Novelist and clinical psychologist Lisa Gornick explores this question — and finds an answer she can live with:
Last year, I wrote an essay about a dark patch in the otherwise largely luminous life of my sixteen-year-old son. When the essay was finished, I showed it to him.
It was Sunday morning. My son put down the newspaper to read the pages I handed him, and I left him alone in the kitchen, busying myself with chores. I was prepared for him to say simply, “No.” Although I’d been discreet in the essay, with a focus on parenting issues rather than him, he was nonetheless a character. On these grounds alone, I imagined he might say “I don’t want you writing about me.” He might worry what his friends or teachers or coaches would think. On a deeper level, he might feel intruded upon: this was his life, his journey. So it was with surprise and relief that I heard his response when I came back into the kitchen.
“It’s fine, Mom.”
“Really? You’re not worried it could have some kind of negative impact on you?”
My son rolled his eyes. “Clear my dishes for me, okay? Luvya.”
A few hours later, we had a disagreement about something that now eludes me but was of the bread and butter variety of whether he should go to the movies with his ninety-nine hours of homework still ahead.
“What right do you have to tell me what to do?” my son snapped. “You’re going to exploit me with that essay.””
I froze. What? the injured parent in me wanted to retort. You told me it was fine. You told me you had no problems with it.
Yes, the observer in me said: here is the truth of what he feels.
Perhaps you are thinking that with these reflections about how I decided not to publish an essay about my son, I am doing precisely what I disavow: writing publicly about him here. But there is, I think, a qualitative difference. My son, in these paragraphs, is what Forster called a “flat” character, defined by one or two traits. Other than the blandest, most stereotypical facts, I have not revealed anything about him.
For many years, I worked as a psychotherapist as well as a writer. During that time, I faced a similar dilemma. Whereas it was clear that patient confidentiality had to be maintained, what about writing about anonymous “case material” in the service of training and theoretical development? Every clinician has to resolve this conflict in his or her own way; as with raising children, there are myriad wrong roads, but no one right road. The road that I chose was not to write about my patients. I feared that the very act of thinking about what transpired with my patients as “material” for something I might be writing would alter the interaction, my attention divided between observing with curiosity so as to better understand my patient and consciously or unconsciously intervening in ways that would advance the story I was trying to tell.
With the essay I showed my son, it became clear that assent and dissent were bundled together. How could he open up to me if he worried that what he told me would end up in print? How could I exhort my son to be careful about the footprints he leaves on Facebook and in texts and emails, then turn around and publish something that later might be taken out of context and used against him in the infinite cyberspace where nothing ever disappears? How could my son feel loved if I used his story — which I know through the privilege of being his parent — for my own purposes?
Sanctimonious as it sounds, we owe our children our sacred trust. We can tell sweet stories about our children when they are babes and young children, but when as adolescents they sail off into what Michael Chabon gorgeously calls “the red light and velvet darkness,” we need to allow them that journey without fear that we will intrude ourselves unnecessarily or force them to live forevermore with their private voyage documented by us. Equally important, our children need to believe that we will let them sail away — that central as they are to us, we don’t need them to be the subject of our work. We can find our own material.
Lisa Gornick is the author of a novel, A Private Sorcery (Algonquin), short stories in various literary quarterlies (including a Best American Short Stories distinguished story of the year), and numerous academic articles. She has a PhD in clinical psychology from Yale and is a graduate of the writing program at NYU, and is currently working on a collection of stories and a novel.