Blog # 60
This month's guest is Richard Hoffman, one of our finest, most versatile writers of poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction.
Richard’s craft essay “I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t, is adapted from a panel talk he gave at the recent AWP conference in DC.
This is an issue, we all know, that both aspiring and practicing memoirists, as well as teachers of memoir, continually wrestle with. Each panelist from “I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t, talked about how, when, and why they decided to use real and/or made-up names in their memoirs. Together, they offered a variety of ethical and writerly reasons and approaches to this issue. In the upcoming months then, I'll post a few more essays adapted from that panel.
Below is Richard Hoffman's thoughtful, honest, take.
Richard Hoffman,“I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t
In 1995 I published a book I had been working on for nearly two decades, the memoir Half the House. After much consideration, which I will describe in a moment, I chose to begin that book not with the usual disclaimer one finds in the front of novels, but with what might be called a reclaimer, since it was my purpose to reclaim all manner of lost things, among them the right to be the protagonist of my own story. It spells out the kind of not-fiction it is and sets forth the rules I followed.
“This is not a work of fiction. It contains no composite characters, no invented scenes. I have, in most instances, altered the names of persons outside my family. In one instance, on principle, I have not.”
Now I believe that in a memoir, memory is largely imagination in service to the facts as far as they can be known, so what does it mean to place a real toad in an imaginary garden, to borrow an arresting emblem from Marianne Moore?
Well — and some of you know this — the man I named in that book, a youth sports coach named Tom Feifel, was a serial child rapist who, largely because of the book, was brought to trial, convicted, and some months later, murdered in prison. It was determined that he had had over 400 victims during his long career in my sports-obsessed hometown.
But here’s the thing: I had never intended to use his real name, not during all the years of working on that book. I was not writing for some cathartic or vengeful purpose; in fact, the book, set in an industrial town in Pennsylvania, is about my boyhood in a Catholic blue-collar family with two of my brothers afflicted with a deadly form of Muscular Dystrophy; the account of the sexual assault takes up five pages of the book.
Five pages. It wasn’t important in some sensational way, it was important because it is a secret feature of that kind of boyhood. But as the book moved toward publication, certain ethical questions arose, and they weren’t the ones you might expect.
Right before I turned in the book, I reinserted the coach’s real name; again, with no incendiary motive, but with a growing sense from my few readers, my agent, my editor, of how explosive such an accusation might be. And it occurred to me that there were many, many men volunteering their time with kids, mentoring boys growing up in a pretty brutal place, and I didn’t want to start a witch-hunt, didn’t want to cast a pall of suspicion on the lot of them. Besides, he was simply undeserving of protection, and I determined that I did not owe him silence, did not have to keep his secret. I also came to understand that it was not him I was protecting: I wanted to hide in the realm of art, I wanted to say it, but say it in a way that would not leak out of the book and into the real world, into my real life. I was scared. Every time I thought about it unmediated by some kind of literary aura, I felt 10 years old again. And so, “the reclaimer.”
Ah, but then came the lawyers, the publisher’s lawyers. About a month before publication, I received a letter from Harcourt Brace’s attorneys with a list of names of certain persons mentioned in the memoir from whom I would have to get releases. They included my father, my brother Joe, my aunt — and coach Feifel.
I left for Pennsylvania with the releases in hand. I made them up—three options and a place for a signature:
o “I have read the manuscript of Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House, and I have no objection to its publication.”
o “I have been given the opportunity to read the manuscript of Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House, and I have declined. Nevertheless, I have no objection to its publication.”
o “I do not consent to the use of my name or other identifying characteristics in Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House.”
My brother had read an earlier draft of the manuscript and was helpful in setting me straight about a few dates and other details I’d gotten wrong. He checked the first box and signed. My father and my aunt didn’t want to read it and checked the second box. Both of them read the book after its publication. I was not going to be able to ask the coach, Tom Feifel, to sign such a document, no way, no how, even if he was alive. I knew, however, that he had been arrested twice before for molesting young boys, so I went to the local newspaper looking for records, hoping that would satisfy the publisher’s lawyers. There was a file with his name on it, but whatever had been in there had been removed. I resigned myself to looking for records at the public library the next day, and if I failed, the courthouse.
When I got back to the house, my father handed me a piece of paper with a couple of phone numbers on it. Both were men he knew who had coached with Feifel. “Why don’t you try calling these guys and see what they know?”
The first call was all I needed. I was able to get the year of one of Feifel’s prior arrests, along with the name of the arresting officer. I called him as well. Although retired, he remembered the case well. Both men were angry that Feifel had been sentenced to probation and were willing to put their recollections in writing. The retired officer agreed to send me a copy of the police report.
It was enough to allow the book to go forward, as long as I was willing to amend the contract to indemnify Harcourt Brace, which I did.
And so, this question is not a simple one — it turns out that there are multiple stakeholders if you will; there’s of course you the author, there’s the person you have drawn as a character, that person’s family and loved ones, the real-world community you are both a part of, the record, the public record, and others whom you don’t yet know, like the 400 boys and men who came forward after the arrest, like the literally thousands of men on 5 continents I have spoken to since the book’s publication who told me the book helped heal them of shame and encouraged them to speak up.
So I am suggesting to you NOT that I was so big and brave, I’m suggesting that what happened contains a lesson and that lesson is this: most of our concern about naming names, a concern which we couch in ethical terms, is rationalization and the result of a shaming injunction, a sneering gaslighting, that serves to protect people who do not deserve protection: why make hoods for nightriders? Why pixelate the faces of hatred? Naming atrocities and the people who commit them is the beginning of justice.
In the second memoir (and there will soon be another to complete the trilogy) Love & Fury, I explored the story of my current family, including my wife and grown children and then infant grandson, all of whom are represented undisguised.
This offered a different set of issues, and I chose to adhere to a hard line between writing and publishing. In fact, if there’s any advice I have to give, it is to keep those two processes as separate as possible. I wrote with little concern for how my wife, and my kids, would react; at least I tried to. What made that possible was the deal I had struck with all of them, that when I was finished — not while I was writing — I would allow them to read and respond and that I would take their concerns to heart. I did not promise them veto power.
These are people I love and who love me, so I felt on pretty solid ground, even writing about dark moments, failures, mistakes. At the eleventh hour, my family became my collaborators, arguing their differing versions of events, wondering if I might just shift the emphasis a bit in one of the scenes, if I could just choose a different adjective here and perhaps include a mitigating circumstance they felt I’d omitted. It was not easy conversation, but it was built on trust, and in fact the process strengthened that trust. By the time the book was published the conversation was all about who would play who in the movie!
So, it’s a question of tact relative to your own continuing friendships, alliances, and family relationships, tact and trust, and in fact this respect for how the people in the story see themselves, makes for a more emotionally truthful book. What’s more, most people, in my experience, object to things they construe as assaults on their vanity, things that make them wince or smart, and not, surprisingly, to their failures so long as those failures are part of a story that honors their struggle.
To portray someone trying to do right, to stay afloat, to ride out the storm, grants that person dignity, agency, character. People want their struggles to be seen. People want to be visible, and not only in studio portraits with a row of fake books and a flag in the background, they want to be visible and appreciated for their struggle. They want to be respected: look at that word’s entymology! They want to be seen, given a second look, appreciated.
RICHARD HOFFMAN is author, most recently, of the memoir Love & Fury, which was a finalist for the New England Book Award from the New England Independent Booksellers Association. He is also author of the celebrated Half the House: A Memoir, just reissued in a new 20th Anniversary Edition in 2015, with an introduction by Louise DeSalvo. His poetry collections are Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club; and Emblem. A fiction writer as well, his Interference & Other Stories was published in 2009. A past Chair of PEN New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
Blog # 60 “I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t by Richard Hoffman
Blog # 60