Friday, August 12, 2011

The Ethics of Autobiographies

Molly Ringle and I recently discussed the ethics of autobiographies, and I thought I'd blog about that. I think as people we want to "be known." I'm not sure anyone really wants to go through life and not be known intimately by at least one person. Some of us might guard our privacy as fiercely as a Doberman guarding a junkyard, but there are still people we open the locked gates for. We want to let people in. We want to be known. Even if we don't ever offer a complete tour.

There is a large market for biographies and autobiographies. Over the past year we've seen President George Bush's biography, and we've seen Snooki's. I don't think you can get any different as people or life stories. The only thing they had in common was a place on The New York Times Best Sellers list.

One issue with writing a biography or an autobiography is that we always drag other people into the mess. And I say mess because life is messy. If we're completely honest, we're going to hurt people. That's where the ethics come in. I wrote bits and pieces of my biography, but I have since destroyed it. It was impossible to write it without hurting other people -- people I love. Being known is less important to me than protecting them.

If you had publishers beating down your doors asking for your life story, would you give it to them? Would it be 100% honest, or would you withhold things that made you look bad or hurt others?

With that said, I admit that I still want to be known. I shared a story with Molly from my past. It will never make it into an autobiography, but it is going to make it into this blog. Just because, as I said, I want to be known. At least to a degree. And life is short.

A few months after I arrived in Europe, I was drawn into an incident that made international news. On March 23 of 1985, Major Arthur D. Nicholson became the last American casualty of the Cold War. He was shot by a Soviet soldier and was the only Military Liaison officer to die in the line of duty. This quickly escalated into an international incident, and Major Nicholson was promoted posthumously. The image at the top of this blog post is a photo of Major Nicholson's casket being placed on a U.S. aircraft at Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany. (A few years later, assassinated CIA Station Chief, William Buckley, who had been kidnapped by the Iranian backed Islamic Jihad, tortured and executed, came home through this same airport. He's known as the spy who never came out of the cold.)

As a result of the incident with Major Nicholson, I was assigned to a patrol at the Soviet Military Liaison Mission (SMLM). We had two cars. One was a stationary car and the other was a chase car. Our stationary car remained at the mission on a more-or-less permanent stake out, monitoring and logging all of the activity taking place at the mission. The comings and goings at the mission, and any observed activity, was documented. That was the job of our stationary car.

The chase car's job was to follow the Soviet officers whenever they left the mission and report on everything they did. It was pretty pointless really. They knew we followed them, and we were limited in what we could do. So whenever they didn't want us to follow, they would just "go beyond our boundaries" so to speak. The chase would break off at that point and we would return to SMLM.

So, back to my earlier question. If you had publishing houses knocking down your door begging for your autobiography, would you give it to them? And how important is it for you to be known?