Biographers, memoirists, journalists, clinicians – they all write about real people. And they have different ways of doing this, both by the various codes of their professions and by their individual approaches to shaping, filtering, disguising, dramatizing, protecting, revealing. We imagine that they all want to provide honest accountings, although the purposes that organize their work reflect different demands on how to make their constructions.
While biographers usually want to provide a full account of a life, they must inevitably come to writing a particular biography with an interest of their own in mind, and their account will reflect that. A biography will be an attempt to make sense of a life, to find narrative threads that pull together the subject’s experiences along various integrative lines. The writer will have choices to make about the paths to be followed, the ways to assess evidence, the weight to be given to the subject’s own accounts and the reports of others. The idea that there could be an authoritative biography of anyone that would trump other appraisals speaks only to a romantic longing for the final word.
Memoirists might be thought of as biographers of a particular sort. While we imagine that all biographers want to be faithful to their subjects and to the people in their lives, memoirists have both a privileged access and special responsibilities. Usually many of the people in their accounts will still be living, and they will be in continuing engagements with them, and what they write will impact those relationships, for better and for worse. Given the pressures of their work, perhaps memoirists, more than other writers, should be entitled to expect a bit more kindness, or at least tolerance, from their readers. Memoir writers not drowning in their own narcissism will know that they are writing about their own experience, their subjective realities, and that their tellings are not veridically accountable.
Of course there are various kinds of journalists, running the gamut from those reporting the news, to others studying a subject, to yet others writing thought pieces. Some journalism claims to be just telling the facts, but there’s also advocacy journalism, which has arguments to make. We imagine that newspaper journalists try to balance the need to sell papers against their responsibility to the people they’re writing about, the impact that their writing will have on them, and that various journalists will deal with this in various ways. Biographers are ordinarily writing about people no longer alive, and by the time one comes to write a memoir a significant number of the principal figures will have died, but the journalists’ subjects are mostly alive and kicking, and their writing about them will be consequential, which creates a certain tension.
Clinicians encounter a different set of problems when they decide to use case material in a paper, blog, or book they are writing. The helping professions have labored long and hard about the proprieties of using case material in their essays. While it is ordinarily doable to disguise clients enough that people in their lives won’t discover them, patients will usually be able to recognize themselves. And this can be disturbing, even traumatizing, even though every idea expressed in the piece may have been spoken by the therapist in a session. Writing clinicians deal with this in their own ways, some choosing to never include case material in their pieces. Our professions have not been able to standardize a practice in this regard, and we will be discussing the pushes and pulls.
How to write about real people will be up for discussion.
DAN JACOBS, MD is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute where is also Director of the Hanns Sachs Library and Archives. He is a co-author of The Supervisory Encounter (Yale Univ. Press) and Grete Bibring: A Culinary Biography (BPSI) and co-editor of Psychoanalysis and the Nuclear Threat (The Analytic Press) and a book of photographs by Edward Bibring (Psychosozial-Verlag). In addition, he has published over 30 articles and book reviews. He has with his wife Susan Quinn written a play Enter Hallie and is currently finishing a novel The Distance From Home. Dan is on the teaching faculty of Harvard Medical School and Director of the Center for Advanced Psychoanalytic Studies at Princeton and Aspen. He is presently conducting seminars on the plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
HONOR MOORE’s most recent nonfiction is The Bishop’s Daughter, a memoir and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, an LA Times Favorite Book of the Year and a New York Times editor’s choice. The White Blackbird, a life of her painter grandmother Margarett Sargent was a New York Times Notable Book. Her books of poems are Red Shoes, Darling and Memoir, just reissued as Carnegie Mellon Classic Collection. When she was in her 20s, Mourning Pictures, her play about her mother’s death, was produced on Broadway and won her a fellowship from the New York State Council on the Arts. She is completing a memoir of her mother, a new collection of poems, and with Alix Kates Shulman, is editing Writing the Women’s Movement for the Library of America. She lives and writes in New York where she is on the MFA writing faculty at the New School.
SUSAN QUINN is an award-winning writer of non-fiction books and articles. She was a regular contributor to an alternative Cambridge weekly, The Real Paper, and Boston Magazine where she won the Penney-Missouri magazine award for an investigative article on dangerous cargo transported through the city. She has written articles for many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and Ms. Magazine. She has five books: A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney; Marie Cure: A Life; Human Trials: Scientists, Investors and Patients in the Quest for a Cure; Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times; Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair that Shaped a First Lady. Her biography, Marie Curie, was translated into eight languages and was awarded the Grand prix des lectrices de Elle in 1997. She has served as the chair of PEN New England.
CRAIG UNGER is an American journalist and author of Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove’s Secret Kingdom of Power, The Fall of the House of Bush, and House of Bush, House of Saud. His work is featured in Michael Moore‘s film Fahrenheit 9/11. Mr. Unger has served as deputy editor of the New York Observer and was editor-in-chief of Boston Magazine. He has written about George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush for The New Yorker, Esquire Magazine and Vanity Fair. He has written about the Romney family and Hart InterCivic. His most recent article, Trump’s Russian Laundromat appeared in the New Republic (July 13, 2017)