I'm not a novelist, but from what I hear the characters in a novel are often composites of people the author knows or has observed, among them friends – who may or may not be content with a portrait in which they see aspects of themselves. It's a risk the author takes but, as the work is fiction, there is the benefit of deniability.

As a journalist based in France, I have long worked at the other end of the spectrum. The people described in news articles are portrayed factually, their quotes recorded accurately. There is no ambiguity.

And what about memoir? Friends will most likely be portrayed, and feathers may be ruffled. It's a delicate business. But in the best of cases the author can find a way to make the portrait true to life without giving offense.

Now let me tell you a story. After completing my memoir, Desperate to Be a Housewife, I went on to a new project – an oral history of French Jews whose parents managed to escape deportation by the Gestapo and the French police during World War II.

The idea arose in May following a conversation with one of my friends, a woman I'd known for 40 years, who suddenly began talking about her family's history during the war and how it had affected her life. I had never heard a word of this before. We were at a birthday gathering, and the fellow sitting next to her then spoke up and told the story of his parents. My friend – let's call her A. – had known him for years, but knew nothing of his story.

Walking home, it occurred to me that these stories – riveting tales of courage, treachery and luck – would make a fascinating book. All the more so because these stories were hidden from history: it appeared, after checking around, that many 60ish French Jews, like A., rarely mentioned what had happened to their parents during the war.

With this potential book in mind, I enlisted A. and seven other people, among them some of my closest French friends, to come to a dinner last June at which we discussed the fate of their parents in Nazi-occupied France. Over the summer I transcribed the tape of that fascinating conversation – 26,000 words. I sent the transcripts out to the participants and waited for their corrections. And waited. Only one of the eight replied.

In January we held a second session, to discuss why they so rarely evoked their parents' fate. This time it didn't go well. The participants expressed doubts about the project. They announced that they wanted neither their names nor those of their parents used. They said that enough had already been written on the subject, and that no one was interested. The gathering broke up in acrimony.

I felt shattered, and after much soul-searching decided to shelve the project. If it was a matter of choosing between a book and my friends, I chose the friends. Chapter closed?

No, because it raises the question of how to handle a literary work in which friends become part of the 'material'. How does one's creative freedom as a writer intersect with the legitimate concerns of the individuals portrayed?

In this case, as I later wrote to the participants, I learned a few things. First, that the war is far from over, at least here in France. Its effects are still felt so strongly that it has virtually silenced the children of survivors – not of survivors of the camps, whose stories have been recorded magisterially by various authors, notably Helen Epstein in Children of the Holocaust – but survivors of the desperate quest to avoid deportation and probable death.

These stories, too, deserve to be recorded. As they are unknown, they will die out with the children. This is a tragedy.

But my approach was clearly flawed. Maybe, as a New York friend said in retrospect, I should have obtained a release from the participants before beginning. Or maybe we should have proceeded more slowly, giving the participants a greater role in shaping the project. But then it would have been a different book.

I had a vision, and I enlisted my friends in hopes of creating a meaningful work of history. It didn't work out the way I'd expected. Have you encountered similar problems?

Meg Bortin is the author of Desperate to Be a Housewife, a memoir about a young woman who leaves America, moves to Paris, becomes a reporter and goes on to Fleet Street and Gorbachev's Russia. Her misadventures with men play out against a backdrop of world-changing events as she pursues her quest for a story with a happy ending. You can read more about Meg and her book on her web site.

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Comment by Meg Bortin on May 5, 2014 at 12:54am

Ha ha, Sara. And Melanie, thanks for your comments. Actually I don't think I could have written my memoir if my parents had still been alive. And yet, I dedicated the book to my mother -- to whom I guess, in a way, I wanted to explain my choices, even posthumously. It's a very tricky call, and fiction may be one way to go, but in the case of both my memoir and the (hopefully forthcoming) Holocaust book, I feel there is much to be gained by getting the true story on the record, without obfuscation. It's history, after all.

Comment by Sakki selznick on May 4, 2014 at 5:18pm
You could always publish under a pen name, wear Star Wars makeup and pretend you have lost your larynx for interviews, and never tell your family :)
Comment by Melanie Holmes on May 4, 2014 at 2:22pm

I had never heard of the round-up of Jews in France until I watched Sarah's Key recently. If you haven't watched that movie, which I'm guessing you have, please do, it's exquisitely told.  I second the motion that someone else made in this thread that perhaps fiction is the way to go in order to tell these stories.  Stories that need to be told. 

As for my own story, it's possible that I may write for a posthumous audience (post-me).  Or wait until I'm 70, when people who might be hurt now wouldn't be here to be hurt.  I think there's so much to learn about "behind closed doors" as well as forgiveness when we share our stories.  If even one person would be helped by sharing our stories, it makes it a worthwhile endeavor. 

Clare, I will check out Dr. Condry.

Thanks all.

Comment by Sakki selznick on May 2, 2014 at 2:59pm

I get you there, Melanie. Many years ago, when I was working on a different project, I wrote a fan letter to Pat Conroy and asked him how to write about family without them disowning you. 

He called me--twice--to talk it through. (What a darling man.) And admitted that there is no way, really, to do so, not to be honest to yourself and what you have to say. You kind of have to choose. 

The thing about the Shoah, though, seems different to me. Part of it may be the timing. Remember, much of what we know about Post Traumatic Stress, etc. came out of dealing with Holocaust refugees (and then Vietnam vets.) In those days, the way to cope was not to talk about it--something I find many people still believe is true, Holocaust survivors or not. Don't dwell on it. Put it behind you, move on. Many survivors literally had to move on. They were displaced people, no papers, no country. They were wandering around, starving, until finally the Allies rounded them up--keep this in mind, a few months after--and put them back in the camps, only now they were DP camps. Nobody wanted them. Most countries viewed them as, well, verminous Jews. Including the US, who kept our quotas ridiculously low. People gathered around noteboards, asked everyone they knew, looked for rumors that someone they knew was alive, traveled across multiple borders--without papers, mind, smuggling themselves across--to dangerously seek out far off places where a relative might be. If they returned to their original homes, their families were gone, someone else owned their property, and often was willing to kill them to keep it (depending on what part of the world they were in.)

France openly assisted the Germans. Many French people did so as well, just as many French people resisted them. Jews in France (and other countries) were often excluded even from the Resistance. It's nearly impossible to get your mind around how that must have felt. 

And, too, we have to understand psychologically what it meant to hide in plain sight, to live in a world where, when the light turned green, you hesitated, and the police rounded up only the people in that intersection, checking their papers, but you were not yet there, you had kept walking, terrified, appearing as calm as possible, in the opposite direction. And so, for who knows why? You survived. 

Plus, there were so many lost. When we went to France in 2000, cousins showed up who had not spoken in years in a argument that began after the death of someone who had returned from the camps. This man's wife and two children died in Auschwitz. His youngest son, (let's call him Etienne) in hospital during the raffle, had been smuggled from the hospital by extended family members, and was hidden in various places in the mountains and the south. When the father returned, he married a woman religiously--could not marry her legally as they had no proof that their spouses were both dead. She died a year later of cancer. (Camp survivors have a much higher risk of cancer, by the way.) The father remarried a second time, a woman whose husband had run, yelling, to lead the gendarmes away during a roundup, so his wife, son and daughter could get away--they were hidden in the south with a woman who is now a famous french designer, can't think of her name right now.  

So--go back to four-year-old Etienne, stolen from the hospital. Mother, father, big sister vanish. He remembers his mother by a lullaby and a smell. Father returns three years later. Etienne does not remember father, but is returned to him. Father remarries, a woman who dies. Remarries again--by this time, Etienne is maybe 10. For some reason. . .Etienne does not connect well with his second new step-mother. But Etienne, you see, is not considered a survivor, not for decades to come. He is not considered a Hidden Child--there is no separate concept of how that affects people. He is not considered as someone who might need psychological help to cope with all the terrible things that happened when he was little-they don't have that kind of concept of anything. It was literally not until 2000, when I mentioned that it might be hard to lose everyone including a mother, and then lose a mother again, it might make it nearly impossible to love and trust mothers. Nobody had seemingly considered that yet. 

And he continues to exist in a France that is still decidedly anti-Semitic, that has yet to accept or acknowledge  (until very recently, with still more work to do) just how much responsibility it holds for what happened to the Jews during the war. 

And that's not even including the very human need to think of those who suffer as somehow deserving it or bringing it on themselves, because then, it can't equally well happen to me. 

It's complicated, no? 

Comment by Clare Lavery on May 2, 2014 at 2:22pm

Hello Melanie. it must be difficult to leave bits of you out of the book you are writing. I think a lot of people can be torn between maintaining authenticity and absolute truth but needing to consider other members of their family or friends. My poem is entitled 'Anonymous' but I do not necessarily wish to be so!

I looked a lot more into stigmatisation as part of some of my research. The work of the academic Dr Rachel Condry is very good on this as she followed the wives/daughters/mothers of people who had gone to prison for serious crimes in her book Families shamed and she describes that they are stigmatised by their communities even though they themselves did nothing wrong, they are subjected to a sort of guilt by association or kinship. This is a powerful social force which keeps people quiet and stops many writing or talking about their experiences- for fear of social disapproval or downright ostracism! I am fascinated by the psychological aspects of this. It's all about risk, isn't it? Shaking up the status Quo.  Good luck!

Comment by Melanie Holmes on May 2, 2014 at 1:55pm

I have been writing my 1st book for 3 years; when I began I got it all out of my system.  But then I realized that if I break the code of silence, my family would not appreciate the stigma.  So I've re-written much of what I started out to write.  Keeping things anonymous and/or deleting big swatches of experiences that a big part of me wanted to share.  Until reading this blog thread, I hadn't thought about anyone feeling stigmatized because of what I shared.  Exposed yes.  But I never thought about societal exclusion, as Clare puts it.  Clare, I love your poem.  If I ever write about my issues, I would love to reference your poem.  Do you write 'by anonymous' because you don't want credit?  Just wondering.

Comment by Sakki selznick on April 29, 2014 at 5:26pm
Meg, I am not meaning to belittle your experiences of anti-Semitism in Wisconsin, just to say that we all of us rarely speak out about anti-Semitism we have encountered.

Albania is an amazing Holocaust story. They sheltered so many refugees, because of a law of Hospitality.

we should talk. I'm not able to computer until after Monday, when I get a post-surgical walking boot. I hope then to be able to sit long enough to get back to work.
Comment by Sakki selznick on April 29, 2014 at 1:56pm

I'll see if I can get Monsieur Semelin's book. I'm trying to improve my French through reading. I'm so jealous, too, of you living in Paris for 40 years. We still have to prove my husband's citizenship capabilities.

I, too, am seeking a way to do research on our family. We need funds to visit and knowledge, and time to absorb the family's knowledge. Our beloved cousin, Jacques, died this year. I so longed to understand what affected his mother and father, to dig down into it, and to find a lost sibling, known to still be living. Those wounds are far from heeled.
Comment by Meg Bortin on April 29, 2014 at 1:38pm

There may well be a way to do the book with a different kind of participation of the people involved. I have been weighing going back to the participants and asking whether they might agree to a collective reflection on why the Jews of their (our) generation feel so reticent about speaking openly about what their parents experienced and how it affected their lives. I am currently reading a French book published last year on the subject, by Jacques Semelin. He asks why it is that, in France, although many people were deported, 75% of the Jews survived -- making France the European country that best protected its Jews. He calls this an unexplored chapter of history. So I'm thinking that we should explore it further. I hope to enlist my friends in this enterprise by asking them, as you suggest, Sara, what they would like to do with these stories.

Comment by Sakki selznick on April 29, 2014 at 1:18pm
Also, Meg, what you experienced in Wisconsin may be less than what they experienced in a France. In the bosom of family, they may speak more openly. Even though you are old friends.


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