When Consent Meets Censorship


Writers are said to be sponges: we absorb things and regurgitate them in our stories, whether they happened to us or not; be it our strange neighbors, that one teacher we didn’t like or who did not like us, our cousin with the wild (possibly made up) stories, the cat who ignited our love of animals, a friend’s mother who cheated on their father etc. It is our yearning to tell stories that are personal, raw, and relatable that attract us to the craft in the first place; whether this is unconscious or not, it’s what ends up peppering our imagination, becomes the backbone to the tales we tell.

Even when it’s (supposedly) not, writing, I believe, is about transparency. We analyze our own lives through our writing, and we are either subtle and coy about it (blending trauma under metaphors about dystopian societies, or anxieties about parenthood in magical realism), or else totally candid, in searing autobiographies and memoirs.

But when we do this to the people who have impacted us in some way (friends, families, enemies, long-lost acquaintances, chance encounters…), it is a wholly different affair. While we writers have chosen this path (one could argue that this path chose us), the people in our lives have not, and do not necessarily want to be broken open like this. When does consideration for the stories and personal lives of others become censorship of our writing? In other words, how do we find the balance between telling authentic stories and respecting the dignity of others — should we even be considering this? After all, many storytellers feel like they owe consideration to their art first and foremost, which is understandable, but the issue is too nuanced for a simple answer.

While we writers have chosen this path (one could argue that this path chose us), the people in our lives have not, and do not necessarily want to be broken open like this.

I began to think about this more seriously a few years ago, after I seeing the film The Girl in the Book, in which the protagonist is haunted by a novel which has become a bestseller. The author of said novel is a friend of her father, who seduced her a few years previously, when she was vulnerable and lonely. The book he’s written is an awful and explicit tale of their “romance”, and the insecurities she confided in him. Although her name has been changed and despite how well-written and beautiful the novel is, the main character feels exposed, her privacy having been violated. 

Many people are honored to be featured in songs, books and films, but understandably, others are not. In refraining from mentioning them even indirectly, out of respect for their identity however, censorship seems the inevitable outcome, which hurts the authenticity of the stories we write. In many ways, this subject is related to Madame Bovary; the titular character is inspired by a real woman who was disgraced in the newspapers for her scandalous affairs. Emma Bovary has taken a life of her own, and she has been as lambasted as she’s been praised for her complexity. She is complicated and ultimately hard to love, but I often wonder about the woman she was inspired by. Perhaps that woman was gentle, perhaps she felt truly trapped, perhaps her extramarital affairs could tempered by attenuating circumstances, but her real story will forever be overshadowed by the fictionalized version of her. In many ways, Flaubert may have done her a great wrong, while having written one of the best novels in literature. One could argue that it was worth it, and that all great stories are founded on the backs of real people. Yet I cannot help but wonder if it justifies the potential embarrassment it might cause the people in our lives, and I will keep wondering this as long I am writing. 

A friend of mine often says that she could never trust journalists, musicians and/or writers with her secrets because they eventually appear in their respective crafts. I cannot guarantee much, but she is probably right not to.