At a recent writing workshop I attended, I presented a number of essays I had written to my fellow writers for their feedback. On the last day of our program, I read them a short, painful piece about the illness and death of a friend when we were in high school. For some time since writing the piece, I have been struggling with the wisdom of attempting to publish it because some of my friend’s family members are still alive, and much of what I wrote might be quite distressing to them if they saw it in print. The group told me to stop worrying about this, specifically because they felt that the essay was a tribute to her life, and that the main goal of creative non-fiction and memoir is self- expression about one’s own life. Still, I wanted to know how to draw the dividing line between genuine artistic expression and tell-all confessions that could violate people’s privacy, hurt their feelings, or even humiliate them. Certainly, we might all agree that leaving out people’s names from our most intimate writing is generally the ethical thing to do, as well as legally prudent. We would readily agree that slandering them or divulging legally confidential information about them is forbidden. Yet what about the “incriminating details,” of our lives with them, no matter how beautiful, heart rending, and true, and no matter how creatively we write about them? At that point, one of the much younger members of our group, a self-assured and accomplished writer, said to me: “Look, you have to be true to your art. Many well-known memoirists deal all the time with family and friends who don’t want details of their lives to be published, but honesty demands this of an artist.”
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about her advice. Certainly, artistic integrity matters, and at times we need to speak the truth even if it hurts, for truth is redemptive because it allows for justice to be done. Nevertheless, I find the emphatic focus on expressive self-revelation to be rather problematic. It reminds me of an important story in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 16b. The students of the great sages Hillel and Shammai once debated how they could fulfill the religious obligation to dance joyously before a bride and her groom at the wedding feast if the bride was ugly. Should they chant the traditional song praising her as a kallah naah va’hasuda, a beautiful and comely bride? The Shammaites said no, for they would be lying, an act strictly prohibited by the Torah. Should they simply dance before her yet withhold those words which she and her guests would be expecting? The Hillelites said no, for they would humiliate her and cause her to suffer, an act also strictly prohibited by the Torah. The Talmud’s final ruling is that we follow the logic of the students of Hillel: on her wedding day we call a woman a beautiful and comely bride, with no exceptions or insinuations. In a conflict between the values of protecting someone’s dignity and complete honesty, dignity wins out.
My writer friends were certainly not telling me to use my writing to purposely hurt others or that it is not all right to tell “white lies” to spare someone’s feelings. Still, the Talmud’s story makes the important point that even honesty has its limits, whether it is honesty for the sake of artistic integrity or for the sake of serving God. What I also hear in this story is that, however noble it may be most of the time, my fidelity to a fixed set of principles must at times take a back seat to my compassionate treatment of other human beings, a matter about which God would be no less demanding.
I love to write, and I use my writing to examine my life struggles as well as to teach by example. Rabbis and writers have been telling stories about themselves and the people in their lives for thousands of years for exactly these purposes. Nonetheless, I cannot ignore the fact that Jewish dictates about modesty, privacy, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself will at times have to trump my desire to fully express myself, even it means that a great story doesn’t see the light of day. I still have no idea what to do with the story of my high school friend who died. Maybe publishing the painful truth about those terrible days would honor her memory. In the end, perhaps the best way to do that is to allow my own memories of her to remain in the private pages that only I will read. That way her loved ones can hold on to the truths they have woven around her life and death that bring them peace.