Keith Richards, for example, called Mick Jagger’s penis tiny in his memoir.
I’m not talking about “My father was a serial killer” stories. If your father was a serial killer, by all means, destroy your father in your writing.
There are stories whose entire purpose is to document complicated family history. I think these are less controversial, though I’m sure the characters — if alive — experience mixed emotions. You have a certain life experience for which certain people were responsible. You feel strongly about sharing your experience. “Educated” memoir is a good example. The protagonist’s parents were a bunch of freaks. Don’t thank me for this brilliant and very sophisticated review of the book’s plot.
What about other stories where it’s very difficult to draw the line between honesty, insensitive revelations, and hurting the people who you’re close to?
A couple of weeks ago I came across a story where the author talked about her husband disrespecting her writing ambition. In her story, she kind of disrespected her husband too, the way she talked about him. I’m not taking sides. But the story made me think. Is it ok to criticize someone you’re close to, someone you love, and someone who loves you? Without them expecting it? And maybe they are aware of things being complicated (what’s not complicated in this life?!); maybe they worry, feel uneasy, or feel remorse; maybe they don’t; either way there you are revealing it all to the world, exposing the people who trust you.
I can think of many examples in my own life. I once attempted to write a memoir. I never finished it. I have a great relationship with my parents, but, boy, I have so much to tell about both of them, about how they’ve fucked up their marriage, and how guilty they were individually in their fuck ups; about how they weren’t perfect in their parenting of me, of how I have scars. No one’s perfect of course, but I fear they’d be unpleasantly surprised — offended — if they discover how much I know, understand, analyze, remember, and what opinions I have. It doesn’t mean I don’t love them. But there are so-so many complicated controversial moments and experiences that would be unwelcome revelations even in a more intimate setting, let alone the world of writing and publishing, when you’re inviting the whole world to look at the skeletons in your closet.