Sunday, 17 February 2013

The ethics of memoir.

Recently, I was in a cafe in London when I overheard a phone conversation - the young woman on the table next to me talked, loudly, of finding her friend who had hanged himself. I grabbed my notebook, as you do, and wrote it all down.

If I gave you details of that conversation - which was riveting, in spite of (or maybe because of) it's gruesomeness - it's possible that young woman could be identified. Now I'd be astonished if she every saw this blog, or if any of her friends did. The chances that anyone would put two and two together and she would find out I'd written about her are minimal.

But still, I'm left with questions, about her, and about my listening to her: How much was her horror about herself or about her friend, and does that distinction matter? Should she have had that conversation in front of her 4-year-old, tucking into chips beside her, or does the urgency of her need to unburden herself make that allowable?

Should I have written it down in the first place (it was impossible not to listen - the whole cafe was captivated)?

I often scribble down overheard conversations in cafes. Some find their ways into stories, or into my travel books, suitably disguised. I defy anyone to identify themselves - unless I've asked permission in which case real names are used.

But this feels different - it's too personal, too terrible - to play with the details. I feel that both this young woman and her friend need the dignity of keeping the truth of their stories to themselves. So I'm not going to tell you any more - but what would you have done?


  1. I could not use it. Years ago I went to see our local (retired) vet. She still lived on the same property as the surgery she had worked in. On my way through to her gate I came across a young man weeping his heart out. He had obviously just lost a much loved pet. My immediate reaction was to want to comfort him but I stopped myself and Peg (the vet) agreed with me. He did not need anyone right then, especially a stranger. It was a good lesson for me but it is hard not to interfere when you want to sympathise or - in your case - write about it.

  2. No, I would not use it, either, not in a factual account in any event. I might weave what I have learnt about people's reactions and behaviour in such a situation into a fictional story, however. Vicarious experience is sometimes useful to the fabric of writing, but I would change the situation and the personalities to the point where only the experience itself was recognisable.

  3. Probably right not to use something as heartbreaking as this.I worked as a GP receptionist for years and some people do like to play their life out in public. There was no need for that lady to speak in a cafe where everyone could hear her,sometimes in our surgery waiting room it was like an episode for Jeremy Kyle show,no kidding, we knew everyone's business and who's man was sleeping with who's wife.I should have written it down I might have had a bestseller.

  4. Thank you all - I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels uncomfortable about this. I'm sure there are those who feel that everything spoken in a public place is usable - but it's good to know that there are those of us questioning the ethics of it all.

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  6. Legally I suspect there is no copyright on overheard conversations in public places but I agree that some things are too upsetting to use as material. Of course the person to blame for your discomfiture is the speaker. There's a time and place for all discussions and this was neither.

    1. I think the young woman was swept away with her feelings, and unable to contain them until she arrived somewhere more appropriate. But I agree - that doesn't give me the ethical right to use her distress as material, whatever the copyright laws may be.