Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Who owns your life story?

I've just had this meme flash up on my Facebook timeline and it got me thinking about something I have thought about a lot.

It's an interesting point, one for which I spent many MANY hours discussing as part of my Autobiography module on my MA Lit course; the idea that there is no absolute or fixed truth in personal history, just different perspectives, perceptions and responses to experiences, which all lead to a truth for each individual; which is still a truth even if we don't agree with it.

One of the reasons I have found this particular idea complex is because of my own personal history. At the age of thirteen my father suffered a full mental breakdown and the manifestation of serious bi-polar and personality disorders, which led to him being hospitalised on many occasions. Twenty years later he is better than he was, but he is still a very damaged and vulnerable man; and I guess on some level, all those who loved him are a little bit the same.

The meme suggests that those who might be badly portrayed should have behaved better, but so often other people's 'bad' or negative behaviour comes out of their own damage and suffering. Does this make them entirely responsible? I believe so but there are caveats. What about behaviours suffered due to addiction or abuse survival? What about behaviours conducted because of psychological illnesses? You see, it's a far more complicated issue than the meme suggests - as empowering as it is.

The experiences I lived, some of them truly horrific, at a formative time of my development, have of course influenced who I am both in my daily life and as an author. My own psychology clearly plays a part in my creative outputs.

For a long time, I didn't write anything 'public' about living with a parent with mental illness, not because I was ashamed, far from it, I believe we should all start talking about it more openly, but because although it was very much MY story, it was also the story that belonged to my father and my mother; as a result it has became the big elephant sitting on the writing desk.

How can something so significant to my own make-up be kept hidden? I've gone around in circles for years about my responsibility to share about my experiences in the hope that it might offer strength, inspiration, information and hope to other young people living with parents who don't quite fit the job description.

A few months back I wrote a short story for a Radio 4 completion titled 'Mad Dad', which was the first time I actually wrote autobiographically about this period in my life. Before submitting it, I spoke with my mother about her feelings on it. That conversation was too personal to share here, but the outcome was that I should go for it and submit it. It didn't get accepted, which I had prepared myself for as it was stated in the guidelines that they were looking for works that were lighter in their tone and I guess that mental health was a shade of darkness to far.

I have to say, that part of me is incredibly relieved. It would have been a big step to go so audibly public with such a personal story, and I'm not really sure how I would have felt hearing my world from the mouth of another. So 'Mad Dad' now sits in my trunk, waiting to be unpacked at another time in another place.

I know it isn't just me that has battled with this whole idea of life story ownership - there was a controversy over this idea of story and experience ownership in the novel, 'The Help', where those involved in the story believed that they had been exploited for financial gain; especially when the film rights were sold. Should everybody portrayed have received a cut of the money?

And on the other side of things, I guess it's interesting to think about how we might be represented if we were to be written into the autobiography of someone we knew - would we feel confident that they'd treat our behaviours, motivations and actions warmly?

Has anybody else struggled with this dilemma? I'd love to hear your stories and ideas.


  1. Interesting post Katie! With myself I have suffered(and still do) from mental health issues growing up I a happy, loving household I only ever knew happiness, but venturing into adulthood life took traumatic twists and turns for me and from 16 depression was all I knew. A few years ago I discovered my mum also suffers from the same as me and had done since I was a young child. How did I not notice? And do my children notice my illness? Are question I burn over a lot! My mother is a courageous women and kept it to herself for the longest time I look at my children and wonder when would be the right time to tell them. My family know my problem and in fact me, my mother and my grandfather all suffer with mental health. Could I put my story to paper? Yes its something I could and am doing. Awareness is everything to me my illness is family linked 5 out of 10 family members have suffered and the shocking thing is we all felt alone and different and that we couldn't tell each other. My mother kept it from her children untill she could see us going threw the same thing then she opened up. I'm not ashamed of my past and speak openly about it many terrible things happened to me and I my story was to be told I would like the think my family would be proud of the way I found light at the end of the tunnel and the way the story told how much I look up to my mum and dad for the happiness they gave me.

    1. That's exactly my thoughts Hazel - too many people hide mental health as if it is something shameful, which is ridiculous. It's sad - incredibly sad, but it isn't shameful. It's something that affects so many people and yet it seems still to have a stigma of indignity about it. I think that as long as these stories convey hope and light and love then they are a valuable expression of the human experience.

      Thank you for sharing this Hazel. I have so much admiration for the life you are treading. Love to you x

  2. Couldn't agree more on your stand point here. Writing about pain, in any form, is something of a healing process too Katie. I have them, and plan to work them out on paper at some point. (lol?) - - I'm happy for you that you could write it. And I hope some day it gets published if that's what you want to do with it. Loved this post. Love you too. <3 virtual hugs woman.

    1. Thanks, Jo. I think that for as long as writing has been writing, much of it has been a way of expressing feelings of hurt, injury and bewilderment. It's a way of processing and healing. It took many, many years to finally write the piece. It hurt. It was very much a Hemmingway moment - "writing is easy, all you have to do is cut a vein and bleed." Even now, I know it is the mere tip of an iceberg. x Hugs back