This has been fairly clear to me since I started writing narrative essays. If you're going to write about events that really did happen in your life, you're going to have to decide how much to reveal about the people involved -- but what if they have no desire to appear on the page? What options do you have? You can't simultaneously honor their requests (stated outright or implied) to remain unmentioned and still stay true to your account of how things were, if your reluctant subjects happen to play key roles in your story.
Of course you can change names -- theirs, your own, whatever you need to alter so that your work can't be traced back to them. And that is probably what I will do as I'm writing this narrative; I'll introduce a protective scrim that will blur us all just enough to keep us from being identified. At the same time, there is a part of me that knows that that choice is part of the story too and that it deserves mention somehow. It's a decision driven by fear, fear of ownership -- and the coordinating responsibility for the pain my total honesty would cause others.
I attended a conference a few years ago, where Richard Rodriguez (author of the memoir Hunger of Memory) was one of the speakers. In his remarks, he offered an interesting perspective on this dilemma:
It is a writer’s business to betray the family, to betray the intimate circle. And I learned at 32 when I first wrote my book, what little girls know when they are 7 and 8 years old and they keep a diary -- boys never keep diaries, little girls keep diaries -- and they write because there are things too personal you can only say them to a stranger: Dear Diary. Today I fell, today I knew, today I met.
These words don't give permission, per se, but they do describe a certain futility in trying to stifle the need to write down those things too personal to say to the people closest to you. Indeed, Rodriguez seems to say that the very nature of those things compels the betrayal.
If only that knowledge could make it hurt less, for the betrayer and the betrayed.
Some more recommended reading, if this topic interests you: Ruth Behar's "Writing in My Father's Name: A Diary of Translated Woman's First Year," in the anthology Women Writing Culture. Any suggestions you might have for me are very welcome too.
Photo by Newly Graduated Sis