Are Memoirs Exploitative?

I’ve heard it said that memoirs can be exploitative. Someone is exploiting their father’s alcoholism, their mother’s mental illness, their friend’s cancer, their sister’s death.

And I suppose people can see it that way if they so choose. It is their prerogative.

And maybe, in some individuals’ minds the fact that in the past criminals have made financial gain on their stories has promoted this view. People are closely watching Casey Anthony right now to see if she will be able to exploit the death of her daughter for personal gain. It’s true. Some people do exploit the bad fortune of others. The dark side of human behavior continues to disappoint and distress me.

But I don’t see most memoirs as exploitative. Memoirs are a means by which authors can share their own personal journey for whatever reason. Oftentimes, I imagine, they hope that someone else can benefit from the sharing in some way. Here’s what the nay-sayers are missing: most memoir writers are not exploiting someone else, they are exposing their own pain. They are like a hermit crab without a shell, fully exposed to whatever reception their story receives.

I think memoir writers are courageous. I think Jeannette Walls’ story of her dysfunctional family and Ann Best’s story of her unfaithful, homosexual husband, took a lot of personal courage to write.

Since the beginnings of time people have wanted to share their stories. While earning my English degree several years ago, I took a class in which we studied some Holocaust literature. Holocaust stories just make me plain-out feel terrible. Horrendous treatment of people, horrible suffering, and not a thing in the world I can do about it. “What possible good can it do for me to read these stories?” I asked. “What can I do for the author who wrote the story?”

“You can read his story.” Was the answer. People want their story told.

Memoirs are a window into the human condition. Many times they are stories of human courage and resilience growing out of human frailty and suffering.

My own memoir, Dancing in Heaven, is a story of love, compassion, unwavering commitment, and the intrinsic value of human life in it’s most basic form. I know I open myself up to attack from or rejection by individuals who may want to read my story with a different agenda. It’s a risk all writers who speak their truth take.

I’m still going to tell my story. My sister Annie never worked, never got married, never had children. Her footprint on this earth was nearly invisible because, like the famous poem, she was carried the entire way.  Annie didn’t have very much to leave behind. But she did have her story. And I’m telling it.


27 thoughts on “Are Memoirs Exploitative?”

  1. I think that people who cannot recognize the power and importance of sharing a story, and leap to the idea that it is exploitation are the ones who would use it to exploit things. They are simply jealous that they didn’t get there first. If the goal becomes making money and fame first, then perhaps it is exploitation. But, if the goal is to share a story that reveals yourself because it is the story you urgently need to tell, then the naysayers have no leg to stand on. I look forward to reading your memoir! Write on!

  2. Thank you Christine, you’ve made me rethink a very high profile homicide case I was involved with. I wrote the story but have felt it was exploitive to try and sell it. I wrote it for my own healing and therapy purposes. When finished with my current project I will take another look.

  3. Memoirs (like Reality TV and the “News”) often are exploitive of our voyeuristic tendencies. 😀

    That said, I don’t see Dancing in Heaven in that light. Write on!

    1. I agree about the reality TV. The only thing I watch is Project Runway and that is because my daughter got me hooked on it. I usually feel bad for people on these shows. I guess what it boils down to is that I hope people reading my memoir won’t feel that way about me.

      In any case, I have to follow my own heart and inner guide.

    1. Thanks, Carl. I don’t know about inspiration. Judging by the women in my college classes a few years back, I think many simply think I am a has-been. 🙂

    1. I think you’re right. It depends on the reader mostly. I believe my motives are good. I can’t keep questioning myself because someone doesn’t see eye-to-eye with me.

  4. “Memoirs are a window into the human condition. Many times they are stories of human courage and resilience growing out of human frailty and suffering.” I would agree wholeheartedly with this statement, Christine. However, I have also (within my own family) seen so much difference in memory of childhood and shared experiences that I’ve come to terms that not everyone will necessary agree with or share my point of view or reasons for writing ….. therefore, they may find what I write to be exploitative. I’m so glad you’re telling your story, Christine!

    1. Well, I have recently learned this one the hard way. Blind-sided. Maybe my head’s been in the clouds. But just because someone else’s experiences don’t agree, does that mean I have no right to share my own? I don’t think so.

      This whole experience has been a powerful learning curve, in ways I never anticipated. But as my sister Carol said, “Maybe you got all the hardest lessons out of the way right here up front.” I sure hope she’s right.

  5. Everyone has a story. And you have the privilege of telling Annie’s story which is part of your own. There is nothing exploitive in that. It is a tribute to someone who did not have a voice of their own to adequately share with the world. I think it is wonderful gift to her memory to be honest. Good on ya, Christine!!! I know you will honor her and it is such a great gift to be a writer!!!

  6. Memoirs are exploitative? First thought: not if the intention is to inspire. I like to read about people who endured and survived. I like to know how they survived. The Glass Castle. Angela’s Ashes. Stunning memoirs. It’s how they’re written: without rancor, without bitterness. They’re filled with compassion. My daughter didn’t want to read The Glass Castle. She thought it sounded too sad. But when she finished the first chapter, she kept reading, and reading, and reading. It’s one of her favorite books.

    Holocaust literature. My daughter has a very difficult time with this. I told her she needs to read Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. Such human beauty in the midst of so much suffering.

    Yes! You must write Annie’s story. You must add it to the list!!


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