For some time I’ve wanted to interview author, journalist, and essayist Anne Roiphe for this column. I mean, who better to ask about the ramifications of writing about family than someone who has suffered them? And from both angles—writing about relatives, and being written about by them.
Roiphe, 80, is the elder of a family of writers. In fact this conversation completes a triptych, which includes prior conversations I’ve had with two other family members. The first was Emily Carter—Roiphe’s eldest daughter (the cultural critic Katie Roiphe is another of her daughters) and the author of the autobiographical story collection Glory Goes and Gets Some, featuring a character very much like her mother. The second was with Marco Roth, Roiphe’s nephew, one of the founders of N+1 and author of The Scientists: A Family Romance. He wrote that memoir in part as a response to Roiphe’s suggestion in her memoir, 1185 Park Avenue, that Roth’s father (Roiphe’s brother) might have contracted AIDs not from an accident in the blood lab where he worked as a hematologist, but “in the more usual way.”
Upsetting people close to you is an obvious consequence of writing from your life. It’s one Roiphe began dealing with at the beginning of her career, in 1967, with the release of her now out-of-print first novel, Digging Out, based on real family conflicts. Her aunt and uncle were so upset by the book, they stopped talking to her. And her father disinherited her.
Roiphe has since written many more books: novels, including The Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind, released just last May, plus non-fiction, and several memoirs. Despite the fallout early on in her career, she’s kept writing about family, both fictionally and not. But she says it’s not something she takes lightly, and she understands people’s unhappiness with being written about.
I spoke with Roiphe by phone about respecting writers’ freedom to express the truth of their experiences, while also respecting their subjects’ prerogative to shun and even punish them for it.
The Rumpus: One of my biggest fears is of being disowned for writing about my family, or for writing things about myself that might upset my family. Initially you were disowned for writing about your family in your first novel, Digging Out. So I thought we could have an interesting conversation about that.
Anne Roiphe: Sure. You know, I’m many years away from that first novel, Digging Out, and actually it was really my aunt and uncle who didn’t want to speak to me, and they’re long gone from this world. And all my cousins do speak to me. But, yes, I know what you’re talking about, that this is a hard choice. Many writers do write about their families and their immediate loved ones and love experiences, either as children or as adults. And very often people get offended by it. This is true of Hemingway, it’s true of Fitzgerald, it’s true wherever you look in modern literature. So I don’t really think it comes as a shock to every writer if somebody in their family is mad at them. Yes, it’s very upsetting. But it’s inherent in the process of trying to make sense of one’s life, which is what I think is perhaps at the bottom of writing at all. I think our knowledge of ourselves would be impoverished if everybody stopped all at once. I would not recommend that to anyone. I do understand that this is a difficult question, ethically speaking. I don’t know what your religious background is, but mine is Jewish.
Rumpus: I was raised Jewish, too.
Roiphe: Alright, well you know we have the sin of lashon hara, which is the sin of bringing a blush to someone’s face [by speaking ill of them]. It’s supposed to be the worst thing you can possibly do. I agree; it’s terrible. I also think there is an overriding and other issue which has to do with how we can understand our lives and how we can make things better for other people, and for ourselves, and that sometimes does require speaking out. And that speaking out can be hurtful to people, and it can be a sin in the sense of “You have made someone else suffer.” I’ve just balanced it more, as I’ve gotten older. I balance it a little more carefully. I’m more aware of what I’m doing, and how it’s going to affect other people. But I also feel that the world needs writers. We need to know what’s really going on. And so I do it.
Rumpus: I’ve published some things that have upset people, most of all my father. I’ve written, for example, about having had abortions. I’ve written about learning to do love all wrong by witnessing some of the stuff that happened between my parents. On the one hand, I’ve hurt my father. On the other hand, I hear from women, in response to various things I’ve written, saying, “You captured what happened to me. You helped me make sense of my experience. Thank you for writing that.” So, I weigh that against the consequences. Some of what I’m writing about is taking a look at and pushing back against deeply ingrained patriarchy. And men in my life have a choice—they can say, “Okay, I’ve made some mistakes.” Or, “I’ve had some wrong assumptions.” Or, “I’ve got things to learn.” Or they can just be mortally wounded and sulk.
Roiphe: I mean, that’s true. On the other hand, we have to recognize that it is a very, very painful thing for people to be exposed to their social community, to be exposed in the world, as not what they would have wanted to be seen as. This is very painful and difficult for people. When people are angry with me, I fully understand. I mean, of course they’re angry, and I’m sorry, but this is what I had to do, and this is what I do. I’ve done most of my damage here. I would not do it casually, would not do it flippantly—by flippantly I mean just for the fun of it, when it wasn’t really necessary to me. But I think our material is our lives. That’s part of being a modern writer, and we have to use it. And hopefully, in time, most of the people stop being angry. My mother had died when I wrote my first book. I was twenty-seven, so it was right at the beginning of my writing life. I don’t know if she had lived, if I would have done it, certainly not quite like I did. But, you can’t rethink it. You wrote what you wrote, it meant something to other people, and that’s your good. Now, you carry with you the fact that your father is very angry and hurt. Though I would guarantee you that in five years he would be less angry and hurt.
Roiphe: People always think their world is coming to an end if they’re exposed, and of course it isn’t coming to an end; it goes right on exactly the way it always was. Eventually they figure that out.
Rumpus: I’m not only concerned with things I’ve already written, though. I’ve got more to say. About the same things. Which will probably prompt the same reactions.
Roiphe: It’s true, we tend to write about the same thing over and over again because this is our trauma. If I had been in World War II, I might have been writing about D-Day over and over again. I mean, this is my life. In a lot of it, although not all of it, there were certain kinds of traumas that even writing about them doesn’t get you over them. You just write about them again in a different way. I’ve told the same story twelve different ways, but I think that’s just part of what writers do. Once may not be enough.
Rumpus: In your memoir, 1185 Park Avenue, there’s a passage where you notice that your father has one of your books by his deathbed, and that he’d put yellow markers on many of the pages. You learn right after he dies that he has disinherited you and your brother. A few pages later you write, “A guilty writer cannot also be a wronged daughter.” So you seem resigned to taking your lumps along with your successes.
Roiphe: That’s right. My brother was furious that we were disinherited. I was not furious because certainly I had absolutely no right to be furious. You really can’t say things that upset someone in print and expect them to be nice and leave you their money. That’s just not reasonable. And, you know, if he were someone who was going to leave me his money, which was actually my mother’s money, the whole book would have been different. That wasn’t him. So, I had no complaints about that, and for you, I don’t really think you can have it every which way. “You should love me and love me and love me, but I should be able to say anything terrible that embarrasses you any way I want.” I mean, that does not make a lot of sense.
Rumpus: You’re right. In my situation, there’s a bit of money hanging in the balance, just a small bit of money, and I’m always broke, so to me, a small bit of money is a lot of money. But it’s like, you know what? That’s the price of my freedom of speech as a writer.
Roiphe: And you need your freedom. You need to be able to do what you want to do as a journalist, as a person who’s speaking for other women as you speak for yourself, and you make a choice. You have to be tough enough to take the consequences of that choice. You can’t say, “Oh, my God, how dare he be angry?” Sure he dares. You did something that really hurt him. Maybe you wish you didn’t have to hurt him to do this, but you did.
Rumpus: So you’re part of a family writes about one another. You’ve written about your parents and your brother. His son, your nephew, Marco Roth, wrote a memoir, The Scientists, partly in response to what you wrote about your brother. Your daughter, Emily Carter Roiphe, has a character in her story collection, Glory Goes And Get Some, that’s based on you.
Roiphe: I have two writer daughters, and a psychoanalyst daughter, and a lawyer daughter, and they wish we didn’t write, I’m sure, but we write. If we were a painting family, we would paint.
Rumpus: When Emily wrote Glory Goes And Gets Some, it was originally published as memoir, even though it really wasn’t. But there was a character that was modeled on you, and I read that you got upset about it, but I also know from Emily that it blew over.
Roiphe: Oh I didn’t get—I mean, my only complaint was that I felt that, as you can imagine if you have a child… Do you have children?
Rumpus: No, I don’t.
Roiphe: Well, you can imagine from her book that raising Emily was not one of the easier projects in my life, and she overlooked the vast efforts and complications and everything else in that. But she told her story and that’s fine. The reviewer from the New York Times conflated it in such a way that it kind of had a bad tone. But I must say, who remembers that but me? And I don’t even care. Have you had any bad reviews of anything you’ve written?
Rumpus: Oh, yeah.
Roiphe: Alright, how long do you stay upset? Forever?
Rumpus: No, not really.
Roiphe: Do you stay upset maybe a week? Probably not even a whole week.
Rumpus: At least until the next good one comes.
Roiphe: You have to have a certain kind of thickening of the hide. I mean, I’m not particularly worried about what other people think. If other people think that I was not the world’s most perfect mother, they are completely right. What are you going to do about that? What other people think of me is not really my major concern in life. What other people think of what I write is another matter. I would prefer you not to say, “That was the most terribly written piece I’ve ever read.” That would hurt me. But you don’t think I’m the best person in the world? Well, alright.
Rumpus: So, what I’ve been wondering was, what was it like for you to be on the other side of the table?
Roiphe: It’s… too complicated to explain. Particularly, how do I explain to you how pleased I am with Emily’s stories, how much pleasure they give me, because they’re written so well. She really is good.
Rumpus: She’s so good!
Roiphe: She is really good, and I get great pleasure and satisfaction from what she thinks and how she thinks and how she writes. And if, in fact, I have a moment of wishing that she really had something nicer to say about me, I would just live with it. I also understand there are questions of what you would say if I was the subject of the whole piece, which I was not. We would have a different story. One of the things about parents and children is that there is no way that you go through this without there being mutual anger. It just is, and that’s true if it’s a three-year-old wanting an extra ice cream or it’s an older child wanting something truly dangerous.
Rumpus: So, back to the other side of the table, where you’re the one doing the writing. Do you ever show your writing to the people you’ve written about before it gets published? Do you warn them? Do you ask them if they’re okay with it? Different writers I’ve interviewed for this column have had different answers to this question. Some show the manuscript before publication. Some don’t. Some ask permission. Where do you stand on that spectrum?
Roiphe: I certainly wouldn’t ask permission. You can’t ask permission. You’re not going to get it most of the time. You don’t ask if you don’t want to hear the answer. What is important here is not that you propitiate the people that you have written about, but that you don’t do this unless you really need to do this, and you really need to do it because you feel justified in what you’re doing. That I think is a prerequisite. This is important to you because you are telling the truth about something, as you see it. And whether it’s the absolute truth, who the hell knows, but certainly it’s your truth and you want to say it. And in the past nothing really would stop me from doing that. Now I don’t really feel the need to. I don’t really feel it quite the same way at this point in my life, because I’ve done it.