anonymized characters and the rights of authorship: lessons from "The Trials of Alice Goffman"

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Gideon Lewis-Kraus New York Times Magazine story "The Trials of Alice Goffman" has me stirred up here in the dark this morning.

My thoughts spin. Let me settle them down.

The deck beneath the headline reads, "Her first book, 'On the Run'—about the lives of young black men in West Philadelphia—has fueled a fight within sociology over who gets to speak for whom." The story goes on to tell the tale of a young University of Pennsylvania graduate (and daughter of a famed sociologist) who spent years immersively studying and writing about "a group of young black men in a mixed-income neighborhood in West Philadelphia, some of the low-level drug dealers who live under constant threat of arrest and cycle in and out of prison."

The book quickly became a sensation. Goffman, and her TED talk, became a sensation. (I remember all of this well; I was watching.) But soon enough detractors spoke. Why did Goffman burn most of her transcripts and notes? Why did Goffman feel the need to write with such colorful flair about individuals and scenes that had been notably (extravagantly?) anonymized? Why did she focus so hard on individuals, when sociology, her field, is about societies? Why did she seem to break (or merely ignore?) so many academic rules? What are the consequences?

And did she have a right to tell this story?

Lewis-Kraus does an excellent job of laying all of this out for the reader—contextualizing the book, contextualizing the field, contextualizing Goffman herself. It is the sort of story the Magazine is best at—big questions, roiling fields of study considered through the lens of a single person or event.

The story is fascinating, illuminating. I'd recommend it to anyone, and I'd especially like to recommend it today to memoirists, on the one hand, and to anyone who is caught up in the many prevailing debates of Young Adult literature, on the other.


In Handling the Truth (and in all my talks, and through all my classes), I express deep concern about anonymized subjects—the extravagant decorations some memoirists apply to the others in their stories. Through Notes to the Readers, we'll learn that most everyone in the book (save the first person I) is a composite—names have been changed, scenes, appearances. At the very least, this is distracting. At the very least, we're being asked, as readers, to apply a filter I'm not sure we readers should have to apply to a genre that's already highly suspicious. Ah, we think, as we meet a composite character, This person is not real. Ahh, again: this person is not real. And if this person isn't real, if she really isn't a twin and she really isn't wearing a marigold dress and she really doesn't talk with a nasal quality, what else about this scene isn't real? What are we supposed to believe? Is there truth inside this memoir?

(Often, of course, there is truth inside that memoir. But the reader has to find it.)

Last week I read a memoir for review that is truly lovely, but as a memoir built of composites, I felt a distance. Yesterday I read Paul Lisicky's memoir of friendship The Narrow Door. It is not a memoir built of composites. Lisicky names names (names many readers will know). When he can't fully name a character he uses an initial. When he really can't name a character (one single case), he gives her a fake name and tells us he is doing that. Not a composite, then. Just an indirect pronoun. There's a difference. We're not distracted. We don't have to put up our truth-seeking guard. We can relax into the story.

Goffman's story, as told by Lewis-Kraus, is, in part, a cautionary tale, about what happens when authors go to extreme lengths to disguise the real people at the heart of their stories. They lose track of the disguises. They start writing extravagantly. They put themselves in the way of critics who wonder about embellishments.

Now, onto the question: Who has the right to tell this story?

I can't answer—I don't know—if Goffman overstepped. But the issue has me thinking about a topic that is lately swirling through Young Adult literature. The right to ownership of story. Can a man write convincingly as a girl? Can a woman write convincingly as a boy? Does the American living in California have the right to tell the story of a child of Haiti?

Young Adult literature, obstensibly, is written for teens. It is written to reach the hearts and souls and minds of young people on the brink—young people facing bullies, uncertainty, challenge, any number of things; young people who are in need of compassion. And yet, among Young Adult authors and advocates, a storm has broken out. Swirling questions. Who is allowed to tell this story?

Fiction is not memoir, of course it's not. But it still requires fidelity to emotional truth. I can't, for example, pretend to know what a young woman of 1876 might think as she sets out on a hot day for the Centennial grounds. I can't pretend to know what a young man living in East Berlin in 1983 feels, or what a young man living anywhere at any time, for that matter, feels. I can't pretend to know what it is to be rich. I can't pretend to know what it is to be a pregnant teen stuck in southern Spain with a band of gypsies and a cook. I can't pretend to know what it is to be losing my mind to a neurodegenerative disease. 

I can't pretend any of that—but I can, and I have, deeply researched. I have gone to these places, I have talked to these doctors, I have read the transcripts, I have sought real people out, I have interviewed the graffiti artist, I have walked the old Centennial grounds. I have used all the resources at my disposal to find out what it might have been like, and then I have written fiction—relying on my heart, my experiences, my imagination to lead me forward. Because I may not have lived the circumstance of some of my characters, but I have lived their fear, I have lived their distrust, I have lived their anxiety, their anorexia, their panic, their kind of sadness, their kind of loss.

I have lived their feelings, I have researched their worlds. Have I had the right to tell these stories?

It's a question, as I say, that swirls. It's a question any writer of fiction might be asked: What gives you the right to write about a martian? What gives you the right to write the character of Don Quixote? What gives the right to imagine yourself on a boat with a Bengal tiger? What gives you, Marilynne Robinson, the right to write the character of Lila, or you, William Faulkner, the right to all those voices inside As I Lay Dying?

I have been married, for thirty years, to a beautiful Salvadoran, and boy has he told me stories. Do I have the right (with his permission) to faithfully reinvent his stories?

What gives you the right to imagine anyone who isn't you?

If we don't have the right to responsibly (and I need that word inside this sentence) write characters who aren't us, then we don't have the luxury of imagining, which is to say empathizing with, characters who are not us.

We need to empathize with the people who are not us.

There are many questions about Goffman's story. I have not read her book. But as we ponder the accounting of Lewis-Kraus let us also ponder the difficulties we encounter when we actively disguise the truth but call it truth.

Conversely, let's think about the difficulties we encounter when we ask writers who choose to delve into (and write of) other worlds, whether or not they have the right. If they have done their research, if they are writing for the right reasons (which is to say, not to capitalize on a trend, not to capitalize on a market, not to capitalize on potential headlines or income), if they have given these projects their heart and their minds, perhaps they have the right.


Kelly Simmons said...

This is of particular concern when the writing crosses racial borders. Every Caucasian writer I know treads carefully when crafting a character of color. The fear of backlash --"how dare you" -- the relief when someone says "you got it right." It's fraught. I've been there, necessary to the story, and you feel such a responsibility. And that's with fiction! What it would be to feel that responsibility with non fiction! OY!!

A.S. King said...

This is such a perfect post. It asks all the right questions. And I sure love your answer.

Unknown said...

I would be DEEPLY skeptical of any purported non-fiction which contains composite characters. Reasons? 1) the hazard that the composite was "designed" to conform to the writer's POV or agenda, about which I would rather judge for myself but precluded from doing so unless the character was "reported" rather than created: 2) assuming that when creating the composite, the writer attempts to exercise rigorous integrity, i.e., create a true composite, it still precludes me from weighing the composite's characteristics consistent with my own value system; 3) as you said, Beth, the distancing factor. "Everyman" is suitable for fiction, but in real life, there is no such thing, so I could never buy into it. Thx. for this thoughtful and informative post, and thx. for introducing me to "anonymization."

Colleen said...

As you know, in my memoir "Map of My Dead Pilots," I used composite characters! (ha!) There was a very calculated reason for this and MAP is a pretty different kind of memoir. It mostly is about only 4 years in my life and with the exception of very brief details about my father's death, there is no personal information from me about my life. (Which seems odd as a memoir, but the point was the job and not who I was or where I came from or my childhood, etc.)

I used composites because I wanted the pilots I worked with to serve as "every men" pilots - I did this for the same reason that I only referred to the bush commuter we worked for as "the Company," no specific name. I didn't want you to meet the guys, to know what they looked like, to know too much about them (although certainly I did give some identifying characteristics). What I wanted was for the AK pilots I wrote about to be almost blanks because that is all AK pilots are ever considered. They fly, they crash, they save lives, they die and no one ever knows more about them than their job: "Alaskan bush pilot." It's been that way for 90 years and I was playing a bit with that characterization in MAP.

Having said all that, the guys knew who they were and I lost a very old friend over that book. Even though only about 10 people in the world knew which character had a lot of him in it, he decided (after the fact) that was too much. I think he just didn't like to see who he was when he was younger. Regardless, he never forgave me. (Ironically, I removed the more negative characteristics he possessed, but I think he has conveniently forgotten those things ever happened.)

Anyway....I guess my point is just that it's complicated. On the academic side, I had a very difficult time getting permission from my university to conduct an anonymous survey for my thesis on pilot error accidents (before I wrote MAP). Anonymity was not permitted, especially as Alaskan academics have an old sordid history with Native groups and surveys/experiments. I was able to convince the university that pilots would not answer questions about their flight experience if they had to give their names (which is 100% true). We used experience to place the respondents in groups. (And whenever possible, I didn't even ask their names as I didn't want to know - there were 100 respondents.) A lot of hoops to jump through, but necessary for the research.

I thought the NY Mag article was fascinating and incredibly well written. Thanks for writing about this.

Beth Kephart said...

Colleen, you know how I loved MAPS. And you wrote that book in a different way. There was a Tim O'Brien quality to it, and "everyman" essence that was clear to the reader.

Your memoir felt like a we story, a chorus.

Of course we evaluate all of this case by case. But I will still hold to the "in general" notion that for most true stories, readers want as much truth as the story can hold.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

So many big questions ...

I think that in addition to the question of inhabiting, or imagining, circumstances in which we have never lived--which is the challenge of most writers--there is an added hurdle if we belong to a group that is privileged in relation to our subject's group. A sincere writer will never want to contribute to the marginalization of others ... but we don't always see our own privileges, our own assumptions and biases, and that is the danger. Good intentions and thorough research don't always protect us, or our subjects, from our own filters.

Does that mean that someone with privilege can never write about someone without it? Some would say yes, others no. I would hesitate to be as absolute as "never." But I do think that criticisms made by people from within a culture, about a work of art featuring their culture but produced by someone outside of it, deserve respect and attention.

As for composites, I think of them as being used mostly for minor characters or repetitive situations. Information gleaned over six hospital trips, or five dinner dates, or twelve phone calls, in real life might be streamlined to one or two such incidents in a book. Four different room-service waiters, who only bring the food, might become a single waiter. Like that.

In Goffman's case, it is clear that much of the anonymizing and note destruction had to do with shielding her subjects. Meghan Daum, in The Unspeakable, has a chapter about serving as an advocate for children caught in the web of social services; she acknowledges blurring the details of their actual lives for their own protection. Understandable. Although these approaches do ask the reader to trust the author that the most essential truths have been preserved, that whatever is altered is not critical to the heart of the story.

Beth Kephart said...

Jennifer — how right you are. And how articulate. These are important points—about filters, about perspectives and points of view.

Let's just face the fact that we aren't ever going to get it precisely "right."

Let's also acknowledge (as you do) that we have to do everything we can to try.

And let's also respect those who suggest that maybe we've entered sacred territory.

Let's have the conversation.

But let's have it with respect.

As for the extravagant disguises in memoir: I have read far too many memoirs in which the only person in the book who does not have a false identity is the narrator. I feel, in those cases, that I am at sea with a small flotation device. Colleen's book is not a me me me me memoir—at all. It is an appreciation for a pilot culture in Alaska. She is concerned, most, with the culture there. Not with what specific people said or did to her. (There is some of that, but not primarily.)

So every book must be evaluated on its own terms.

But to sit down and say, I plan to write a memoir, and then to decide, in the same moment, to disguise 80% of the truth does not help us toward authenticity.

I read the Daum. I get that. But Daum did not disguise her husband (with whom the real issue lay) or her friends. The children had to be protected. She handled that well.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

This is a great conversation. I wish we were all having a seminar together!

(I read Colleen's MAP and felt no lack--I think what I expect from that book is to know that the *events* are true. That the pressures on the pilots were real. That the strange-cargo stories actually happened. That someone did make an unprecedented flight in extremely cold weather and didn't make a big deal of it, dangerous as it was. In those stories, it didn't matter if the pilot's name was Ed or Joe. It didn't matter if he was blond or bald, tall or short.)

I have taken nonfiction classes in which the teachers freely advocated for the anonymous, the altered, the composite. You are not writing a transcript, was their attitude. You have creative license, they say. I think that view was more common years ago. I never felt comfortable with it myself--maybe because I come from a science background, where you are always supposed to distinguish what you know, what you measured, and what you observed, from what you only assumed or deduced, and you must do it in a way that leaves no doubt in the reader's mind which is which.

And I wonder: are we only clarifying the line between fiction and nonfiction nowadays, or is it actually moving? I think both.

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