Boundaries in the Age of Public Confession

Ephesus Ampitheater
Ephesus Ampitheater (Photo credit: The Brit_2)

I’ve been following the fallout from Liza Long’s controversial blog post “I am Adam Lanza’s mother: it’s time to talk about mental illness” (first posted on Boise State University’s The Blue Review blog 12-14-12, then re-posted on Ms. Long’s personal blog The Anarchist Soccer Mom, then re-posted on Huffington Post from whence it ‘went viral’ and landed Ms. Long interviews on NBC’s Today Show, ABC news and CNN).

In “I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” Ms. Long writes candidly about her struggles as a single mom with her 13-year-old son (one of four children) who (she claims) has angry, violent outbursts, and for which she recently had him involuntarily placed in an inpatient psychiatric facility. She says she changed her son’s name for the blog post, but she includes a photograph of him (looking perfectly angelic gazing at a butterfly perched on his hand). Many people have questioned the ethical and legal issues of her writing such things about her child in a public way. (For an interesting critique of Ms. Long’s post, see “Don’t compare your son to Adam Lanza” by Hanna Rosin, Slate, 12-17-12).

The urge to tell our stories (and those of our loved ones) must go back to the campfire stories our ancestors told while cooking Bison or whatever was for dinner. It seems locked within our DNA. But this is more than just telling true—or true-ish—stories; it is private confessional stories taken into the public realm Why do we do this?

Call it a different version of the ‘Oprah Effect.’ Like the tragedies in public amphitheaters of Ancient Greece, we live in an age of the spectacle of public confession, in TV talk and reality shows, internet chat rooms, blogs and other evolving media sources, and in books. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, or a combination (likely) for individuals, families, communities, and our society is a matter of debate. Do we confess to gain a sense of catharsis, or as an attention-getting device to say “look world: I exist! I may be weird, but I exist!”  Do we confess out of hope for fame and fortune? For the vicarious pleasure we get out of viewing train wrecks of people who are worse off than we are? (Schadenfreude is part of the human psyche). But why is this public confession a particularly American thing to do? Sure, people in other countries like Britain and Australia excel at this, but here in the U.S. we seem to take it to ever-greater extremes. Reflecting back on the similarities to the tragedies of Ancient Greece, is it part of our version of democracy?

These are questions I have asked myself throughout the process of writing narrative nonfiction (essays, a book, this blog), as a way of informing and forming the content of my writing. I began this blog several years ago with a post about my struggles helping my elderly father navigate the confusing healthcare system after his diagnosis with advanced congestive heart failure. I asked my father for his permission before I wrote/published about his illness, but I haven’t had him read and approve every blog post or published essay since then.

Writing true stories about anyone but oneself is fraught with ethical challenges. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Personal ‘true’ stories have a power not found in fiction. Like with all power, comes responsibility. As Lee Gutkind and the contributing writers of Keep it Real (WW Norton, 2008) state, “… writers have an ethical responsibility to consider the ways in which their stories may continue to affect their subject’s lives, even long after publication.”

2 thoughts on “Boundaries in the Age of Public Confession

    1. I agree there should be ‘handle with care’ warnings to people when they are writing about their ‘minor’ children, but there are many cases where it is done skillfully and respectfully. So I’d not want to say ‘never do this’ but rather ‘proceed with caution.’
      In this specific case (Liza Long’s), I do think that what she wrote about her son was at least in bad taste if not unethical. I find it disingenuous to have her state (after the post) that her son knew about and approved of her writing about him. He supposedly was ‘agreeing’ to it while locked up in an inpatient psychiatric facility. That is called coercion.


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