A Real Monster: Writing About People You Know


When I was a teenage boarding school student, there was a man working at my school to whom I looked up — a hell of a lot. I looked up to him so much that when he was fired for "inappropriate behavior" I felt as though my understanding of the world had cracked. It was that serious. When you're sixteen, and someone you admire turns out to not to be perfect (and in this case, he turns out to be a man who acts on the urge to touch vulnerable boys), your life can change for good.

We've all lost faith in people we once held in high esteem. Often, we just get over it with time and a good deal of thinking. But for a writer, there can emerge a pernicious desire to tell the world about it, either out of some exhibitionistic streak or the belief that closure comes through the making-public of dark secrets. If you've been there, I sympathize; if you're there now, I advise you to think long and hard about what you're doing. Writing about real people is always risky; writing about real and terrible events involving people who could end up being identified… that's a major decision. It could have serious repercussions.

That's not to say you shouldn't do it. The dubious blessing of being accepted as a writer by others is that you can get away with saying dangerous things with fewer complications than the rest of humanity. But that means you've got a major responsibility on your hands. Will you change the names of those whose lives you are, let's use the word that too often fits, exploiting? Will you be kind to those to whom, by typing a few incriminatory words, you might do much more damage than good?

The man in question — the man whose departure shattered my understanding of what I was doing in that school, what I had been doing talking to him, what I had been thinking when I asked him for advice — is out of my life now. Perhaps for good. It's been eight years since I even heard about him. Those who someday read my upcoming memoir, Praise of Motherhood, will perhaps be struck by the role he plays in the narrative — ultimately a minor role, but I still dedicate an entire chapter to him and to his effect on my fragile adolescent psyche. Why? And did I do the right thing by making him a part of the story at all, since the book is purportedly about my mother?

I don't know if I can answer those questions convincingly. I thought about it — I have been thinking about it for a long time now. Here was a man who gave me girl advice, told me to lose weight, woke me up by slapping me around and squirting me with a water gun, and told me all about the Greeks and the Romans and the crazy things they did two millennia ago. I trusted and respected and admired him, and then it turned out he molested my close friend late at night. What sense does a kid make of that?

He doesn't, as it turns out. So he grows up and, having decided to be a writer, he fictionalizes the events a little, omits the bad guy's real name, and changes a few details. He writes a memoir about his own mother's life and death, and in the center of the narrative he introduces this ogreish man as a counterpoint to the saintly mother he's been depicting for the last seventy or so pages. The masculine monster damages the author, but then the author's magical mother comes along and heals him again. It's a nice, almost tidy way of inserting an antagonist into a true story where, I have to be honest, the real antagonist is me.

Is it fair? No, certainly not. While this man certainly did leave me feeling pathetic and lost, I didn't have to include him in the narrative. He's been out of my life for years. He haunts me, of course. He even fascinates me still. But did I have to include him in the book? Did I have to write a paragraph like the following, where I sneak up behind him and "listen" to his thoughts as he does the unspeakable things he actually did in real life, in a more or less similar fashion to how I describe it?

The king of duality, this man could be saintly one minute and tyrannical the next, shifting without warning, sliding in and out of foulness with every sip of his whisky. How did this man, this torturer, alcoholic, charmer, ugly-handsome, educated, this vulgar but good-hearted man manage to destroy himself so thoroughly? What led him to drink just that little bit too much, that final drop, the one that brought about the end of our contact with him? That night — that coffee spiked with whisky — Samson alone in his apartment at three in the morning with Little Richard playing on the stereo: What the fuck. Drinking himself to sleep again, horny, confused, Little Richard’s voice telling the world about music. He is drunk, he needs to do something he has not allowed himself to do until now. Those little wrists. Samson, taking that sip, decides it’s time, it’s time to just get it the fuck over with, it’s three in the morning and who’s going to give a damn? The little bastard is asking for it anyway. Jealous little bastard, little faggot, is going to feel these hands and know what’s up. Not his cock, not Samson’s cock. Someone else’s cock, some little faggot, it’s three in the morning and we are too God damned drunk to care about tiny favors, aren’t we. Walks up the stairs in the darkness and feels around for the little faggot’s door. Opens it and creeps inside, he can hear the kid snoring. Kids shouldn’t snore or they’re not kids. This little fucking annoying shitty little prick, sleeping in his faggot bed. Samson sits on the side of the bed, slides his hand under the covers and leads it to the warmth of the little faggot’s crotch. A firm grasp of those balls.

The answer is no, no, of course not. That was done for aesthetic effect. I wanted to understand the man, his mind, just a little bit. But to do that, I had to bring my friend into it, a friend who suffered more than I did. Excusable? Perhaps. As it stands, my friend seems very much to approve of what I did here. He thinks it's accurate and captures the spirit of the trauma.

Unfortunately, I cannot ask the man himself. I don't know where he is, whether he's alive, who he has become. I don't know if he's okay or very much not okay. He never gave me permission to bring him into the story. And although he did quite horrible things to those over whom he had authority, I still can't decide if that gives me the right to expose him like this. Many of the friends I went to school with, when they end up reading this part of the memoir, will be shocked. They will recognize the man. For some of them, this will be the first time they really confront the (fictionalized, but…) reality of these events. I'm placing this ghost in the spotlight.

My book hasn't even been released yet and I'm already jittery about all of this. I wanted to be honest in the writing. When I felt it was over, written, ready for the eyes of a publisher, I told myself I'd been true to my desire: the desire to tell the story as I believed it to have happened. And although the book is about me and my mother, the fact is: this man was such a perfect monster that I needed him in the book. He made my mother look more patient, kind and consistent than ever. I missed my mother and love-hated the monster — why shouldn't I tell the truth as I saw it?

Well — the truth changes. Not the content of truth, but its significance, its nuances, even its shape. What felt important while I was writing doesn't seem so important now. I don't regret writing the man into my "true" story — and it is a true story, in the end — but I wish I'd thought things through a little better. Most importantly, I wish I'd considered more carefully the implications of transforming a real man into a character, and a reprehensible, if ambiguous, character at that.

I have made this a very personal column, but that's what all of this is about. If you're thinking about writing your life into a work of art, or at least a work of prose, I advise you, as a young veteran and as someone who keeps making the same mistakes in his life, to think stuff all the way through. That early fear, the fear of going too far, will catch up with you, and when it does, you'll be doing the explaining — not the monsters you create out of other people, even if their actions are far worse than yours.

If you write about real people doing bad things, you're essentially taking on some of their burden. Do you want that? In the end, it won't particularly matter, perhaps. Writers are often so stubborn, insecure and obsessive that no amount of philosophical considerations will dissuade them from doing what they feel they need to do. If you're in that position, I sympathize.

But think it out, man.

Column by Phil Jourdan

Phil Jourdan is a writer, musician and distinctly unenlightened person. He is structural editor at Angry Robot, and a co-founder of Repeater Books and Litreactor. He splits his time between the UK and Argentina.

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Laramore Black's picture
Laramore Black from Joplin, Missouri is reading Mario Kart 8 February 15, 2012 - 4:11pm

I've gotten into writing some horror lately, but in my main project, it's all mostly autobiographical and for some reason I find it easier to write out a gruesome death scene than to talk about the real life monsters that are still out there somewhere. 

Great article by the way, I really need to get that book when I can.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade February 15, 2012 - 9:30pm

Great subject for a great article. Yes, I feel the same emotions when "using" people from my life in my writing. But, "exploiting" them is harsh terminology... I've always felt that "using" was harsh enough...

There is a Neil Simon quote that resembles your article: “Everyone thinks they can write a play; you just write down what happened to you. But the art of it is drawing from all the moments of your life.” But, I don't think Praise of Motherhood is going to resemble a Neil Simon play...look forward to reading it.

J.Dulouz's picture
J.Dulouz from New England is reading The Sirens of Titan February 16, 2012 - 5:55am

Great article, Phil. I agree with "exploiting" being a little harsh. Although that's directly consistent with the level to which you make the character identifiable. Unless you mean it from the writers point of view, in which case that may qualify as having a conscience. I get a little shaky too when writing about real-life people. But I don't believe I'm ever looking to do them harm, pieces of them just somehow fit into the story, just as it sounds like this man plays a critical role in your story.

I wonder about the significance of truth you mention, and if its a result of the healing effect of telling this personal story. In the end, I think, that's the least we can hope for.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer February 16, 2012 - 7:31am

"Exploiting" is just about right, if we are honest with ourselves.  We are taking other people's lives and using them for monetary and artistic gain.  If that is not exploitation, I'm not sure what is.  We are harsh with the actions and motivations of everyone else, we might as well do the same with our own.

The real danger can be exposing yourself to a libel suit if you don't change the character enough and write something that is not true.  Or, you could use Anne Lamott's suggestion.  Write that he has a small penis.  Then he will never claim it is him.

vox audita's picture
vox audita from the Continental United States February 16, 2012 - 8:40am

Great post. I've struggled with this for a long time too. How do you write about people without outing them? Do the horrible things they've done make them no longer entitled to their privacy? I guess it depends on how horrible the things are, which of course is in the eye of the beholder ... or writer, in our cases.

Regardless, I bit the bullet a few months ago and decided to write about my schizophrenic father via an anonymous blog (http://voxaudita.tumblr.com/). My hope is that the anonymity will protect my father's privacy, but at the same, God it feels go to be saying this stuff out loud ... or online, as it were.

Looking forward to reading Praise of Motherhood when it pubs. I just added it to my to-read queue on Goodreads.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. February 16, 2012 - 9:41am

What would you say about writing a story based on the 'tales' you hear of thing happening around your town?  So, something that's based in an actual event but with made up characters and imagined setting?  Any advice for that?

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. February 17, 2012 - 1:46am

Honestly, I think if you are writing about a person who did something like that, they don't deserve to be protected. Plus you are writing about it from your perspective, its your life and your right to tell your feelings about it. The only one I would worry about is maybe your friend who was molested. It might bring up painful memories for him but I don't believe in protecting pedophiles, they should be called out for their abuse.

lonathan's picture
lonathan July 11, 2013 - 2:02pm

Having been on the other end, having been among those "exploited", I'm in complete agreement with the use of the word.

In my case, having had my family attacked in a best selling memoir, knowing the frustration that many still accept the tale as truth (though the author was forced to acknowledge her mendacity) and realizing the near impossibilty (unless blessed with wealth) of bringing a libel suit against an author in the U.S., all have acted to tarnish the respect I once held for writers and the publishing industry at large.

Thank you, Mr. Jourdan. I feel you've done well to explore this subject with such a measured honesty.