve done this at the beginning of your book or with an asterisk the first time a particular character whose name you've changed appears in your book. It’s important to be transparent about what details of your story are factually accurate, which ones have been altered, and what details are true as you best you can recall them.

4. Share your story with the individuals involved before you share it with the world. I worked on my memoir for several years. When I finally had a draft I could share, I decided to send it to my five siblings. One by one, I attached the draft in an email and asked them to read my work. I wasn’t asking for their permission to publish it. Out of respect and a desire to share events that had shaped my life, I simply wanted to give them a chance to read what I had written, which included them. It was one of the scariest things I’ve done. I feared what each of their reactions would be and worried about potential fall-out in our relationships because of what I had written. Instead, they responded with empathy and care. Sharing my story opened up conversations about the past and deepened my relationships with my siblings in ways I never anticipated.

In author Dani Shapiro’s book Still Writing, she says, “When you share your work with the world it will do the opposite of exposing you; it will connect you.” This was my experience in sharing my memoir with my family, and it's my best advice to you.

Where you can be courageous and offer individuals in your story a chance to read what you’ve written, I encourage you to do this. Authors frequently report that none of their fears about sharing their work with those they’ve mentioned in their book ever came true. People are often much less invested in maintaining an untarnished reputation than we imagine. That said, it’s not always possible or in your best interest to share your story with those you write about. Only you can decide the best course of action on whether or not to share your story. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach for every author.

5. Work with an editor and seek legal counsel. A good editor will flag details that need to be reworked to avoid legal landmines and items that should be reviewed by an attorney before you publish your book. An attorney can help ensure you haven’t inadvertently exposed yourself to legal risks in naming people and incidents in your memoir. 

The Cost of Not Telling Your Truth

Holding a family secret can keep you stuck in your writing. More importantly, it keeps you stuck in your life. If fear of damaging family relationships or telling on others is keeping you from telling your truth, what else is it costing you? 

Part of the brave new ending that unfolded as a result of writing my memoir was the healing I experienced after sharing it with my family. Their response was the start of a new chapter for how we relate to each other. 

Where do you feel most afraid to tell your truth? Can you share your work with the people who you've included in your memoir to allow them to read it before you publish it? This requires courage and it may not be the right action for everyone. But it could quite possibly be the key that unlocks your brave new ending.


Join the #1 newsletter to learn how to shape the stories that have shaped your life.

You're safe with me. I'll never spam you or sell your contact info.