Tuesday, January 14, 2014

New frontiers in overshare

Jay Neugeboren cared for his mentally-ill adult brother for decades. This fact alone means that the default response to his essay about the topic is going to be that the author is a wonderful person, a wonderful brother, helping shed the stigma on mental illness. That's how it goes with such things - readers are so caught up with a story about a person being sensitive that they respond to the sensitivity that's been depicted, and not to the insensitivity inherent in sharing confidential information without someone else's consent. Why can't we separate these things out? We might congratulate Neugeboren for dealing with a difficult situation (albeit one we the general public shouldn't know he's dealing with), while also questioning the ethics of telling the story itself.

For what I'd one day like to be the last time, another person's medical history is that person's story far more than it's the story of any caregiver. That goes even for medical conditions in need of destigmatization. (Who's more stigmatized - the person with mental illness, or the one suffering indirectly?) There's no Very Important Story caveat.

Neugeboren's piece isn't so much about his brother as about the process of deciding to write on the topic, which he already did, publishing that book in 1997. His initial impulse, twelve years before writing it, had been correct:

"To publish the essay [a non-fiction piece he'd written earlier about his brother; not this essay in the Times], I quickly came to believe, would be to exploit the misery of his life in order to advance my life as a writer. I abandoned the project and decided to stick with fiction."

Correct! What changed?

"A dozen years later when I was talking with my literary agent about Robert, my agent asked if I’d ever considered writing a nonfiction book about my brother’s life."

Ah. Neugeboren now felt "it was time to tell the story," which surely has nothing to do with his having learned that this was a book that would sell.

Although this is not, strictly speaking, a case of parental overshare, it has many of the hallmarks of the genre. Neugeboren's brother depended on him. Neugeboren had access to incredibly private details of his sibling's life, beyond the usual. His brother wasn't so incapacitated as to not know what it means to be written about, but still ended up in the situation of a parental-oversharer's kid:

I hoped Robert would not be angry or upset and that he’d collaborate with me, but with or without his cooperation and approval, I was determined to find a way to tell the story of his life because I was beginning to understand that it was central to the story of my life.
I'm not even sure what to say about this. We're supposed to be happy that, after the fact, Robert approved? I mean, yes, that's lucky, but it doesn't change the initial violation. While a child can never give consent to being written about, a mentally-ill adult potentially can, but is also at risk of being written about regardless.

But here's where I get stuck: Neugeboren is a fiction writer. He's capable of writing fiction and getting it published, which is more than can be said for most composers of family overshare. Why was non-fiction so necessary, even without the consent of the very real person he was writing about? Am I a terrible person for assuming the reason is that confessional non-fiction sells? Or is that acceptable, so long as one views this in terms of raising awareness to the greatest number of people, and nothing so crude as selling books.


Moebius Stripper said...

This one hits close to home, for reasons that even pseudonymously, in a comment section of a small blog, I don't feel is my place to share. (Incidentally, I recently incorporated some of the pertinent life experiences into a fictional story in such a way that they're almost certainly unrecognizable to anyone who doesn't know me very well - in fact, I didn't even recognize the extent to which I was doing this until I was well into my work.)

And I'm going to agree with "confessional non-fiction sells", because otherwise, there's no reason for the author not to write the book, and then instruct that it be published only after his (and his brother's) death.

I do wonder about the extended family of these oversharers. For me, any praise I'd get for revealing intimate details about my relatives would be overridden by the guilt they'd make me feel in having revealed it.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"I do wonder about the extended family of these oversharers."

I think this comes down to ego, and - would any English word cover this? - chutzpah. What this author is saying is, his brother's story is more his than it is his brother's. That his feelings about whether his brother's medical history should be made public trump his brother's.

Trampling relatives in the name of ambition can, with the confessional-writing trend, easily pass as a good deed. And that makes these things more complicated. Not only do family-oversharers have an audience, given that this sort of writing is popular. They also get to hear from readers about what good people they (the authors) are. What generous, caring parents, siblings, etc. And of course, because they're the ones telling the story, they tend to come out looking not so bad. That, I think, enters into the appeal, beyond just book sales.

Anyway, from a literary perspective, the whole shock-your-bourgeois-family trend seems to have been replaced by a reveal-family-secrets-in-the-name-of-greater-good one.