Not Hurting People With Your Words

by Kerry Cohen

Rather than asking questions about structure, character development, or action versus thinking, most of my memoir-writing students want to know how to avoid hurting other people with their words. Some have changed names and situations right out of the gate, anxious at the thought that a family member will find the manuscript in their files. Others simply won’t write about the thing they most want to write, or they temper the feelings, already feeling their families’ watching the computer monitor over their shoulders.
Memoir is, of course, unique in its power to injure others, and it is for this reason that I advise my students only to be very conscious of their intentions. Are you writing to help or harm? If you are writing to help, then you must somehow put away your assumptions and fears and move confidently forward. Easier said than done, they always say.
I used to be where they are. I sat before my computer writing scenes about my mother and father and sister that were terrifying to write. My story, Loose Girl, was about how, lacking any real attention for my feelings at home, I took my need into the world and got that attention from boys. I spent approximately fifteen years of my life looking for love in all the wrong places, pushing everyone aside in my quest to get it, until finally I stopped. As one might imagine, the feelings that came up were awful. For one, my parents had done their fair share of screwing up. They needed too much from their small children. They put their own feelings before ours again and again. They crossed physical and emotional boundaries, and they behaved like children themselves. And this was just my family. I had also portrayed mean-girl and abusive friends, and boys who mistreated and raped me.
Behind all the difficult emotions that surfaced as I rehashed these details was also the blurry, vague awareness that if any of these people read these pages, they would see themselves entirely exposed. As much as what they did wounded me, I now had the power to devastate them. There was, let’s face it, the small fact of revenge.
And yet, rarely do memoirists want revenge through their stories. What we want it salvation. We want to finally be freed from whatever pain we portray, to finally take responsibility for our part in it. We want, ultimately, to have our pain matter, to mean something, and, most hopefully, to provide some sort of solace to our readers. So I forged on with this aim in mind.
Hyperion bought the manuscript, and my editor helped me more artfully shape my story, and that was that. The book was going to be out there. If I thought of the possibilities, the loss and outrage I was risking, I grew overwhelmed. I imagined my mother never speaking to me again, my worst fear – that her need to protect herself would always trump loving me – coming true. I imagined old friends sending hateful, nasty emails. I pictured the dramatic possibility of being sued.
In an attempt to act responsibly, I sent the edited manuscript to my sister. I wrote in my email, “I want to make sure you don’t feel harmed by my portrayal of you.” I waited nervously for her response which came a week or so later.
“I didn’t know you were going through all that, Kerry.”
“Well, sure,” I said, “but you’re okay with your character?”
“It’s not how I experienced myself,” she replied. “But it’s your memoir, not mine.”
The book made its way through production. When it reached galley form, I brought it to my parents. I took my father aside first. He was the easier one, the parent I had expressed myself honestly with from the start. I wasn’t as afraid of him. I explained that I showed him as a pretty crappy parent, but that he redeemed himself somewhat by the end. I told him I knew he had done his best inside his limitations at the time. He joked that he couldn’t imagine ever wanting to read this book—he came off badly, and it was about his daughter’s sex life.
When my mother came for a visit, I knew I needed to have The Talk with her too. I inhaled deeply, held her shoulder, and handed over the advance copy. I told her carefully that I wrote what I did because it was necessary for the story I needed to tell, that I hoped she’d understand I had no intentions of hurting her, and that I kept her anonymous throughout.
She looked down at the book’s cover, tears coming to her eyes. I knew it, I thought angrily. I knew she’d make this about her. But what she said surprised me.
“I knew you were struggling. I was in such a bad space myself. I didn’t know how to help you.”
I stopped. I had never heard anything like this from her. She was trying to tell me, in her way, that she was sorry.
One of the common interview questions I’m asked is whether my family members have read the book.

I tell them that I honestly don’t think my parents have read the book, and I don’t think they will.
“Wow,” the interviewers respond. “How do you feel about that?”
I tell them I’m grateful. My parents are doing whatever they can to be proud of me, and I think they know that if they read the book, being simply proud might be a lot harder. “I’m proud of them right back,” I make a point of saying, aware these feelings are a first for me when it comes to my parents.
Since the book has arrived on bookstands, old friends and acquaintances who knew me during my “loose girl” years have reconnected. We talk about how much we didn’t know about one another back then. How they had their own pain, their own stories that grew beside mine. We forget this when we write our memoirs. We forget that all the characters in our books have memoirs of their own that albeit haven’t been written, that they weren’t solely circling around us, living the roles they played in our books.
So, when my students come to me, worried, nervous, stuck, afraid of the damage they might inflict, I try to convince them that they can’t assume how others will respond. They can’t know what might open between them and their characters. They can’t predict the ways in which their relationships will take new direction. Yes, memoir has the power to harm, but even more so, it seems to me, memoir has the power to change the course of those relationships, and you never know about its unique power to heal.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.