Dear Carolyn • I’ve got a question into which you might have particular insight. My sister writes weekly first-person features for a regionally well-known magazine.
Recently I’ve noticed that she sometimes makes our family sound like caricatures of ourselves, and not always in a positive way. Mom is a little pushy; Sis casts her as a boundary-challenged social oaf. Sis and I have a small spat; Sis paints it as the hugest deal ever.
I get that it’s a little like stage makeup — the mythological proportions make it easier to understand at the readers’ distance. And she’s always careful to protect our identities and to balance the bad with the good.
Still, sometimes this smarts, and I wonder whether she truly sees things as she describes them; should I be apologizing when I read that I’ve hurt her? She says I just shouldn’t ever take these things personally, but I’m not so sure.
Dear Philly • I gave this a lot of thought when I posted David Sedaris’ New Yorker piece on his sister’s death (http://nyr.kr/Is3I0X), and learned that Tiffany Sedaris wasn’t comfortable with his writing (http://bit.ly/1rI53FL) — and also saw this stunning obit (http://bit.ly/TatpZd), which itself isn’t pertinent here but is a must-read and so there you go.
The opinion I formed is that essays like your sister’s are best taken as entertainment, not reality. Best for your peace of mind; best for your sister, since it’s her art form; best for your family bond. I realize this has to involve a degree of denial, since it’s your family going under the blowtorch and being twisted into a form you don’t recognize. But, that’s my point — it’s not your family, it’s art made from the raw material of your family, which means it gets changed in the artistic process.
As for apologies, just ask: "I read X. Are you genuinely upset, or were you taking artistic license?"
If you can’t not hurt, then don’t read her work. That’s just as acceptable, to my mind, as her using your lives this way.
Carolyn Hax’s column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
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