Ken Ackerman (www.KennethAckerman.com) led a discussion of the Washington Biography Group (4-30-12) that was interesting enough for me to resurrect, update, and rearrange items in my original e-letter. Ken began by identifying several elements of risk in writing biographies:
• The risk of lawsuits, especially if what you write is not true or your sourcing is questionable.
• The risk of negative reactions, especially from people who feel attacked.
• The risk of revealing things about yourself and family that they may not want to be told (in case of memoir). You may not know you are walking over a landmine.
• The risk of being boring – some subjects are NOT terribly interesting.
What is the truth? asked Rochelle Kainer (I am not giving exact quotes—these are from my notes). Are you talking about truth as veracity— something is true of the person you are writing about? Ken responded: In a book, truth is what can be documented—what you can defend, about which you have a source you can point to (which might include a diary). It might not be strong documentation; it might be a note.
There are other forms of truth: In a movie, you synthesize and summarize, true to the story or the character “as best you understand it.” Much will be left out, or even changed, combined.
I used to think the only absolutes were dates, said Rochelle, and then I learned more about dates, too. There really are all these perspectives. We can read many sources and come to a conclusion and it is OUR conclusion. Others may reach different conclusions. You have to be square about what you are thinking and doing and about how you are approaching the subject. Life offers you so many ways to make mistakes so all you can do is be upfront about what you are thinking. You make assessments, using your whole self. You interpret the data.
Is oral history documentation? asked Leslie Sussan. Ken replied that lawyers consider oral history notoriously difficult in law, because versions are so different.
Oral histories must be judged in the light of the speakers’ biases and motivations, said Leslie. You must weigh memories, perceptions, the passage of time. Judges use the “burden of proof,” the “preponderance of evidence.” They listen to evidence and evaluate what is most likely to be true—disclosing their biases (e.g., obscuring names). Leslie’s father took the only color photos after the bombing of Hiroshima in WW II. He left an oral history at Columbia University but he declined to sign a release for it, saying what permitted uses were. He died at a fairly young age; maybe later he would have signed it. For 20 years she didn’t know about it. As his daughter, she was given permission to access the oral history.
What if you conduct multiple interviews about the same subject and they are not all in agreement? One member who is affiliated with the organization she is writing about was trying to figure out how to deal with multiple perspectives and keep everyone happy. Amy Schapiro said that Nicholas Katzenbach and Robert Caro in one instance tell essentially the same story but with different details. Katzenbach and Ethel Kennedy, in the same week, told her the same story (about how to deal with Hoover) with one major difference. She presents both versions.
Michaele Weissman mentioned the great Caro article in the New Yorker… “every moment exists suspended between poles.” (Robert Caro and L.B.J. in the Archive)
There was some discussion of the Caro piece and the problem of dealing with Kennedy’s and Johnson’s different versions of same event. Caro presents them and does not take a position.
There is a risk Michaele Weissman said, that people don’t like it if you tell the truth— don’t like it if you catch them in an unguarded moment.
Sometimes you must omit parts of the truth for legal reasons. Anne Conover Carson said that Ezra Pound’s British wife didn’t want children so Olga Rudge decided she owed it to Ezra to produce a genius (Mary). The wife went off and came back pregnant by someone else, but Omar is officially Ezra’s son. This “truth” (“Scholars allege that…”) does not appear in her biography of Olga Rudge and Ezra Pound. Yale lawyers and the estate vetted the manuscript and she had to remove about ten pages of her story or she would not be allowed to quote Ezra Pound and would have to simply paraphrase.
In her memoir of working in the foreign service, Ginny Young made up some names and says in her acknowledgments that the book contains some people who are real and some people who are given made-up names, and the reader can guess which is which. The editor asked, “What is this: a tell-all?”
Sometimes you decide family peace is more important than telling the true story as you know it. If you have an abusive sister and want to write about it, fine, but do you have to publish it?
Perry Frank gets angry when she reads some things people write about her father, a well-known science fiction novelist (Pat Frank, best known for his post-apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon).
In telling the truth, do you risk offending sensibilities?
Sara Day said that her documentation is complete on the love story of Edward Everett Hale and Harriet Freeman (Coded Letters, Concealed Love) but Hale was considered a great moral figure, a “saint,” in his time, so Harvard twice turned down the chance to even look at the manuscript. In one case, an editor said that the university authorities would probably not approve. Hale’s papers are partly at Harvard and he was a longtime chaplain to the undergraduates. The Boston Brahmins hate it that one of their great figures is not a saint. In the end, Sara presented the story more from Harriet’s view than Hale’s and found a publisher. The irony is that Harriet Freeman’s collection of Hale materials found its way to the Andover-Harvard Divinity School and Sara was invited to speak there after the book was published!
Stephanie Deutsch originally planned to leave out lines where Rosenwald used language acceptable at the time but now considered offensive, in her book about Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington creating the Rosenwald Schools. Of the occasion when he escorted Booker T. Washington and others on a tour of Sears headquarters, Rosenwald wrote, “I could see a number of curious faces wondering how I happened to be showing ‘niggers’ around.” And “Someone came to a party as a Southern darkey.” She decided they should be in, as showing what Rosenwald grew up with—he was reflecting something about his times in saying those lines, and yet he went on to do what he did. Listen to this NPR interview: ‘Schoolhouse’: Rosenwald Schools in the South
Rosenwald and Washington came from vastly different backgrounds. Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., was one of the richest men in America; Washington rose out of slavery to become a civil rights leader. But their meeting led eventually to the construction of thousands of schools for black children in the segregated South.
Why are you writing the book? Stephanie Deutsch said motivation is important. To reveal a truth that hasn’t been revealed? Or, for autobiographies, do you figure out how you feel about that truth/incident—do you aim to get understanding?
Do you allow people you are writing about to read your drafts?
Ruth Selig, who is writing about her late twin, says there is no mention of siblings in the Lindbergh books, and it seems this is often the choice. Families remember the same event differently and you try to deal with it. What do others think about sending manuscripts out for others to read, she asked. They often make helpful corrections.
Amy Schapiro said that some sources ask for a chance to read the manuscript, and if she trusts them, she lets them, making it clear it is her decision whether to make any changes. Journalists would say never to do this, but Amy values fact-checking. One source felt calling someone “Manure” was unnecessary, but Amy didn’t remove it. She was glad she sent the manuscript to Millicent Fenwick’s son, a source, because he died before the Fenwick bio came out, so he had a chance to read it. She is also sending the manuscript to Katzenbach, who might well die before the book comes out.
Madeline Albright took Katherine Graham’s autobiography as her role model, because Graham was treated badly by some people and those events are in her book but she never says a mean thing about anyone. She distills the story with no effort to get even. It is the judicious model of telling the truth, but she does leave out parts of the story.
There is a certain tiresomeness to her good manners, said Michaela. Art is not nice, nor is it sentimental. Art is tough-minded. But Graham’s autobiography was true to her personality. “I came from a life of being too nice and want something else in my work,” said Michaela.
I know what you mean about being seemingly too soft, said Rochelle. Character can be more interesting if you show people’s different dimensions. One woman in a death camp was the constant topic of conversation among the women, who wondered, How could you stay good in the midst of all this evil?
What’s wonderful and difficult is that we learn some awful things about people, and including that helps us learn lessons. Say a person always seems nice, but then you see letters saying she didn’t like someone she was always nice to. Is she noble or a hypocrite?
If you write honestly without malice, it makes the subject more likeable, in a way, said Ken. President Harding is surprisingly warm and witty in his letters to his mistress. You wouldn’t know he could be without those letters.
There is a difference between accuracy and truth, said Ken. Something can be accurate but not the defining feature of a person’s life. Once you know something is accurate, what are the implications for the truth? Will it help or hurt people?
Problems lie in the murky area: where you don’t know what’s true or not. “The truth is sometimes squishy,” said someone (probably Ken).
Ray Palmer is writing about his experiences in Vietnam, where his best friend was killed. He still has recurring PTSD. He started out with survivor’s guilt, belittling himself, until someone pointed out what he was doing. He’s finally gotten beyond the guilt to the point where he can tell the story fully.
Snoopiness vs. invasion of privacy. Marie Murray said that she’s read accounts of events she was involved in and she is not going to write her version of that event. “For me the issue is privacy. I belong to me.” Ken responded: We are ALWAYS invading privacy when we write about people. To what extent do we assume that public figures have consented to have their privacy invaded? In a defamation suit, the outcome may vary depending on the fame of the person claiming invasion of privacy. Invading the privacy of people who are less well known is harder to defend against.
Privacy and invasion of privacy
Defamation, libel, and slander
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• How reliable are our memories--how close to the truth
• The nature and malleability of memory
• Accuracy, honesty, and truth in narrative nonfiction
• Truth, accuracy, accountability, and public trust ( (oh, and fair and balanced)