This blog was featured on 09/18/2017
When Friends Beg to Differ
Written by
Meg Bortin
September 2017
Written by
Meg Bortin
September 2017

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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  • Meg Bortin

    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.

  • 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 :)

  • Melanie Holmes

    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.

  • 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? 

  • Clare Lavery

    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!

  • Melanie Holmes

    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.

  • 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.

  • Albania?

    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.

  • Meg Bortin

    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.

  • 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.

  • Claire, you make a major point about ownership. I wonder, Meg, if you go back and ask people what they would like to do with the stories? In the earliest explorations of those who rescued and those who were rescued, just the act telling the stories for the first time proved traumatic for those who had rescued and those who were rescued. Remember what happened when Joanna Reiss went back to do research for The Upstairs Room. I think what you are doing is wise and valuable. There would have to be a way to allow the process to belong to those interviewed.

  • Lisa Thomson

    Hi Meg, I'm sorry you're not able to use those incredible stories.  I'm sure we could all learn so much from them and to think they will die...It must be very frustrating for you, the writer.  I experienced a similar situation where I wanted to include women's anonymous divorce stories and tips in my divorce self help book.  Many declined or said they would and never submitted anything.  I excluded that part of the book and did without.  I think telling our stories brings up unexpected emotions and sometimes it's hard to face certain truths.  Will you still write it?

  • Edra Ziesk

    When I write essays in which I reference friends, I usually either change their names or, as you do in this post, just use their initials.  I think the feeling of anonymity can be helpful.

      But I also think, given France's history with the Jews, it may just be too difficult/uncomfortable for people who live there to speak for attribution on the subject - to point fingers and place blame.  I can see why they might have had second thoughts.

      I know you said you don't write fiction - but you might want to think about another way of using this important - and very charged - material, other than an oral history.  

  • Meg Bortin

    This is all so interesting. Thank you for your comments. Sara, yes, I'm Jewish and have lived in France for 40 years, so I'm aware of the sensitivities of this country. It's true that some Jews are leaving, but they are very few. Paris has one of the biggest Jewish communities in the world, and it is thriving. Both religious and non-religious Jews live here happily and largely without any sort of harassment -- unlike the situation in Wisconsin, where I grew up, and where the kids in my class told Jew jokes and there were still Jewish quotas at country clubs etc (as I recount in my memoir). But you are quite right to speak about the hierarchy of trauma among Holocaust survivors, even second generation. This is very present in France, and I am trying to find my way through this maze. The stories are theirs, sure, but if no one records them, they will be lost. Clare and Mary Lou, many thanks for your comments -- and I love the poem...

  • Clare Lavery

    Thank you Mary Lou and Meg. Yes I wrote the poem and many more related to issues of recovery and relationships between family members after serious crimes. I am a linguist with a particular interest in victim narratives and issues of excluding cultures/linguistic rights etc. I also had a husband from the Jewish community in North London where many people had come as small children sent to escape and lost their families in the holocaust, I was living and working in the Jewish quarter in Paris in the 80s.So in part I can see parallels in their isssues of giving voice to trauma with my own area which relates to stigmatisation and societal exclusion as a result of crime. My own concern is to give victims a voice and for their stories to be told on their terms as I know that 'ownership' of such traumatic life experiences is very much part of the process. It is a sensitive thing to deal with Meg as these really are their stories, not yours, and the act of telling is in itself both healing as well as traumatic since, as you so rightly tell us, they have a fear of speaking such truths which are partly fears inherited and partly real fears of exposure (which the narrator in my poem fears most of all, seeing exposure like a search light illuminating a secret corner of obscurity). Such stories are so personal and have been retold over time and can be bound up with feelings influence by Sara's reference to a code of silence- both within their families but also outside. The silencing of these tales was very strongly felt post war. My own writings and as yet unpublished memoir (most recently poems) concern the silencing of others whose partners have offended against children- they tend to be treated by their communities as guilty by kinship so are forced to choose very carefully who they reveal their authentic selves to.

  • Mary Lou Gomes

    I love Clare's poem-beautifully put.

    It so aptly describes the code of silence in many family situations. And the accompanying feelings which can make opening up to others difficult. 

  • Also, meg, I would not call their fear irrational. There have been many fairly recent anti-Semitic acts in France which were only later Addressed as recently as 2007, our French family was talking of how many Jews were considering immigration because they did not feel safe. And France has string ties to many North African countries and not all of them are like Morocco, which has actively fought anti-Semitism. Also, France continues to deny their active participation in the Rwandan genocide, including the fact that they were shipping weapons long after it was acknowledged that genocide was taking place. And France, as part of the EU, is always dealing with right wingers who wish to continue to blame the Jews for everything.

  • Hi, meg,

    You may have encountered the hierarchy of pain among Holocaust survivors, which might be listed as only survivor of camps, Camps, Siberia, Hidden without family, hidden with family. None of the survivors were supposed to talk about what happened, but their pain was silently accorded higher weight as you ascend the list.

    You might be also be encountering generational silences in that their parents' survival depended on their ability to pretend to be other than what they were, and to keep their mouths shut. Our French family still have a deep unease with French culture's willingness to admit, accept or change enough to keep them safe in future. Remember, it is less than 20 years since the French stopped saying that the Germans deported the Jews and started to admit that it was French Gendarmes who committed the Rafles and French policy that demanded that French children of non-citizens be deported with their families, thus committing almost a million children to a death the Germans did not demand.

    Also, My understanding of a French culture is that there are unspoken rules which you are all supposed to know, rules that separate the bien elevee from the mal elevee. There may be similar unspoken rules among a people within the people, the Jews of France, who still do not feel like full and protected citizens. Are you Jewish? There are very likely to be things that people did to survive that shamed them. Having a Jewish identity or culture awareness and sensitivity might make a difference on this project.

    I would love to speak with you further off list. Maybe we can exchange email addresses.

  • Meg Bortin

    Clare, many thanks for your thoughtful comment, and the poem! Did you write it? Very touching. In the particular case I mentioned in my blog post, the people involved definitely share a traumatic family history. But I'm not sure it's social rejection they're worried about -- rather the fear that something like what happened to the Jews of France in WWII could happen again. Even if they recognize this as an irrational fear, it exists. And they don't want to go on the record. On the other hand, changing the names might solve the problem. All best, Meg

  • Clare Lavery


    l would d like to share with you a poem about people who are forced to keep quiet about their family history


    There is no knowing when it will end

    This need for anonymity

    The shadow plays; evasions

    To avert the prying eyes

    The curiosity hunters

    Appeased with little white lies

    Reminds me of the shame

    The setting apart

    From life with open doors

    And an ever trusting heart

    No skeletons in their cupboards

    No case notes to stash away

    No fear of search lights

    Hunting down that corner of obscurity

    He dumped on us

    There is no knowing

    When we will ever see normality again

    The cover story abandoned

    A shield to their expectations



  • Clare Lavery

    Some stories touch on our culture's deepest taboos. it can seem strange to accept but the victims of traumatic family history learn early on to hide such legacies from the communities around them. I think the strength of social rejection experienced when they do speak up or allude to their family experiences all but silences the bravest. They are protecting themselves from the rejection of so called polite society and the judgement of others. It is  human instinct to flee from stories which scare or show us that which we most fear about human nature. Respectable, intelligent and educated rational people will socially avoid those associated with any such experiences in an irrational way. The families of your friends will have experienced this subtle and painful process of rejection at some point and fear experiencing such exposure again. If these family experiences are part of your family identity, it harms your feelings about the experience when others simply walk away. Becoming anonymous protects you from social rejection and allows you to rebuild- not on your terms but on terms which are less authentic and which suit the sensibilities of others- your friends will have had this passed down through their family as a behaviour necessary for recovery- but it does silence the harm such experiences have wrought across the generations. 

  • Meg Bortin

    Tahanee, many thanks for this interesting comment. It sounds like you found the right balance between respecting the people you know and your own integrity (being true to yourself). I am still struggling with this in terms of the book project mentioned in my column. If there's a way, I'd like it to come into being one day. We'll see.

  • Tahanee Roberts

    As an author you are going to face these situations; it comes with the territory. The bigger question here is, "Will and can my story help inspire others?" And that question really depends on the subject matter and the message you are trying to convey to your audience. There were many questions that came to mind when I wrote my book, Lust Now, Cry Later and a couple of those questions were, "How are people going to perceive me and will people be offended that some of my characters share the same traits as them?"  I had to decide whether or not I was going to suppress a story that I knew needed to be heard and deal with the torture of possibly questioning myself for the rest of my life with, "What if?" or if I was going to embrace the gift and the knowledge that God had blessed me with and share it with the world. This was very difficult for me because my book focuses on the HIV epidemic. I had to really, really think long and hard about what I wanted to do, because for 1) I already knew that people were going to assume I was infected with the virus 2) people were going to speculate if some of the graphic scenes in my book were based off of my own personal experience and 3) If I was trying to air someone else's "Dirty laundry." Well...obviously, I chose to share my story and I shared it in a very tactful and respectful manner, because the "Bigger," picture and focus was saving the lives of others! I believe that every character an author creates will have some traits of the author and people they know, but that needs to be balanced out with, "Creativity and adding your own little flare." Personally, I don't like to ask my friends and family members how they feel about a story I am creating, because everyone has an opinion on how they feel the story should be told or how they feel it should end and if that's the case, then they can pick up a pen and write it themselves, lol.