- Writing about My SisterA Commentary on “She and I”
I am writing about you to witness the mystery of impossible love.
I am sorry for the exposure that entails. I am full of gratitude for what you gave me.—Mary Gordon, Circling My Mother
The editor of the literary journal Fourth Genre began her email by saying that she liked my essay “She and I” a lot. “But,” she said. “There’s a big ‘but’ for several reviewers on our staff, who felt that when they got to the end, where you say that your sister doesn’t want you writing about her, or about her sons, it stopped them in their tracks. Said one, ‘She’s trying to understand her sister, but she’s not understanding her if she’s writing about her.’ It seemed like a violation.
“This is always a tricky place in writing nonfiction” the editor continued. “Where’s the line between writing about one’s own experience and writing about other people? I’m sure you realize this. So I’m writing first to ask you to share your own thinking about this with me—how you resolved that dilemma for yourself, why you chose to write about her in spite of her not wanting you to, etc.”
“I guess this will never go away,” I wrote to my friend Jen the next morning when I forwarded her the email. By “this” I meant the issue of writing about friends and family, of using other people’s stories, other people’s lives, in our [End Page 163] work, this issue of violation, of not respecting other people, or at best “not understanding” them.
Despite the editor’s careful tone, I felt blindsided by her email. It’s true that I had been trying to understand my sister in the essay, and I thought I had, as much as it’s possible to ever understand anyone. Hadn’t I seen in my sister’s life, with all its grief and tragedy, a fullness and a richness and a generosity that my own life seemed to lack? Was it not clear how much I loved my sister, how the reason I wrote about her was because I couldn’t not write about her, because what had happened to her—the deaths of her boys and her own diagnosis with the terminal disease that had killed them—was not something I could ever separate out from myself? It had altered everything. It would always alter everything. That’s what I’d wanted to convey. That I hadn’t—and worse, that I had done the opposite, had not only disrespected my sister but had “violated” her by writing this essay—that felt awful. It was with frustration, then, that I wrote to Jen. Frustration with myself, frustration that I still didn’t get it, frustration that it hadn’t even occurred to me that I was crossing a line—again, for this wasn’t the first time. But how, I wondered, how, if I didn’t see what I was doing as a violation, would I ever get this right?
Don’t get me wrong: I was grateful to the editor—enormously so—for the chance to try to explain my thinking. I was impressed, too, that she was taking the time to ask me to do so. It would have been easier, safer no doubt, to reject the essay, to decide, no, no, we don’t want to go there. In fact, when I told a handful of writers about the journal’s response, they assumed the magazine was hesitant for legal reasons, that it was protecting itself. This never occurred to me, and made no sense—surely, I wasn’t crossing any legal boundaries, was I? The essay, a comparison of my younger sister and me, was, I’d thought, a tribute to her. It spoke of her fierce dedication to her children, her ability to find beauty where most people might not, her capacity for joy. But if there were legal concerns about the essay; if this was part of the editor’s motivation in asking me to clarify my...