Writing about vulnerable people in memoir is tricky. There are no absolute guidelines. Compassionate writing boils down to the writer’s personal moral and ethical codes. For me, these are based on my Catholic faith and the Australian Code of professional conduct for nurses. Moral and ethical codes differ for everyone.
People become vulnerable when others assume a position of power. Everyone is vulnerable at least some of the time. This means all relationships have elements of power and vulnerability. Having power means it is possible to inflict harm, suffering or damage. The more dependent one party is on the other, the greater their vulnerability. The act of writing itself may make a subject vulnerable.
A memoir is a story from one’s own life. Almost all of our stories involve other people. Because of this, we can’t write about ourselves without also writing about vulnerable people. Some of our subjects may be vulnerable people.
Disadvantaged people are always at risk of harm. They cannot access the benefits available to other people in the wider society. This means they are rendered voiceless. Writing about vulnerable people demands great care and compassion.
Many conditions render individuals powerless and vulnerable. For example,
- Infants and young children are defenceless.
- Frail old age can render people helpless.
- Physical, intellectual or emotional disabilities usually mean increased dependence.
- People who are financially reliant on others have less power than those who control the money.
- Gender can also be a factor – for example, women are more likely to be victims of familial violence than men.
- The poor, the oppressed and asylum seekers are always vulnerable.
The lovely Hebrew word ‘Anawim’ is used in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, to describe vulnerable people – the poor, the humble and the powerless.
Through depiction by writers, powerless people and their lives are in danger of falsification. They are unable to examine, respond to, or resist, misrepresentation. They cannot recognise themselves in the way they have been presented. This is an abusive situation which can be both painful and disorientating.
Writing about vulnerable people
Australian journalists have a code of ethics. But in the end, the editorial policy of their publisher determines what is published. Finding an ethical code for general writers is also a problem.
Ethical and moral decision-making are not always straightforward. Ethics are complex. They may differ across cultures and even from one individual to another. Often an ethical decision depends on the circumstances of a particular case.
A simple approach to writing ethically about others might be to start from the four main principles on which systems of duty ethics are based in our culture. These are
- respect for the autonomy of the other person and a recognition of his or her unconditional worth;
- the intention to do no harm;
- beneficience, or the intention to bring about good; and
- justice, which implies responsibility, agency, accountability and intentionality.
In other words, the first aim of moral writing about vulnerable people is, at the very least, to do no harm to those one writes about. The second is to bring about some of the benefits for individuals and groups that can result from story-telling. At the same time, the writer must minimise the costs to everyone involved.
Some life-writers accept the idea of harm that is so broad that any life writing that causes others to feel humiliation or annoyance is unethical. In my view, that is an inappropriately restrictive standard. As part of ethical decision-making, writers need to ask ourselves if the harm is trivial or serious. We also need to consider if such harm is justified in the context of what we are trying to achieve.
Most life-writers believe they have a responsibility to tell the truth about the world as they see it. There is a need for caution in relation to censorship by others, in case the truth is a casualty. Memoir writers also have a responsibility to be trustworthy story-tellers. To allow censorship is to damage trust.
Accepting censorship might also mean that memoirs about child abuse, domestic violence or harm caused by institutions and governments, for example, would not be written. Justice for victims overrides any discomfort or annoyance that may be experienced by perpetrators of abuse and harm.
To do no harm to those who are vulnerable forms the basis of most codes of ethics. This means writers must not deliberately hurt anyone through what they publish. Many writers, including me, subscribe to the idea that we must try also to do good with our writing.
If we edit our work with compassion, our writing about vulnerable people and everyone else will be ethical. I believe such writing will sing.