Who Owns the Memories?

by J.D. Roth

Recently I’ve given a lot of thought to the responsibilities and obligations of a journalist. When I say journalist, I don’t mean a reporter; I mean a person who keeps a journal, or a weblog, or who writes a personal history.

Through this weblog, I share many of the important events in my life (and, some would say, many of the unimportant events in my life). To what degree am I obligated to edit what I write here? To what degree am I obligated to not edit what I write here? To what degree is this obligation to the truth different than the obligation to the truth when I create a scrapbook/album that contains my personal history?

These are tough questions.

I am generally an honest person. I see no sense in hiding the truth. However, I recognize that in some cases the truth a) may not be productive, b) may hurt somebody else, and/or c) may not be mine to share.

For example, I have a close friend who will likely change gender. While this is not a huge component of my life, it is a huge component this person’s life (obviously). When we spend time together, it becomes a rather large issue, for good or ill, between us. This is something that I’d normally be incline to share in this weblog, and certainly in my scrapbook/personal history. Is it something I can share, though? Is it something I should share? Tough questions.

In this case, I’ve opted not to discuss the subject in the weblog. However, I’ve asked (and been granted) permission from this person to incorporate this particular aspect of our relationship into my personal history. I have a greater degree of control over who accesses my personal history, as it is a phsical object, a scrapbook, that I alone grant permission to view. My weblog is open for the entire world to see (though I realize it’s only friends and family that actually read it).

Even the personal history raises questions of this nature. Where should the line be drawn regarding what I put in my scrapbook? I have another friend that is gay and semi-out. However, he’s not completely out. How much of this should I put in my personal history? It’s always there when I’m with him, it’s a huge component of who he is. It seems senseless to skirt the issue when I’m documenting my life. Yet, is it really my decision?

I have very strong feelings regarding my parents, both positive and negative. Whether I place my positive feelings in my scrapbook is not an issue. Nobody minds reading positive things about themselves. But what about my negative feelings? My father is dead, so it’s less of an issue. I don’t mind putting down the things that bugged me, the things that made our relationship difficult. But my mother is alive, and likely to be hurt by some of the things that I would say. Do I include them? Do I censor myself? Is it fair for me to write only the positive things about my mother and not mention the less flattering things (which are nevertheless a portion of her character, and a portion of my relationship with her)?

Similarly, I have a letter from a friend in which she confesses things that she might consider secret. The letter is very much meant to be communication between me and this friend. However, it is a huge component of my personal history. How can I edit it from my scrapbook? Yet, how do I handle its presence? Do I black out the most provocative lines, so that when others read the history they are left in the dark? Blacking out these lines makes the letter mundane, unworthy of inclusion in my scrapbook. Allowing the lines to remain raises issues regarding secrecy and trust and friendship.

Who owns the memories? How much honesty is too much?

Tony just said to me: “God, you’re wierd.” Like I haven’t heard that one before.

Updated: 11 January 2002

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
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