To Write or Not to Write: Respecting Privacy in Family-History Storytelling

To Write or Not to Write: Respecting Privacy in Family-History Storytelling

When you start writing your life’s stories, you may wonder what to put in and what to leave out. Should you mention that time you got arrested, or when your best friend betrayed you? What about your difficult relationship with your dad? What if telling your stories will reveal...

When you start writing your life’s stories, you may wonder what to put in and what to leave out. Should you mention that time you got arrested, or when your best friend betrayed you? What about your difficult relationship with your dad? What if telling your stories will reveal someone else’s secrets?

Writing your life story can raise questions about how to be fair and honest, and what stories of your life should keep private. Story of My Life workbook author and guest blogger Sunny Morton has three quick things to consider when you start writing your family history:

  • Everyone has a right to privacy. Writing about your life doesn’t obligate you to share all your stories. Chances are there are some events, relationships, failures or disappointments in your past you’d rather not write about.

    While you should consider acknowledging all life-changing events (even if you choose not to dwell on details), you don’t have to write about everything. For painful events that prompted major changes in your relationships, career, living circumstances or way of life, a passing mention—along with the results—may be sufficient: “After my divorce, I moved to Seattle, where my sister lived. I wanted to leave painful memories behind.”

  • Honesty is key. You don’t need to tell everything—but everything you tell should be true. Of course, you won’t intend to write falsehoods, but it can be tempting to downplay your role in a big family argument or skip over the nice things your “worthless” baby brother actually has done for you. Nobody is all good or all bad, including yourself. Try to write about everyone fairly. In doing so, you may discover some new truths in the process of writing: how you felt about someone, what you learned from a situation, how you feel now.

    Consider including at least some of these insights in your life-story writings. You may think it’s obvious what the past taught you or how you might feel, but that may not be the case. And your insights or life lessons may turn out to be the most valuable part of sharing your memories (for you and others).

  • Think twice before revealing someone else’s secrets. Many who write their life stories have to decide whether to divulge confidential or sensitive information about someone else. Should you write about a relative’s addiction, debts, temper or marital problems? Consider the answers to three questions:
    • First, is this your story to tell? If it didn’t significantly affect your life, it doesn’t really belong in your life story.
    • Second, what are your motives? Revenge, or an unfortunate but real need to set the record straight?
    • Finally, who may be hurt by your revelation? Even if the person with the secret is dead, that person may have living loved ones who may suffer.

After considering these questions, you may still see the need to reveal confidences, but you may approach it more sensitively.

    My new book Story of My Life guides you through the process of deciding what stories to tell, telling them (including lessons learned) honestly, and focusing on what’s most important. You’ll find hundreds of memory prompts and reflection questions about the people and events of your past.

    Story of My Life is available as an easy-to-use softcover workbook and as a writeable PDF—just type your answers and save them in a preformatted document you can print or share as you like.

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    1. This is an area filled with emotional landmines–well said! However, one of the items that I hold over my brothers is the fact that *I* am the one writing the family history!