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Nonfiction Matters
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Tell All –

Now That We Know So Much About the Private Lives of Public Figures, What Should We Tell Our Readers?

It is now very easy to find out about the sexual affairs, the marital compromises, of famous people. But what part of this private history are we obligated to share with our readers? I mean YA, not middle grade or elementary. I ran up against this in writing about Bobby Kennedy. There is some evidence that he had a few affairs, but in his case the real issue was about his father and John. You really cannot write about them without dealing with their obsessive pursuit of women — especially because those activities had a big effect on Bobby. But if it was necessary to write about them, what about every other famous leader who had a mistress, or affairs, or a marriage that was more formal and public than intimate and private?

The problem is that, until quite recently, we generally accepted that to admire a person’s public acts did not require us to look too closely at his or her private life. That was certainly true when we wrote about role models in books for younger readers. But as a society we no longer split those spheres. Who you "are" as a person stands in judgment of what you do for a cause, or an ideal. At least that is true some times. We all write about Jefferson and Sally, but not every book on Muhammed Ali talks about his endless affairs, and I don’t know if any book on Martin Luther King for teenagers has looked into his relationships with women.

I was struck by this when I saw the movie Milk www.apple.com/trailers/focus_features/milk/ — where we learn that his four lifetime lovers all killed themselves. I recently saw this study, which shows that a parent who is even a bit more accepting and tolerant of a gay or lesbian child does wonders for that child’s mental health. www.rhrealitycheck.org/node/9014 So let’s assume the main reason for these four deaths is the prejudice and intolerance the men experienced all of their lives. And the movie shows Harvey as a person so dedicated to his cause that he is just not that emotionally available — a trait many if not all pioneers of political struggles share. But that brings me back to my initial question — when we honor a hero who has risked everything to improve our lives, how much of his or her private life should we examine?

I am honestly not sure what standard to apply — not out of fear of corrupting teenagers, their fiction is racier than anything we write in nonfiction, and surely the sexy, or even tragic, parts would make a biography more appealing — but rather because I am not sure of the purpose. Merely to state that a hero had feet of clay in his personal life (through emotional distance or infidelity or both) is useless unless it leads to a deeper evaluation of who he was — the personal details should lead to a more three-dimensional portrait. But when we are writing about figures our readers hardly know about at all, should we focus on their public acts? And what of the mores of the time — shouldn’t we understand private and public as they were at the time, not as we see them now? But, in reverse, perhaps it is that personal sphere, the home and its conflicts and tensions, that could make a public figure more accessible, more real, to teenagers.
 
Doubtless there is no "one size fits all" rule — but what do you all think, how do you wrestle with these issues in your work, your reviewing, your conception of NF for younger readers?

Comments

  1. Roger Sutton says:

    Marc, I’m reminded about the debate I had with Russell Freedman about his decision not to out Babe Didrikson. In his biography of her, Freedman discussed her close female friends but drew no conclusions (about anything) beyond what he could verify, and Babe’s orientation was. I’ve come to agree with him. Where I think you are making a perhaps unintentional leap is between the fact that Milk’s lovers killed themselves and Milk himself having feet of clay. I think the study of parents of gays is beside the point–the difference between parents and partners is huge, even if we do tend to marry our parents. ;-) So I guess I would say that your implication that Milk might be responsible is speculation beyond the bounds of what we can possibly know

  2. Roger Sutton says:

    Might I add that SLJ’s filter kicked in when I tried to type “Babe’s s****l orientation”?

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    perhaps we cannot know, but surely it is a question we would need to weigh and consider; I brought up the survey to say that the pressures that could lead a gay man to suicide existed (and exist) in society, outside of Milk’s relationships with his partners; but while prejudice is a necessary explanation (and is cited in the film), I don’t think it is sufficient.

  4. Chris Barton says:

    One question I find helpful to ask — and not just about the racy bits of a subject’s personal life, but about all elements of that personal life — is, “Is it extraordinary?” As in, Does the existence of that aspect of the person’s life stand out from the lives of his or her contemporaries? Does that aspect stand out in its impact or influence on the more public parts of the person’s life? Does it stand out in opposition to the way that person was (or is) publicly perceived, or the way he perceived himself? And would a reader later feel they had been lied to or misled upon learning elsewhere about that extraordinary aspect of the subject’s life?

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    Chris: that is a useful way to think about it, though of course establishing what is “extraordinary” is itself a challenge, especially when readers, both kids and adult reviewers, may not have a clear sense of the “ordinary” mores of the period; for example, Eisenhower having a mistress — quite normal for a man of his stature and responsibilities, but totally at variance with his image at the time.

  6. Roger Sutton says:

    I’m also reminded of the Robin Morgan poem about how two of Ted Hughes’ wives committed suicide, adding, ominously, that “Hughes has married again.” Lacking evidence that Ted (or Harvey) “drove them to it,” this smacks of character assassination to me. If you want to investigate the hypothesis, by all means, but otherwise the speculation is idle. Two dots might make a line but they don’t make an argument.

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    Roger: fair parallel, but I’m asking the reverse question: wouldn’t you all, as reviewers, feel we had covered somthing up if we did not explore this question, about Hughes or Milk? Isn’t it the elephant in the biographical room?

  8. Elizabeth Partridge says:

    This is a really complicated subject and it goes on in my head and heart every time I do a biography. Most people who have lead interesting lives are difficult, charismatic people. They often have done things that aren’t part of their public persona. These are things they might be ashamed of (especially given the mores of the time): have an affair, a gay relationship/lifestyle, an abortion, drug and alcohol use.

    So how much do we write about these things? And how do we write about them? M editor, Jill Davis, and I had to figure out with each biography how to handle this. With Dorothea Lange and Woody Guthrie we left out things we didn’t think were germane, but with John Lennon I wrote about several things that Yoko wanted out. I wrote about Lennon’s heroin use (not that it was any big secret) because I love his song “Cold Turkey” which, if you listen to it, is an excruciating painful rendition of how hard it is to kick heroin.

    Unlike adult biographers, I think we have a huge amount of responsibility with teenager readers who are forming up their adult lives. I’m acutely aware of the emotional vulnerability of gay teens. I’d be more likely to put in info about gay relationships to put another role model out there. (I wonder if Russell Freedman would make the same decision about Babe Didrickson today, or if he would make subtle changes to his manuscript?)

    Writers always have a pov about what they are presenting, and we encourage readers to draw conclusions. (ie, heroin is hard to kick.) We have a long legacy of books that signal readers: masturbators go to hell, gay lives are tragic, women need to be satisfied living in their God given role as wives and mothers. (Soapbox, please!)

    Marc, you seem to be speculating that Harvey Milk’s cold persona somehow contributed to these four suicides. I think that’s pretty dangerous speculation. I’d be more likely to look into his attraction to men who were excruciatingly emotionally vulnerable.

    BTW, at the bottom of the SLJ page there’s an ad for “Married and feeling a little bored? Find local married women for a little fun now.” Ah, human nature.

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    Betsy: Thanks for the thoughtful post. I don’t know enough about HM to even speculate, and your theory is appealing. That balance between the obligation to aid and be sensitive to readers, and to what we as adults know, is just hard to strike — espeically in this confessional age.

  10. Vicky Smith says:

    I am very cross. My thoughtful, fairly lengthy posting has been eaten up by SLJ’s obscenity filter. So I will try to replicate it with appropriately fig-leafing ***’s.

    I think first we need explicitly to draw a distinction between public figures who are/were gay and public figures who had/have feet of clay (acknowledging tha the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive). I don’t believe anyone in this discussion believes that gay=feet of clay, but.

    Beyond that, however, I do think it’s important to acknowledge both in nonfiction for teens. For me, one of the great strengths of Kathleen Krull’s Giants of Science series (which arguably reaches below teens in terms of audience) has been her open declaration that many historians believe both Leonardo and Isaac Newton were gay. I do not have either book at hand, but I’m pretty sure I recall her asking her readers to consider how difficult it must have been for Leonardo, brilliant, vegetarian, left-handed and gay, to navigate the Renaissance. It both humanizes her subject and normalizes homo***uality for her readers.

    And as for feet of clay, don’t you think that it’s important on a developmental level for teens to discover that revered public figures can be good and flawed at the same time? As they claw their way toward an understanding of themselves in the context of an adult world, don’t they need to know that people are complicated? That Doing Good and Being Bad can exist in the same person?

  11. Jeannine Atkins says:

    This discussion reminded me of a recent lunch I had with the mom of one of my daughter’s friends from high school, who was telling me about her son coming out to them, and the relief of the words after some years of wondering. Then this mom told me she had a few drinks and asked, So how do you meet guys? Not surprisingly, her son chose not to go there. I think these are pretty good lines in biographies for teens, too. It’s important to know something about the subjects’ romantic? (for SLJ) lives, and I’d be disappointed by a biography that stuck to only public affairs, but I don’t personally feel we need much detail, and maybe more potentially offensive, interpretation of it. I just read the introduction to the Collected Letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, and I liked the spare and direct mentioning of Bishop’s long term relationships with women, and Lowell’s marriages, divorces, and breakdowns, which gave us the backdrop before getting into the book’s main subject of friendship and poetry.

  12. Kathleen Krull says:

    So I’m reading this fascinating discussion, thinking I really should jump in – when Vicky Smith does it for me – thank you, Vicky. I guess I don’t see the point in writing biographies (middle grade and YA) for real kids in this day and age unless you pretty much tell all, that which is supported by research, of course. Many have told me how validating it is to see s. orientation (trying to avoid the SLJ censor) mentioned in the “Lives of” books – one reason why I do it, and also I can’t conceive of trying to convey the essence of a life without it. With “Giants of Science,” where I can go into more detail, Leonardo’s s. orientation is not only crucial to know, but crucial to the history of science—what if he hadn’t felt compelled to hide his amazing discoveries all his life? With Newton, the evidence was much sketchier & I mention it very briefly – it’s even more interesting and (I hope) validating to discuss the possibility that he had a form of Asperger syndrome. Discussing the intricacies of a person’s private life (again, based on research, not speculation) makes the work more fun for me as a writer, but more importantly, it helps to make a book honest and real to someone who might be discounting books as those “dead-tree” things.

  13. Kathleen Krull says:

    So I’m reading this fascinating discussion, thinking I really should jump in – when Vicky Smith does it for me – thank you, Vicky. I guess I don’t see the point in writing biographies (middle grade and YA) for real kids in this day and age unless you pretty much tell all, that which is supported by research, of course. Many have told me how validating it is to see s. orientation (trying to avoid the SLJ censor) mentioned in the “Lives of” books – one reason why I do it, and also I can’t conceive of trying to convey the essence of a life without it. With “Giants of Science,” where I can go into more detail, Leonardo’s s. orientation is not only crucial to know, but crucial to the history of science—what if he hadn’t felt compelled to hide his amazing discoveries all his life? With Newton, the evidence was much sketchier & I mention it very briefly – it’s even more interesting and (I hope) validating to discuss the possibility that he had a form of Asperger syndrome. Discussing the intricacies of a person’s private life (again, based on research, not speculation) makes the work more fun for me as a writer, but more importantly, it helps to make a book honest and real to someone who might be discounting books as those “dead-tree” things.

  14. Nancy Silverrod says:

    I believe it’s important for kids to see historical figures as fully human, with their flaws as well as successes. The age of the audience should determine the depth of the revelations.

    Teens (and kids) need LGBT role models: the more the better, and the more human (and thus, less than perfect), the better.

    I think in looking at the suicides of Harvey’s lovers it is important to consider not only the times — people were just coming out after the Stonewall era, but also that suicide continues to be a serious issue for LGBT teens. It needs to get talked about to bring attention to the issue. Also, the more LGBT heroes there are for kids to look up to, the less likely they are to see a hopeless future for themselves.