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Writing About (*gulp*) Family

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

It’s always tough to write about family. Well, not the writing part—the publishing part. Feelings can get hurt. Relationships can get damaged. Is it worth it?

This was the dilemma I wrestled with recently when Rev. Russell Heiland, senior minister at Unity of Fairfax, invited me to be a guest on his blog. The webmaster who extended the invitation suggested I write in response to this question: “What would you say to someone who asked if you have been saved?”

This is language not typically used in my denomination, so my first thought was that I had nothing to say on the topic. But at 4:00 the next morning I awoke with my answer. A painful memory from my father’s final days surfaced and demanded to be written. It was an afternoon in which my aunt and uncle, devout Pentecostals, came to visit my father and my aunt attempted, yet again, to “save” him. I wrote about my feelings of ambivalence and anger, as she well knew that her beliefs and his did not mesh. I wrote about feeling that she had disrespected his right to his own beliefs. I wrote about feeling raw and angry about this encounter for months afterward, long after my father had passed away.

My mother always said that anyone could "have trouble” with family if they wanted to, but she chose not to. It was an active choice for peace on her part, the determination to neither take offense nor give any. Peaceful, harmonious relationships were of paramount importance, and I internalized this message to my very marrow.

So there I was, writing—and intending to publish—something that could potentially give offense. I did my best to keep the focus on my own beliefs and experience. I did not aim to hurt anyone. But all the same, I can imagine how my aunt would feel if she were to read my words. When is it worth it to speak the truth even though it may hurt someone else?

In the end, I decided to submit and publish it. I did so because I knew others have gone through similar experiences and would perhaps feel less alone. I did so because I wanted to explore the fairness of imposing our belief system on others, even if we do so in order to “save” them. I did so to give voice to an experience that still hurts if I linger over it. I did so because I believe my father, always the staunchest supporter of my writing, would approve.

Here is the piece, which to date has probably been read by fewer than a dozen people, all of them congregants. So much worry for nothing! But if my aunt should ever read my words, I hope that it would provide an opening for a conversation and for a deeper understanding between us. And I would say, with all honesty, “I apologize if my words have hurt you.”

If this is an issue you wrestle with, I recommend having a look at Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family as a good resource for reflection. A fellow AWA facilitator also alerted me to a class coming up in June at Politics and Prose in DC, The Naked Truth: Writing a Memoir That Matters, which could be useful in exploring this issue.

How do you grapple with writing about family or other difficult topics?

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