It started as a discussion about Balloon Boy and reality television and the corruptive effects of the pursuit of fame and whether children should ever be compelled to live their lives as performances, the better to line the pockets of the entertainment industry, but it became a discussion about whether writers – memoirists, bloggers, whomever – who deal in family anecdote can be said to be guilty of the very sins that we deplore in the Gosselins or the Heenes or the Duggars or whatever slimy, child-eating producer we imagine lurks in the offices of TLC. In writing about our children, some of you asked, are we guilty of the same kind of exploitation (if, in fact, we can call televising the lives of children for profit ‘exploitation,’ which I think we can), the same kind of troubling opportunism that is displayed by the Gosselins and the Heenes and the parents of Toddlers wearing Tiaras?
I’ve wrestled with this issue before. I always come down on the side of no. Which is not to say that I don’t sometimes lay awake at night, interrogating myself about whether I am always perfectly conscientious in putting the best interests of my children before my impulse to tell stories, but it is a more or less clear-sighted ‘no.’ My children figure in the stories that I tell here, but they are not, for the most part, the main characters. I’m not writing their stories; I’m writing mine. And to the extent that they appear in that story – and, obviously, they do appear regularly – they appear as (as I said the other day) narrative constructions. Emilia and Jasper are not, like the Gosselin kids or the Toddlers in Tiaras, compelled to perform upon a literal or figurative stage. They live their lives, they do their thing, and I write stories about motherhood in which they sometimes appear – characters, sketches, reflections of their real selves.
But, but… can it not be said that living under my writerly gaze imposes a kind of (to mangle the term) performativity to their daily lives? They do not perform, but do I not take their movements and moments and weave performance out of these? Can story be understood as a form of performance, in which it is not just the storyteller who performs, but the story itself and the characters therein? In which case, does my role as a storyteller not put me in a relationship with my children whereby I view them, and the things that they do and say, through a performative lens? Do they not live under (and here I jumble Foucault and Lacan and others into a postmodern psychoanalytic jumble that I may not be able to disentangle) performative gaze? And if this is true, is it any better – any less harmful – than living under the lens of television cameras? Do I exploit my children for my own creative (and, yes, to some extent, material) gain?
I don’t know.
That’s not entirely true: I do know that, as a writer, I view my children – about whom I write – somewhat differently than I might otherwise. I view everything differently, inasmuch as everything is potential fodder for narrative. The question is whether my ‘writerly gaze’ has any kind of troubling effect. Is that view distorted? Does it distort? Do I – in engaging with and responding to and thinking about my children – or anyone/anything else, for that matter – amplify or ignore or construct certain details in the experience to better prepare it for narrative. When I watch my children play, am I watching them play, or am I observing them as subjects? Both? Am I more attached/detached in one condition than in the other? Can I be attached to the experience while retaining my critical, writerly eye? Does it matter?
I think that everyone imposes something of this gaze on their lives and the experiences and people in those lives, inasmuch as we are all conscious of what other people think. We are all, after all, bourgeois in the sense that Rousseau meant when he criticized modern, Western man for being constantly preoccupied with the judgments and opinions of others. We think about the stories that we will tell our friends and families about this incident or that, we are alert to what any given experience looks like to outside observers (my children are behaving badly in this restaurant; do people think I’m a bad mother?/my children are behaving so well; does anybody notice? doesn’t this reflect well on me?/I wonder if anyone has noticed how awesome my shoes are?) and in that way, arguably, we are constantly viewing our lives through a critical lens, imposing narratives, editing the details, worrying over the visuals. But is there something different going on for writers, if only because those narratives make it out of our heads and onto the page?
I don’t have a good answer to this question. I worry about it, sometimes. I worry about thinking too much about story when I watch my children strut their lives upon the figurative stage. I worry about how my own narrative impulses impose a certain form and structure and feel to my life and the lives of those around me, not least when I consider writing about the most difficult things, like depression and anxiety and grief – have I written myself and my loved ones into a story that is all about sadness? Am I turning my struggles into spectacle, and to what effect? (I turn off comments on some posts – some posts about my father, for example, some others about my children – when I want to remain clear with myself that I am writing for myself, and not for reactions, when I want there to be no mistake that I am not writing a given story for attention or positive reinforcement. Why, then, not close comments on all posts? Because the dialogue that emerges from commentary is important to me, as is – obviously – the community. Turning off comments sometimes is just a reminder to myself that I do not write – primarily – to generate vocal response; it keeps me honest about why I’m writing about certain things, i.e. because the story demands to be told, and not because the story will yield tons of comments.)
End of the day, I take the temperature of my integrity by appealing to my gut: why am I telling this story? Do I tell it out of love and/or joy and/or enthusiasm and/or fascination? Out of sincere concern or worry or heartfelt handwringing? Will my children read this someday – or my husband or mother or sister or friends read it now, or my father read it on whatever iHeaven app they make available in the great beyond – and recognize and appreciate the feeling behind it? Will their reactions be informed by (so far as possible) a clear awareness that they appear in my stories because I love them, because they are important to me, because I wanted to remember and understand every moment with them, because I wanted to share all of this, because I wanted to the world to know? Are the stories that feature my loved ones gentle in their treatment of them as characters? Are they – so far as is possible in narrative construction – true? If I can tell myself – honestly, as honestly as possible – that the answers to these questions is yes, then that is the best that I can do.
I hope that it is enough. Is it different enough from what goes on in the cruel and shallow money trench that is reality television? I think so. My writerly gaze, as it falls upon my children and my family and my friends, is a loving gaze. This cannot be said of the gaze of a television camera, and that difference, I think, is key. It is, in any case, enough to help me sleep at night. Mostly.
(What do you think? Do writers invariably exploit their subjects, and if so, are parent-bloggers guilty of exploiting their children? Are we all just Gosselins now?)
(Excellent discussion on this very subject can also be found chez Mom-101. And she doesn’t trip over her words as much as I do.)