Scenes from a Life . . . or Not?

Today’s Sunday paper contained a letter to the editor about last week’s article on Ruth and this house and my project to research and write about Ruth’s life. In part, the letter read, “I believe Ruth would be appalled to know someone acquired her private files not intended for them and likely headed for the Dumpster. Would any one of us want that for ourselves?”

The question brought me up short. The writer of this letter is right – Ruth’s scrapbooks and other documents would have most likely been headed for the dumpster. Is that where she wanted them to go? Would she have been appalled by last week’s front page newspaper article? Would she be appalled that I am going through her scrapbooks and photographs? Obviously, I have no way of knowing. But I hate thinking that perhaps she would hate what I’m doing.

Of course, other writers write tell-all exposes and unauthorized biographies all the time. But that’s not the kind of writer I want to be. And I don’t ever want to do that kind of harm through my writing. I have no intention of being a “muckraking journalist.”

So today’s letter has given me pause. What right do I have, really, to be digging into Ruth’s past and making it public? If I continue in this project, what are my responsibilities as a researcher and writer?

When I was doing research and writing “Grace Goes to Prison,” I had a very keen sense of responsibility to Marie Hamilton, the woman whose life and work I was making public through that book, and to the dozens of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women whose stories were at the heart of that book and deeply intertwined with Marie’s story.

But I had Marie’s full blessing and cooperation in writing that book, and the countless men and women I interviewed in various prisons told me they were not only willing, but honored to have their stories told. Marie and I had many long conversations about the responsibilities to “speak truth, with love” in the telling of their stories. In the end, there were things I left out of that book, out of respect for Marie, her family, and the many men and women whose lives Marie touched.

I have to confess, my initial reaction to the letter in today’s paper was a defensive one. I wanted to call the letter writer to explain, to counter-argue. But I do believe that in any criticism, no matter how harsh or unjustified I might think it is initially, there’s always some grain of truth. I feel like I have a responsibility to be open to receiving that truth and striving to act on it (regardless of whether I react that way INITIALLY!)

So, in the coming days and weeks, I will reflect on all of this. I will talk with the family members of Ruth’s who have contacted me and seek their input. And I’ll try to figure out where to go from here . . .

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: city life lancaster pa ruths story

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