What are the ethics of writing about what is, at heart, someone else’s tragedy? Name Withheld
THIS QUESTION was sent into the Ethicist at the NYT. The writer had witnessed a murder. Although I’ve never seen anyone killed, this kind of question has haunted me my entire writing life.
I’ve tried different approaches: ignoring the material, disguising it, writing it raw, then cycling back to ignoring. Some of this has worked well. Some, not at all. The unwritten about events haunt me, but frankly so do things I’ve written about.
Contrary to contemporary therapeutically-influenced ideas about memoir—-writing is not closure. In fact, if I’m any kind of example of the human psyche—-closure is a tidy aspirational ideal that cannot be attained.
Sure, I’ve put things behind me. But that doesn’t mean they are over.
And I continue to dither. Take the AIDS epidemic. It devastated the neighborhood I lived in in San Francisco—and killed two of my friends and many of my acquaintances. But I’m still trying to truly write about it. Is it “mine”—and is that pov simply that of an observer, or…or…I go round and round.
The Ethicist gives an incredible response I couldn’t have predicted:
“It’s worth recalling that “tragedy,” a word we use to describe events like this one, originally designated a literary genre, a form of storytelling. Whatever is going on in us when we experience a tragic narrative — Aristotle wasn’t the last to speculate about it — we surely learn something about our own emotional repertory; it may serve as a rehearsal of our responses to actual horrors. Classic novels have taken inspiration from real homicides; nonfiction works immortalizing such events have joined the literary canon, too.
We’ll do better, in my view, if we don’t think about what happened as someone’s possession.”