Literary docu-memoir, a new way of writing lives … ethical dangers

(This weeks blog is a continuation from last week, and is drawn from my essay on literary docu-memoir, which was first  published in the EJLW, October 2014)

As G. Thomas Couser (2004) warns, there are ethical dangers inherent in writing the lives of others. One such danger is misleading the reader, and another is misrepresentation of the subject. Couser gives John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks as one example of both these dangers.[1] Julia Watson and Sidonie Smith (2010) cite Black Elk Speaks as an example of the as-told-to-narrative—one process of collaborative life narrative (Smith and Watson 2010, pp. 264-65). Another process is the ghost-written narrative of a celebrity, and yet another is a “coproduced or collectively produced narrative in which individual speakers are not specified or in which one speaker is identified as the representative of a group” (Smith and Watson 2010, pp. 264-65). All three processes of collaborative life narrative run ethical dangers through being altered. Quite often they are subjected to being multiply mediated by “two or more parties” included in “the production of the published story” (Smith and Watson 2010, pp. 265).

I do not see the people who appear in my own work of literary as the vulnerable subjects of whom Couser speaks [2] or literary docu-memoir as a work of collaborative life narrative so defined by Smith and Watson. The subjects in my work are not diseased or disabled, and do not suffer some other anomalies, and they are not culturally, racially, or ethnically different from the society in which they live. Nor are they celebrities, or a tribe or a collective, and they do not rely on a translator, and are not represented by one chosen speaker. They each speak for themselves as they wish. They are ordinary people who live ordinary lives, private individuals who are undifferentiated in their society. They are marginalised only by dint of being persons with a history of having survived a particularly traumatic childhood, but most of these people do not know or know of each other. The only two people involved in the actual interview sessions were the researcher-interviewer-writer (me), and the participant. These interviews were conducted on an equal footing and with mutual respect. Moreover, all the participants were fully informed before the commencement of the project as to what the project involved. All these people demonstrated that they were intelligent adults well able to understand the project’s purpose and of making their own decisions, and gave their informed consent of their own free will to participating in the project.

Even so, I suppose that when writing lives it is virtually impossible to eliminate the ethical dangers inherent in the form altogether, but to try and minimise those risks, after I transcribed the interview-tapes word for word I forwarded these transcripts to the individual subjects for their approval before commencing the more creative work. Later, I awaited their approval with the draft chapters before proceeding further. Also, each of the subjects is informed that their interview tapes will remain their property, and been promised a copy of the final work if and when it is published. As well, in my book, I fully inform potential readers about my intentions, purposes, and methods of writing upfront in the Introduction to the work, and also in the text. Even so, Couser’s findings have ramifications for a literary docu-memoir on the Forgotten Australians. This is partly because this is a story which has not been previously told from inside the ranks of the Forgotten Australians in a literary work aimed at the general reader, and could seem to provide a very influential depiction of an overlooked people within the Australian society, and about which virtually nothing has been previously known.

In my project, five of the participants are Forgotten Australians, and two are not. Of these latter two, one, B–,  is the recently discovered sister of G–, a Forgotten Australian, but is not herself a Forgotten Australian. Both of these people were adopted out as babies. Neither knew of the other’s existence until late in middle life. As an adoptee, B–, the sister of G–,  had enjoyed a happy and fulfilling childhood.  I included B–‘s story in my book in an attempt to show what it feels like for her to be the newly discovered sibling of a Forgotten Australian. Even though these two stories involve a brother and sister who were adopted out as babies, the focus of my work is on care-leavers and not adoptees. The term Forgotten Australian does not apply to adoptees because, generally speaking, adoptees are not people who were “forgotten” as children, and they are not care-leavers as such other than in exceptional circumstances when that child may have been placed in a Children’s Home or orphanage sometime after adoption as happened with G–.

M– is the other subject in the original version of the work who is not a Forgotten Australian. Born and raised in England where he spent part of his childhood in an orphanage, M– is now a naturalised Australian. I included M–’s story because he is a care-leaver, and I felt that his story might serve to show that the effects on the lives of the children who were incarcerated in orphanages in both Australia and England were similar despite the geographical distances between the two countries.  Of course, these people’s stories also may have similarity with those of others in various parts of the world. The type of childhood that the Forgotten Australians and M– suffered may very well be, in one way, a universal story of abused childhood.  In some parts of the world Children’s Homes and orphanages still exist, and all over the world the abuse and usage of children still takes place on an everyday basis.


[1] Black Elk tells his story to Neihardt through an interpreter—his son, Ben—and in telling his story also tells the story of the Indian tribe to which he belongs. Couser names the work as an influential depiction of the Lakota culture but finds that Neihardt imposed his own agenda on the text. Neihardt was at pains to suppress any mention of Black Elk’s and his relatives’ conversion to Christianity and acculturation into European ways of life, as well as his own connections as a pastor of the church: see Couser, G. Thomas. Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing. Ithaca NY: Cornell U P. 2004, (pp. 42-43).

[2] See Couser (2004), on the vulnerability of people such as, for one example, Black Elk. For further discussion on vulnerability, specifically on subjects who are created vulnerable through suffering some physical or mental disability or other anomaly,  see: Couser, G. Thomas.  Signifying bodies: disability in contemporary life writing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2009.

Works cited

Black Elk. Black Elk Speaks: being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux as told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow): annotated by Raymond J. DeMaille;  with illustrations by Standing Bear.  Albany, NY: Excelsior Editions, State U P., 2008. Print.

Couser, G. Thomas. Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing. Ithaca NY: Cornell U P. 2004. Print.

Couser, G. Thomas.  Signifying bodies: disability in contemporary life writing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2009. Print.

Neihardt, John G.. Preface 1932. Black Elk Speaks: being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux as told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow): annotated by Raymond J De Maille; with illustrations by Standing Bear. Albany NY: Excelsior Editions, State U P., 2008. Print.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2nd ed., 2010. Print.

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