The Ethics of Telling All: What’s at Stake in Memoir Writing?

Photograph of author Karl Ove Knausgard standing, holding a microphone, and reading from a book where the title
"Karl Ove Knausgard reading from My Struggle" by editrrix is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

When Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard published the first volume of his My Struggle series in 2009 it was a startling commercial success, but also a personal disaster. Knausgaard’s infamous six-part series of autobiographical novels (titled Min Kamp in Norwegian) recounts the “banalities and humiliations” of his private life. While My Struggle is classified as a “novel”, it is described by Pacific Standard as a “barely-veiled but finely-rendered memoir”. After his first two fictional novels A Time for Everything (1998) and Out of This World (2004) received critical acclaim in Norway, Knausgaard found that he was “sick of fiction” and set out to write exhaustively about his own life. Consequently, My Struggle reveals his father’s fatal spiral into alcoholism, the failures of his first marriage, the boredom of fatherhood, the manic depression of his second wife, and much more.  “Autofiction” has become an increasingly mainstream mode of contemporary writing, but how authors should balance the ethical dilemma of exposing the private life of their friends and family remains unclear.

The first book of the My Struggle series, titled A Death in the Family, meticulously chronicles the slow, pitiful demise of Knausgaard’s alcoholic father. When Knausgaard first shared the manuscripts of his work with relatives, his father’s side of the family called it “verbal rape” and attempted a lawsuit to stop publication. Under the weight of bitter family and legal action, Knausgaard was forced to change the names of My Struggle and refers to the villainous alcoholic of the novel only as “father”. For Knausgaard, the suppression of true names weakened the goal of his novel: “to depict reality as it was.”

The issue with ‘reality’, however, is that everyone seems to have their own version. Part of the legal action against My Struggle were defamation claims disputing the circumstances surrounding the death of Knausgaard’s father. In another dispute over reality, Knausgaard’s first ex-wife recorded a radio documentary, titled Tonje’s Version, where she details the trauma of having her personal life publicly exposed. What’s striking about the documentary is Tonje’s point that her own memories came second to Knausgaard’s art. For Knausgaard, depicting reality meant his own reality. But, if memory is colored from our own perspective, how much claim can he have on what’s ‘true’ and not? Hari Kunzru writes in an article for The Guardian, “But he [Knausgaard] is, inevitably, an unreliable narrator. How could he not be? We live a life of many dinners, many haircuts, many nappy changes. You can’t narrate them all. You pick and choose. You (in the unlovely vernacular of our time) curate.”

Even when people accept the ‘truth’ presented by a memoir it can damage and destroy personal relationships. Knausgaard was married to his second wife, Linda, while writing My Struggle. After Linda read Knausgaard’s frank account of their marriage in his manuscript, she called him and said their relationship could never be romantic again. The media storm generated from the first few books of the series led to Linda having a nervous breakdown and divorcing Knausgaard. In an interview, Knausgaard admits to striking a Faustian deal with the publication of My Struggle saying, “I have actually sold my soul to the devil. That’s the way it feels. Because . . . I get such a huge reward.”, while “the people I wrote about get the hurt.” My Struggle is now an international bestseller and revered as one of the greatest literary accomplishments of the 21st century, yet on the final page of My Struggle Knausgaard admits “I will never forgive myself”. Critical acclaim and popular fame could not justify the damage done to Knausgaard and his family, but can anything positive emerge from the pain of writing such an unforgiving memoir?

Ashley Barnell, a contributor to The Conversation, writes in an essay, “By representing the conflicts and silences that families live with writers can introduce more diverse and honest accounts of family life into public culture.” From Instagram photos to popular humor people work hard to hide what hurts and feign happiness. As a collective unit, families are no exception. Norway found My Struggle particularly scandalous because of its violation of family privacy, which an article by The Guardian says was “profoundly shocking to the Lutheran sensibilities of a country that is less comfortable with public confessions than the Oprah-soaked anglophone world”. Knausgaard’s reckless exposition does not simply leave behind the outward facing mask individuals and families show the rest of the world, it shatters it all together and instead exposes deliberately, albeit painfully, the reality of one’s life.

Thematically speaking, shame is a core aspect of My Struggle. “Concealing what is shameful to you,” Knausgaard reflects, “will never lead to anything of value.” In a piece of literary criticism, Odile Heynders writes that shame in My Struggle, “. . . is connected to questions of humanness, humanity and humility. The capacity for shame makes the protagonist fragile, as it constitutes an acute state of sensitivity”. Advocates of literary fiction often cite its ability to increase one’s capacity for empathy. The shame and sensitivity of My Struggle, mixed with a self-deprecating humor, similarly accomplishes this feat by bringing readers to consider their own openness about pain they have both felt and delt. Barnell’s essay also points out that “The memoirist’s candid account of family struggles can destigmatize taboo topics – such as divorce, sexuality, and suicide.” In My Struggle, tough subjects like alcoholism, manic depression, existential dread, and broken relationships are not constructed neatly within the pages of fictional novel, but laid bare in their honest existence.

My Struggle, which has sold over half a million copies in Norway alone, may be helpful in encouraging more candid discussions of emotional pain. Yet, those whose private lives are thrust into the spotlight through nonfiction writing can be deeply disrupted. I think Knausgaard would argue that, to move past pain, it must be addressed in its most raw, authentic form. However, not everyone may be looking for such a public reconciliation. Authors working with the powerful mode of tell-all memoirs should consider the wellbeing of those immediately affected by publication and then the work’s potential benefit to the rest of the world.