As 1962 drew to a close, The Beatles were finishing up what was to be their final residency in Hamburg. On the last of these nights, the club’s stage manager recorded the band in all its amphetamine and beer filled pre-fame glory via a single microphone to a domestic Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder. John Lennon allegedly gave permission for the recording to take place in exchange for a night of free beer for the band.
The Beatles forgot about the tape until news emerged that a ragged, lo-fi double album of their Hamburg days was about to be released. It was now 1977 and the band cried foul and took the record company to court. They claimed that the recording was illegal, that no beer deal had been struck, that the tape was, to quote guitarist George Harrison, ‘the crummiest recording ever made in our name’, and that the release would damage their reputation. They failed in this and a number of subsequent trials to prevent the record’s release. In 1998, The Beatles were finally granted ownership of the tapes and exclusive rights to their use. By that stage the raw and chaotic Live! At the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany; 1962 had been available to the public for 21 years.
Last week, we became aware of another contested cultural bootleg, this time created by Germaine Greer in 1976 in the form of a 30,000 word love letter to writer Martin Amis. The letter was among the papers Greer sold to the University of Melbourne in 2013. There are moves afoot to release the letter in full, and Greer now says the letter was never meant for publication and that she is concerned for the privacy of some of those named in the document.
Beyond the legalities of publication rights, what responsibility should be held for those mentioned in a document that was initially intended for Greer’s, and at a stretch, Amis’ eyes only? Should we take care of none, some or all of the players in this missive, and how are we to decide this? If a box of your old love letters from 40 years ago was to see the light of day, how could you make the important distinction between those who might be unhappy about being named and those who might be harmed if your letters became public?
Despite an ongoing and longstanding debate about the writer’s responsibility for any pain experienced by those people identified in both fictional and personal works, we haven’t come very far in the formulation of an ethics of memoir. Writers sit somewhere along a continuum from the macho posturing of Cólm Tóibín who asserts the author’s birthright to expose the lives of others, to those who obediently delete the unhappily named from their works after sending drafts off for approval. But if we are truly to address the question of harm in autobiographical writing, we need to do so head on, by making a genuine attempt to get clear about the difference between discomfort and harm and by eliminating the sloppiness of hoping that a limited release is any kind of prophylactic against either outcome.
First of all, any document released in any form in any context that is publicly available, even within the quiet confines of a library, is no protection to those who might be harmed by the exposure of its contents. Writers who hope their children, bosses, past lovers, abusers or spouses will be protected by a limited release are really offering those named in their works no protection at all. If a piece of writing is ethically sound, it should be sound in all arenas. In the case of Greer’s letter, the mantle of this responsibility was passed to the University of Melbourne at the point of sale, and they now have their own determinations to make about who can safely be named should the letter make it through to publication.
In order to make some kind of call about who can be recognised in a public work, writers first need to be able to identify the key passages in a text that expose the characters named, including of course the author, and to categorise the exposure as either intimate, where personal life details are publicly revealed, or critical, where that exposure may lead to significant personal criticism.
But neither fear of embarrassment nor criticism need stand alone as a reason to excise or de-identify players in a significant drama. Writers must consider the ethical balance between the need to speak and to tell one’s story, the possibility of pain and harm to others in the text, and the form and purpose of the piece of work itself. To do this of course we need to be working from some kind of coherent and accountable philosophical framework, and to use this framework as a grid that our characters pass through in order to determine their status in our work.
The aim here is to find a very different place from the narcissistic, fuck-you-all attitude from the author who sees themselves as sacrificing everyone at the alter of some kind of twisted ideal of personal authenticity, and the precious, pompous and silencing no-one-can-write-about-my-life position taken by some of the people who find themselves represented in others’ fiction and film and hold to the notion that there can be personal ownership of a story.
It should be self-evident that all biographical and autobiographical truths in any work are subjective, contextual and ‘owned’ by the author. But we struggle as a society to accept the idea that each of us has a different version of the same event. Each of us was born into a different family, even from our siblings, and points of view are all necessarily subjective. There is a cavernous distance between being truthful and telling the Truth. It’s important that we don’t dismiss these ideas as a post-modern extravagance, or see them as too difficult to engage with if we want to really front up to the ethical questions posed by memoir.
So as the discussions rage on about the publication of Greer’s letter, we are reminded as writers about the need to deal more thoughtfully with the question of the ethics of our memoirs. Ideally, if the University of Melbourne is to publish Greer’s letter, it will involve a collaborative process of editing that preserves the integrity and power of the work yet doesn’t harm the people named within it, including the author and the publisher.
When the characters in our dramas come forward with complaints about their inclusion or portrayal, we need to be able to answer their criticisms with more than a collapse into the soft arms of artistic license or the safe harbour of anonymity. We need to be able to say we gave it some real thought.
Dr Stephen Andrew is a writer, musician, lecturer and psychotherapist. His work has appeared in Psychotherapy in Australia, Rolling Stone, Rhythms and Juke. His forthcoming book is titled “Searching for an Autoethnographical Ethic”. He lives in Seddon with his partner and their two cats, Sigmund and Carl.
Zoë Krupka is a writer, psychotherapist and lecturer working in Melbourne. She is currently completing a PhD at LaTrobe University in relational ethics. She has written for The Age, The Washington Post, theconversation, newmatilda, news.com.au, Psychotherapy in Australia and Crikey. You can find her blog at zoekrupka.com and she tweets @zoekrupka.