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Authors Face Family Fallout in Telling Their Stories

When L.L. Barkat started her first book, a blend of memoir and spiritual rumination that will be published next year by InterVarsity Press, she had plenty of family dysfunction to draw on for material. Her mother was married three times, her dad five. All told, she has 18 siblings—one sister, one half-sister, one adopted brother, and the rest current and former step-siblings.

Barkat was afraid to tell her mom she was writing the book, which has the working title "Secrets in Stone." "I prayed about it very seriously and then I called my mother," she said. Barkat, an evangelical Christian, explained that the book's purpose was to extend healing to others—and was astonished when her mother said that was OK, even if Barkat wrote about bad things.

While the intention of many spiritual memoirs may be to inspire, authors still have to deal with family members' feelings. Barkat, who finished her manuscript at the end of May, said that when she showed it to her father he said, "This is going to be a Christian bestseller." Then he began to grieve over the past.

After turning in the manuscript, Barkat said, "I felt physically ill."She expects another wave of family emotions when the book comes out.

Lauren Winner wrote about her conversion to Orthodox Judaism and then Christianity in "Girl Meets God" (Random House, 2002). In the memoir-writing workshops she teaches, a top question she hears is how to cope with family members' reactions to be being written about. After all, as she points out, "a person's story inevitably intersects with other people's stories."

Winner changed at least a third of the names in her memoir, but said it's not possible to protect immediate relatives that way. Writers have to decide what hits they are willing to take to their relationships, she said, because it's distracting to readers when authors dance around sensitive matters. "My feeling is if you can't tell the whole story, then this isn't the project you should be working on."

Writers evolve. Winner was 24 when the memoir came out, didn't think too much about family reaction until publication approached, and said she probably would handle it differently now. Still, her parents separately told reporters the book gave them a window into their young adult daughter's inner life.

In "Dharma Punx: A Memoir" (Harper San Francisco, 2004), Noah Levine described how he rebelled with drugs, drink and violence before adopting the Buddhist traditions of his father, author Stephen Levine, whose books include the memoir "Turning toward the Mystery" (HSF, 2003).

The younger Levine said family members had mixed emotions about his book: They were happy he was being published, but remembered some things differently, and variously felt they appeared too little or not enough. "I don't think anyone was pleased all around."

Memoirists have to be willing to be honest and to expect relatives to disagree with them, he said. "There's going to be both praise and blame. And in order to write about your family, you have to be willing to have both."