Photo by marcos mayer / Unsplash

What happens when a friend reveals too much about us in print? I learned the hard way

The rebuke was swift and vengeful. I got the email a few minutes after I'd hit "publish" on a story for Medium a few years ago, without having carefully edited the story for impact.  I'd mentioned an online friend who was a bit of a hard drinker (by their own lively and colorful admission) but had done so in the context of a larger condemnation of alcohol in general.

I deserved what I got. I hadn't been careful and the outcome was unkind.

I've had to think long and hard about my motives since, and wonder whether I was expressing an unspoken anger at what I may have felt was deeply irresponsible behavior. It probably was, but I'm not the morals police, no matter how tempting it is to think we should be. We have plenty of same in America already in the form of deeply amoral people doing precisely that. Look no further than churches to start.

The question about my anger deserves to be asked, for I'd caused harm. Learning how to be both a friend and a storyteller has been bumpy, and it's cost me along the way. As a writer, I'm hardly alone, for the great truths which surround our intimate lives are often the sources of a writer's best tales. Finding a way to share those stories without harming people we love is a tough line to walk.

Back then I wasn't new to writing but I was new to online writing, which felt in some ways like the Wild West.

As a result I learned a few key things. The people in the lives of a writer deserve some protection from public scrutiny, as do many of us but not all, as you can imagine. One close friend decided to write honestly about childhood incest. Her family flat deserted her, but then they already had, including insisting that she tolerate close quarters with her offender. At some point, writing truth to set yourself free is more important than upholding toxic secrets.

In my case, I can't argue such extenuating circumstances in the case of the Medium article.

The few poor brave souls whose permission I do have to tell their stories sometimes find themselves either irritated or embarrassed when the stories land in print. That said, they know that anything will be changed immediately if I'm asked. They rarely do. This is because those are the very folks who are responsible enough to realize that first, they gave me permission, and second, it's true anyway.

Changing something in the story doesn't change its truths, and the courage they have to deal with that is admirable.

And a great teacher, I might add, when I am tempted to change a factoid or two in my own stories to make myself sound more admirable.

A truthful story is still truth. It's not the same when I've been interviewed for an article and someone ham-hands the facts, or changes them, or worse. Perhaps that's why I am such a stickler for accuracy, as it's insulting when other writers are loose with your truth.

"Loose with your truth" still applies, perhaps more so now than ever, with people going public online with just about anything and everything, driven by every kind of moral or amoral intention. That's where we fall flat on our faces.

Two months ago I was listening to a very famous author being interviewed about the sources of her material. She too had drawn from family, which had caused a fair amount of upheaval. Most of it pretty negative. She realized early on, as did I, that while truth is its own reward for the reader, having the proverbial sheets ripped off your private life by a family member or friend isn't just jarring.

Sometimes it's horrifying to realize that what you thought was a protected family secret is now at the heart of a best seller or widely-viewed article. There's no putting that genie back in the bottle. This is particularly true of kids, for whom secrets and the need for a safe space carry a whole different kind of meaning.

That author learned to handle such material with far more caution, which helped soothe the ruffled feathers. Still, her husband and children know that at some level, they are the inspiration for her characters, their problems echoed in her books. I am sure they are wary, with reason.

I only have to ask how I would feel if someone kicked over the carefully-constructed picture of my life and outed my less-than-savory antics, and there's your answer.  I might be more honest than most but that doesn't change the equation.

We don't ask this hard question enough when we are hell-bent on outing someone's lack of decorum or peccadilloes. Not when it's in the service of likes or eyeballs, at least.

Perhaps it's a fact of modern life that the once-very private personal journal is now the public whipping boy for so many. Libel and slander laws help but not enough; everyone has a beef and it seems that getting even by getting it out online is the best revenge.

Intimacy granted us through people who allow us windows into their lives is a gift. Today's exceedingly public online world -despite what Mark Zuckerburg once said about privacy- drives more of us to hide behind some kind of veneer. We're already embarrassed about not being all that and a bag of chips. It's not fair that someone prove it to the rest of the world.

Yet more and more people, appointing themselves amateur hack journalists, have decided that anyone's trash can is theirs to dig through so that they can show the world a used tampon. It's no wonder that several of my closest friends have no online presence at all, and are, not surprisingly, among the happiest people I know.

I've made deals with those closest to me about what I use and how I use it. That seems to work. Still, it's a fine line. I often use material from Dear Reader, but I try to do so in a way which celebrates their existence and contribution rather than as so many try to do, as retribution for the life they feel they were owed but don't have.

There's a lot we don't have. One thing we don't have is permission to tell another person's story without checking first. While that's a lost hope for too many, at least in my corner of the world, your secrets are safe with me.

If I tell them, that means you gave me permission first. Even so, you can always ask me to change things, and I promise I will.

The photo tells the story of children playing soccer and having a controversial situation ..... the kids went back and told the referee
Photo by Nguyễn Phúc / Unsplash

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