Who Owns the Memories?

26 August 2009 · 2 comments

This article was originally published at Foldedspace on 11 January 2002.

Recently I’ve given a lot of thought to the responsibilities and obligations of a journalist. When I say journalist, I don’t mean a reporter; I mean a person who keeps a journal, or a weblog, or who writes a personal history.

Through my weblogs, I share many of the important events in my life (and, some would say, many of the unimportant events in my life). To what degree am I obligated to edit what I write in a public forum? To what degree am I obligated not to edit what I write here? To what degree is this obligation to the truth in blogging different than the obligation to the truth when I create a scrapbook/album that contains my personal history?

These are tough questions.

I am generally an open and honest person. I see no sense in hiding the truth. However, I recognize that in some cases the truth:

  • may not be productive,
  • may hurt somebody else, and/or
  • may not be mine to share

(There are other cases, too. Sometimes people are morally or legally bound to avoid the truth. If you cannot imagine such a case, you’re not thinking very hard.)

I have a friend who is undergoing a gender change. While this is not a huge component of my life, it is a huge component of his her life. When we spend time together, it becomes a rather large issue between us, for good or ill. This is something that I’d normally be inclined to share at my personal weblog, and certainly in my scrapbook/personal history. Is it something I’m allowed to share, though? Is it something I should share? Tough questions.

In this case, I’ve opted not to discuss the subject in my weblogs. However, I’ve asked (and been granted) permission from this person to incorporate this particular aspect of our relationship into my personal history. I have a greater degree of control over who accesses my personal history, as it’s a physical object — a scrapbook — that I alone grant permission to view. My weblogs are open for the entire world to see.

But even my personal history raises questions about honesty and truth. Where should the line be drawn regarding what I put in my scrapbook? I have another friend that is gay and semi-out. However, he’s not completely out. How much of this should I put in my personal history? It’s always there when I’m with him — it’s a huge component of who he is. It seems senseless to skirt the issue when I’m documenting my life. Yet, is it really my decision?

Another example: I have strong feelings regarding my parents, both positive and negative. Whether I place my positive feelings in my scrapbook is not an issue. Nobody minds reading positive things about themselves. But what about my negative feelings? My father is dead, so it’s less of an issue. I don’t mind putting down the things that bugged me, the things that made our relationship difficult.

Is it fair for me to write only the positive things about my mother and not mention the less flattering things (which are nevertheless a portion of her character, and a portion of my relationship with her)?

Similarly, I have a letter from a friend in which she confesses things that she might consider secret. The letter is very much meant to be communication between me and this friend. However, it is a huge component of my personal history. How can I edit it from my scrapbook? Yet, how do I handle its presence? Do I black out the most provocative lines, so that when others read the history they are left in the dark? Blacking out these lines makes the letter mundane, unworthy of inclusion in my scrapbook. Allowing the lines to remain raises issues regarding secrecy and trust and friendship.

Who owns the memories? How much honesty is too much?

1 Mom August 31, 2009 at 12:34

I can’t tell you what to write about me because I don’t know what to write about myself. Did you know that I kept dozens of journals and ultimately threw nearly every one of them away? I decided that my personal history as contained in them was not how I wanted to be remembered, because a lot of what I recorded was negative. Now it is rare for me to record in a journal — mostly I do so while on vacation. Chances are that if I go back and read what I have written in the one journal where I have done so, I will throw it out, too. My Vox (friend and family) blog is more of a journal than any I have kept for a long time but I haven’t printed it out so it isn’t permanent.

It comes down to “what do you want to remember” and especially “to emphasize.” My sister told me about how my Grandmother Watson kept journals, and when she lived with my mother and my aunt and they got in fights, she would start writing in her journal. My mother and aunt wondered what she was writing but I don’t think they ever found out. My grandmother tended to emphasize the positive, which might be what she was doing at those times — perhaps writing about her testimony of her church or some such bit of distraction.

Perhaps I should start writing my personal history again but somehow I don’t have the oomph at the present time to do so. It might help my descendents to understand me better, though.

2 Ben September 8, 2009 at 21:53

That’s a very good question. I often consider similar questions, having my own blog that’s read by many friends and family members. My guiding rule is to never publish something that’s going to embarrass one of them. If I have something I really want to write but know that it would embarrass a friend, I write it in a personal journal instead.

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