Muted No More: How Memoir Complicates the Notion of Privacy


My mother has forbidden me to write about her—a demand I’ve taken seriously for much of the past year.  I’ve wanted to protect her privacy.  At least, I’ve been willing to do that up until now.

I’ve even considered password-protecting this post, but, ultimately, it seemed doing that might play into the message I’ve been given my entire life—the one designed to keep me quiet.

Ultimately, I don’t know what “privacy” means in the context of telling my story.  Ultimately, I can protect the privacy of those outside my family by changing names and identifying characteristics.

But it’s impossible to write out the fact of having had a mother.

And, yet, that’s what my mother is demanding—that I write as if I don’t have a mother.

Let me be perfectly clear.  When my mother made this demand a number of  months ago, I distinctly asked for clarification:

Me:  Mom, it sounds like you are asking me to write as if I don’t have a mother.  Is that right?

Mom:  Yes, that would be good.

I’ve not pursued this conversation further, as the utter absurdity of it made that seem pointless.

I certainly never intended to mention my mom’s actual name in anything I write.  And the reason for sharing my story has nothing to do with wanting to expose her.  But, clearly, that’s her fear.  You might call this paranoia. 

You could call it guilt.

I fully believe my mother always did the best she knew how, but the simple truth is this.  The story of my life has essentially been one of motherlessness.  Indeed, I had a mother.  In fact, I still do.

But the most basic fact of my experience has been that of my mother’s inaccessibility—her refusual or inability to nurture. 

Clearly, the irony of this does not escape me—the fact that my mother’s demand would, in effect, be her life-long message to me.

I’m sorry.  But I simply have to share this.  I’m sorry to my mom, my readers, the world.

The request for privacy is one I certainly want to respect, but when that “privacy” morphs into “silencing,” and what I’m not supposed to say is, in effect, the most basic and fundamental fact of my life—

—Then that mutes me.   And that’s where, unfortunately, I must draw the line.

I set out months ago to write a memoir, but I’ve ultimately been muted by my mother’s ultimatum.  What I’ve written as my opening scene, for example, I haven’t been able to share.  Or, at least, I’ve not posted that piece, as it mentions my mother, and is, literally, about my trying to protect my mother when I was sixteen years old—protect her from the FBI agents who had raided our home to arrest my father.

So, I’m sorry, Mom.  I’m very, very sorry. But I can’t protect you any longer. 

I have to tell this story. 

I have to share my truth.

75 thoughts on “Muted No More: How Memoir Complicates the Notion of Privacy

    • So true, Deb! I love my mom. I truly do. Sometimes, however, she makes me crazy—or should I say “crazier?” It’s simply impossible to write a memoir without mentioning you have a mother–or don’t–as the case might be. It’s a part of one’s story. Obviously–I guess.

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  1. Good for you, you can only allow people to silence your truth for so long. I hope with this decision you free yourself in some way and that you get it all out the way :you: want. Best of luck.

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    • Thanks so much for the support. Frankly, I’m a nervous wreck having posted this. However, I know it’s what I have to do. It just kind of makes me sick at the same time. But my goal is that it will, indeed, free me up to really tell the story. I’m currently stuck, circling and circling around what I really want and need to day.

      I appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment. It means a lot to me today!

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  2. You’re right. It’s impossible not to mention your mom in your writings. And it isn’t fair on you to have to hold yourself back on your own blog!
    So, no apology needed, at least from me. Write on, my friend. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Munira. I know what you’re saying is completely reasonable, i.e. I’m being reasonable. It just gets confused in my mind when I try to sort it out. I appreciate the reality check. It seems silly that this should be so hard. I will write. Thank you!

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      • I know it’s a reasonable thing to say, but far easier said than done! I understand, and it’s not silly at all Kathy. The other day I was telling my aunt (my mother’s sister) about the fact that I write about stuff on my blog, and though I love my aunt, she said something that really threw me….she said she knew about it (through my cousins) and that they thought that I sometimes said too much…..! It gave me such a weird feeling, especially because my cousins subscribe to my blog and suddenly I feel as if I need to shut up….be more private…keep my thoughts to myself…
        I don’t think I am indiscreet on my blog, but now I find myself thinking twice before writing anything…and that’s quite inhibiting.

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      • Okay, Munira, that would throw me too! And it would hurt, as well–to think that your cousins were saying this without your knowing. Bless your heart. I think you are very, very discreet! I’ve not read anything that would come even close to indiscreet. Sounds like you really know a bit about how I feel. But I’m sorry for you. Blogging like memoir raises questions about privacy that I don’t know how to answer. Hugs to you, my friend! Big hugs!

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  3. So powerful are your words. I am glad you spoke them. Having had a mother who I believe did her best with what she knew – but her best was woefully inadequate at times for my needs, I get your dilemma. My mother has been gone for 41 years, but my life with/without her has left marks etched deeply, and should I tell my story then those marks would need to be open to the world. As it would not fully be my story without her part in it – so I say go forth – speak out – let no-one hold you silent. 😉

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    • Yes, you have said it perfectly. To omit that part of the story would leave it incomplete, and when so much of the narrative is about that very subject, it becomes even more incomplete. Sorry to hear that your mother, too, was inadequate. Painful, isn’t it?

      I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment. Hope you’ll come back again!

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  4. I know how hard this has been on you, so I’m really glad you’ve spoken out about this. In my experience, standing up to family members is much harder than standing up to anyone else. You’re very courageous and doing the right thing.

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    • Exactly, writing is what makes us feel alive. And to be told you’re not allowed to write about something is like having them cut our your tongue. In fact, I think I’d rather be without my tongue than be told I couldn’t write. Is that weird? Great feedback! Thank you so much!

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  5. This is so true. A true memoir cannot have a huge gaping hole that leaves out many of the details of who YOU are and how your life story evolved. Hopefully your Mother will realize that. Good luck Kathy.

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  6. I like what Marlene says about being sensitive and keeping your heart open, in particular. Jeannette Walls managed to convey tremendous love towards her parents in Glass Castles, which is one of the finest memoirs I’ve ever read. If she had not had those people as her parents, she would not have become the tough but tender writer she is today. If we can only convey to our parents that we are not disrespecting them by telling family stories they wish to ignore, forget or even dispute – that the events in the stories shape our narrative, whether only thought, spoken or written, every day of our lives – they may be able see not only our need but their need to heal and move on and live. Yes, live!

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    • Wow, you are so right, Mindy. Jeanette Walls is a perfect example. Can’t tell you how much I appreciate the reminder about her. She definitely did convey a lot of respect in the way she told her story.

      And, yes, our parents need to heal, as well. That’s really what matters. That’s really why I want to tell the story–to help myself heal–and hopefully to let others know that they too can recover from dificult childhoods.

      Thank you, dear Mindy!

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  7. I think your mom probably understands her lack of presence with you and that could be worth “hiding” in her mind. On the flip side, I can’t imagine telling the story of your life without explaining where it all began. What a brave and honest post, Kathy. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Absolutely, Tori! She does know, and I’m sure she’d rather hide that fact. Even I would rather hide it. Good point.

      I’m pleased to know you can appreciate my honesty here. This was a hard one to write. Even harder to post.

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  8. This is a very courageous post, Kathy, and I can tell that you posted it with much trepidation. That said, it’s obvious that you are approaching your whole memoir process with openness, respect, and a willingness to forgive and heal, so that has to count for something. Maybe the greatest gift you can give your mother is to write honestly about her but still accept her for who she is. The same can be said about yourself. xoxo

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    • Wow, what a sweet comment, Dana! I hadn’t even thought about the possibility that it could be a kind of gift. But–goodness, I love that notion. It’s something to hold close to my heart when I’m struggling with this issue. Thank you, my friend! Great insight!

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  9. Having been raised in a family where silence was stylish, I really empathize with your situation. While I’ve never been asked not to mention my mom, for example, the agreement is implicit. As others have said, you’re going into this with the right intention and openness to exploring what it means for you and who you are. Thank you for giving yourself the space to share it. You write it so well.

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    • Thanks so much for reading and leaving this sweet comment, Rose. It’s tough being raised in a dysfuntional family, but sometimes even more complicated to dance around as adults. I did well with my mom for the past 10 years or so. Have only recently found it difficult all over again, but I think that’s about trying to write about the past. We’ll get through this, I’m sure. Sorry you too had to deal with silence.

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  10. Hang in there! Like the previous comments mentioned you have made a huge step forward. It sounds like your mom is a major part of your story, and it is time for said story to be written. It’s going to be hard and your mom will most likely fight it, however, if you keep pushing forward your mom will come around.

    For years, my mom and her mom refused to talk. There was a major rift between them. However, my mom made an effort to change this. She realized that the only way she was going to heal, was that she needed to address the issue of her mom . Slowly, progress was made. When my mom first started, her mom talked shit and said she didn’t want to talk about the past. She didn’t want address the abuse she put my mom through. However, my mom didn’t give up and after awhile she was able to talk about her childhood- she was able to address the abuse she was put through, and her mom finally apologized. I realize this is different than writing a memoir, but I believe the intentions are similar.

    Don’t give up! This could potentially be a life changing experience.

    Stay Strong!

    Dave.

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    • Oh, Dave, I can’t thank you enough for this comment! I’m so pleased to know that your mom and grandmother were able to work things out. I actually think there are lots of similarities in the two situations. I fully believe my mom and I will also work through this. It won’t be easy, but we will. Thanks again for your kind comment. By the way, I’m really enjoying your blog!

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  11. Most brave indeed. *hugs*

    I was struck by your response to an earlier comment: “In fact, I don’t know how to do what she’s asking. I think it’s impossible.” And I can’t help but wonder if perhaps that was her intent, perhaps even subconsciously? That by asking the impossible, if you’d agree to it, she could “prevent” you from bringing up anything that she might not want brought into the light?

    Regardless, good for you to do what you need! I’m sure you will approach any sensitive subjects with much tact and compassion. 😉

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    • Yes, you are right. I will indeed be sensitive. My goal is not to hurt anyone, especially my mother whom I love dearly. Writing about our past is delicate and tricky. It’s interesting what you say about what her goal may have been unconsciously. I believe it was her goal, but I don’t believe she had any idea that might have been what she was thinking or feeling. Great point!

      Thank you so, so much for this comment. And thanks for the hugs, as well! You are so sweet. Hugs back to you!

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  12. The longer one has been held back from sharing what they want to, the stronger that desire becomes…until it’s no longer just a desire, but a necessity. I’ve been in a similar position before, and broken free to be able to share the tales I’ve wanted to. With all due respect to your mother, I’m glad you are doing the same!

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    • So true, Mark. The longer one is denied the ability to speak the more intense that need becomes. Sorry to hear you have expereinced anything remotely similar. But–it’s hopeful to hear you resolved the situation to share your story. That’s encouraging, my friend!

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  13. Pingback: Muted No More: How Memoir Complicates the Notion of Privacy | personal storytelling | Scoop.it

  14. I too, like Marlene’s comment and Mindy’s comment.
    I think there are very few people on this planet who don’t have trauma. Being aware of the way I’ve lived my life has given me compassion for my parents. It is such an individual thing.
    Be gentle with yourself also, Kathy.

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  15. I think this and similar issues plague quite a few bloggers and thus the decision to either remain anonymous or to not always mention things in ones blog becomes a bit of a dilemma. I have even tried having another anonymous blog to talk about “that” kind of stuff but it didn’t feel true to me, so now there are just some things I haven’t blogged about. My “broken” mom being one of them. I admire you Kathy for stepping up to the plate and I hope that your mother will eventually understand your need to say what you have to say.

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    • Anonymonity will work for many, and it might have been a blogging option for me, if my ultimate goal hadn’t been to write a memoir. I guess, there may not be an ultimately good option for me and my situation. Sorry to hear that you, too, have a “broken” mom. That’s tough, Jackie, I know. Thanks for sharing, my friend.

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  16. Hi Kathy
    This is the first post of yours that I’ve read in a while – sorry for my absence – and I’m so glad I read this. I can only imagine what it took for you to write this post, and then to send it to publish. What a brave move; and such courage to change a pattern that isn’t serving you. Well done for speaking your truth.
    Huge hugs from London
    Sunshine xx

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  17. It doesn’t make sense for you to write a memoir and leave out your mother. It just doesn’t seem possible. Well, I suppose it is possible, but as I said in the first place, it wouldn’t make sense.

    Good for you for standing up for yourself. 🙂

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  18. This notion of parental censorship, whether the gag order is from mom or dad, is an UGLY one. It makes me wonder if they are doing what most parents try to do … raise our kids UNLIKE our parents raised us. And yet we usually end up transferring the childhood lessons learned so well! Growing up whenever I asked my mom about her life it was met with “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies”. I don’t even know how mom met dad. In a recent conversation with my mom’s brother I was stunned at his lament that my grandparents went to their graves leaving a ‘legacy of silence’ … his questions to his mom were met with the same line!!! If I want to write about my mom, well other than date of birth and the city where she grew up, I don’t know her life … Your are on the right path, Kathryn. Keep going regardless of the backlash. It’s your truth, not your mom’s that you are writing about.

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    • I’m really sorry to hear your story. You have GOT TO WONDER what’s being hidden. I hope you write about that silencing, as it’s hard core. And how interesting that the situation was the same with your grandparents. I can’t even imagine not knowing how your parents met. Doesn’t the curiosity kill you?

      By the way, where are you from? Is there a cultural imperative that demands silence?

      I’m happy to hear from you. I’d love to know more about your story. Do you have a blog?

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  19. Kathryn, this topic will always be an important one for those of us who write about our lives, and particularly about our families of origin: how to write our truths without hurting them. It’s a fine line we walk. We must tell our stories, our way, and from our perspective. To pull away from this is to pull away from who we are. At the same time, we can allow our family members a voice by rounding out their characters, by allowing them the benefit of the doubt where we can, by wondering what their motives, fears, and dreams were on the page. If a writer is lucky, she’ll have a family that understands that her memories and stories are how she experienced things and that she does not consider them to be “absolute truth” … only her truth. And if not, well I have to ask … if they have so little understanding, does their opinion count that much? Thanks for the post and for taking the risk to be authentically you.

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    • This is a great reflection on how to balance the two perspectives–to speak from my own and wonder about the other. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to read and comment. It sounds like you know a lot about this process. You input means a lot to me! It was wonderful having you stop by. Thanks again!

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  20. Authors writing the great American novels talk about their childhood all the time probably because your childhood shaped who you become eventually. I am sorry that you are going through such a struggle with your mother. EVEN THOUGH I joke about my bad parenting style is only creating a treasure trove for their future masterpiece, I do wonder how I would feel one day when my own children, esp. my younger one, decide to write a memoir. I think I’d better keep my blog running so I will have a venue for rebuttal when that day comes!

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    • I love the notion of “venue for rebuttal!” Maybe I should suggest my mom start blogging so she can do just that. Too funny, Lin! But, I don’t blame you or my mom ultimately. I’m sure if I had kids who started writing it might freak me out a bit. Thank God I don’t have children! Thanks for reading!

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  21. You certainly can’t write an honest memoir if you honor your mother’s request. It’s a tough position to be in, but ultimately, you have to be true to yourself if you’re serious about this project.

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  22. What a powerful post—I could really feel how nauseous you were while writing it.
    It has to be done. The process of writing this memoir is a form of healing, and the process has brought you to this important blockage.
    It has to be done.

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    • You have said it well! Yes, she is woven into every aspect of my life. It could not be otherwise, I guess. I appreciate your support, so much! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. It was great hearing from you. Hope you have a great weekend!

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  23. While I’m not writing a memoir, I have been thinking a lot lately about what I can write on my blog about others in my life. How do I leave out of my ruminations things that have a massive impact on me, but are happening to those I love? It’s not exactly the same, but there are similarities. I wrote a post about my partner’s mother’s illness and sent it to a friend to read to ensure I was not crossing any lines. I really toned down a lot of what I felt and thought in order to not infringe on their privacy, but even so, my friend said she didn’t think it was appropriate to post. It was hard, because it is a huge piece of my life at the moment and something I am working through continually. Not mentioning it, or mentioning it in a peripheral way seems to lack a kind of genuineness I value in the writing of others, and because writing is a way to understand myself I feel like a room in my house has the door barred. Anyway, all that to say that I empathise with your struggle and applaud your courage.

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    • Yes, yours is a perfect example of how my struggle with privacy makes me feel. Not mentioning some of the truest realities of our lives, makes us feel less genuine as writers. And we both know that the most honest writing is the most powerful. I truly believe each of us has to make these decisions one situation at a time, but I can’t tell you how much I can appreciate your feeling like the door to one room in your life has beed barred. That is terribly frustrating–especially for those of us who write. God bless you as you untangle these delicate realities and live your life fully in their midst–honoring them and yourself at the same time.

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  24. Hi, Kathy.

    I found you and the link to this post in Moments of Exhilaration’s blog entry re: blogging and when to draw the line. I hope you won’t mind me posting the same comment I left in her post:

    “I’ve been thinking a lot about it for some time now. I am in a long-distance relationship and my blog entries usually contain chats that include some sweet mushy ones and other stuff that we get to talk about – sometimes I edit out some lines that I deem not necessary and shouldn’t be out in public. I use people’s real first names and rarely do I change them – I only did once for a friend because I thought she might not like idea of me blogging about her but was relieved to know she didn’t mind. She actually liked how I portrayed her in my story.

    My boyfriend, a former blogger himself, doesn’t know I sometimes blog about him. But I am confident that if he ever found out, he wouldn’t find my stories that involve him offending. Same goes for others who go into my blog.

    The point is, I try not to write negatively about people that’s why I’m confident about including and quoting them in my stories.”

    Like you, or at least what this post contains, I also include the Me-Them conversation. My cousin, who regularly reads my blog, has once shared one of my stories to her friend. According to my cousin, he said something like, “If I were ‘the’ guy, I would be really offended. Things like that should be kept between the two us….” This reaction has definitely made me think of “blogging and drawing the line”. Cosy chats I’ve had with people have always been part of my writing style. That’s how I like it. But now I worry. 😦

    Sorry, this has gotten long.

    –Addie

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    • It’s so hard to know how to handle all of this. If you read on a bit further, I think you’ll see that I’m trying to write a memoir about my father who is now deceased but was involved in organized crime. Most of what I share is about him, but it’s impossible to write about your childhood without mentioning one’s mother, as well. And she’s the one who’s opposed to me mentioning her.

      Oh well. this is an important issue to discuss. Hope my post made sense to you in its own right.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Hope you will come back and read more of my story. It was great having you, Adele.

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  25. One thing that has eased my conscience when I’ve written about those who have hurt me, is that I try and get behind what might have caused them to behave that way. I strive to uncover an understanding of where they may have been coming from. I’m a big believer in the idea that trauma travels through the generations. If in fact your mother hurt you, it might be helpful to think about who hurt her, and who hurt the person who hurt her. Somehow thinking like this takes all the pressure and exposure off the one in the hot seat. This is how I can be both honest, take off the mute, and not heap all the blame for the situation on one person.

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    • I try to do the same thing. And actually it helps. I’ve not been able to discern what from either of my parent’s childhood might have made them behave as they have, but I know it had to have been something. The other thing that helps me is to focus on the positive things about them. This helps balance the portrait I paint of them.

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  26. Wow…she really asked this of you… as if you didn’t have a mother. It feels so supportive when our family allows us to write about them. As if they are respecting us in a deep, deep way. I can understand the desire for privacy, but I truly love when another gives us the gift of full expression. Happy New Year, Kathy.

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    • It was a fairly huge and borderline outrageous request–one I simply could not respect. And you are right, it communicates a huge respect when people are willing for us to write about them. I hadn’t even thought of it that way.

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