Ethics in Storytelling (No 3) - The Story Within A Story

In the last post I wrote that if we were present when events occurred, we have a right to tell our story, our version, which needs to include our internal journey - the focus must be on us. 

But having the right to tell a story, and it being right to tell a story are not the same thing. 

Other people enter our stories inevitably.  It gets messy when there might be other reasons someone is present (think journalist).  Or the person has another purpose in telling, different from exploring their own life. 

One version of this conundrum is when someone tells us their story.  We then we have our story of hearing their story, which of course includes their story.  (Recovery workers in the bushfire areas can become fire affected by hearing so many traumatic stories, and the hearing of those stories becomes their story.)

In this situation I come back to my framework for personal storytelling and that is:  In the course of my story I must engage in meaning making, I must tell my internal journey.  If the other person’s story relates to that internal journey, if its relevant, I can tell it.

But that still doesn't mean I won't hurt someone, or that I should tell it.  When someone can be identified in the story, and particularly if they might experience a negative emotion if they heard the story, we really need to question whether the story needs to be told.

I used to hate it whenever I knew my partner had been talking about me with others, especially if we'd had a fight.  And yet I felt totally compelled to talk about him with my friends.  I draw comfort from knowing that it's human nature; it's how we make sense, and how we draw from other people's perspectives. 

But hearing another person tell our story with their version, can feel like being falsely accused. We can feel frustrated, voiceless and begin to doubt ourselves

So this is the quandary and there are no clear cut answers.

Every memoirist it seems, has a story about hurting someone by their rendition of events.  Some memoirists tell all and make no apology.  For them the ability to fearlessly examine their life and how they feel and think and react to others is the art of what they do, the essence of memoir.  Others have boundaries, self imposed rules that sometimes are hard and fast and other times more nuanced and subtle.

And so it falls to each of us to find our way. Unlike judges we don’t have to worry about the flood gates argument, bad precedent or setting an example.  We can make our decisions on a case by case basis, and forgive ourselves and each other as we learn.  The important thing is to have thought about it and weighed up the implications.

Image by Mark Seton, under a Creative Commons Licence from Flickr