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? 


Unknown said...

I would love to do an interview. However, my book is coming out in a few months, do you want to wait until then?

Doralynn Kennedy said...

Sure, that sounds great.

Lee Patterson said...

Doralynn, this is a very thoughtful (and provocative) blog post. It takes a lot of love, to withhold telling some details about your life (or others'), in order not to hurt other people. It's a very respectful and selfless attitude. Thanks for your insights!
~ Lee Patterson

Molly said...

Glad to inspire a blog post! I agree: I think we all want to be known to a degree, and that degree varies from person to person. I can't imagine wanting the attention and probing inquiry that people on reality TV undergo, so I'm not sure I'd hand over an autobiography either. Retaining a touch of mystery is a good thing too.

By the way, your Russian surveillance story could become a good romance--female American tailing a handsome Soviet, who knows she's watching him; but of course really he's about to defect, and/or the Cold War's about to end anyway... well, you fill in the details. :)

Doralynn Kennedy said...

Thank you Lee. You're a dear friend, and your opinions mean a lot to me. I appreciate you taking the time to read this and comment. I know you're busy. Doralynn

Doralynn Kennedy said...
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Doralynn Kennedy said...
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Doralynn Kennedy said...

Thanks Molly. I can't imagine wanting the attention and probing of reality TV either. I wonder how long it takes to recover from the humiliation? And get over the addiction that it seems to be.

That storyline would be a tricky one, wouldn't it? I think it would make me a little uncomfortable. Toward the end of my AIT, we were trained in all the ways we could be compromised, and that was one of the big ones ... so I'm not sure I could write that as a romance without too much discomfort.

Relationships like that are the stuff that treason and blackmail are made of. It would certainly make a good story, though, if told right. And it would definitely have built-in conflict. Thanks. I'll have to think about that one.

(Hopefully third time's a charm. I can't write anything that makes sense this late at night, and I've had to delete the last two.)

Maeve Frazier said...

Doralynn - This would make such a great story!! Isn't part of writing uncomfortable? You already have your outline. When I read through your posts and read the interesting life that you had/have, you have so much to offer in your stories.

P.S. I will be reading "Sleeping With Skeletons" next week. Once a year I go away with a group of women (8) in all. Weekend away w/o hubbys or children/grandchildren. Everyone brings a list of favorite books with them. I am looking forward to sharing yours and Molly's with them.

Doralynn Kennedy said...

Hi Maeve... writing does get uncomfortable at times. Thanks so much for the kind words. I'm happy to hear you're going to read SWS and share it with your friends! I hope you enjoy your 'escape'! I'd love to know which one of Molly's books you picked. Snoop that I am. My favorite is The Ghost Downstairs, but that's probably because it was the first one I read of hers. Thanks again. I'll give that plot some thought.

laughingwolf said...

i'd not mind making an ass of myself in an autobiography, i do so daily, anyway... i draw the line when it comes to hurting loved ones, though

Doralynn Kennedy said...

lol! I'm pretty good at that myself. That's the line for me too. Don't want to hurt anyone I love. Thanks for dropping by and the follow!

J.L. Campbell said...


Interesting post. I imagine that with your line of work an autobiography by you would have sensitive material.

An ordinary someone like me, not so much, but I think if I wrote an autobiography, it would be more as a way of compiling information for my son. Having lost my mother, I realize there was so much I didn't know about her life before me.

Doralynn Kennedy said...

Hi J.L., that's true. There's a whole part of my life I can't even talk about, and it drives me nuts! lol.

But I am an ordinary person. I just haven't always had ordinary jobs.

I was so glad that my grandmother (actually both of them) wrote down much of our family history. It was so important to me when she died. I have been very fortunate to be close to my mom and to know much of her life before me. For me, God and family are everything. That puts everything else into perspective.

thanks for your comments.