My parents get along pretty well with my father-in-law, let’s call him Peter. He is a widower so they usually invite each other to visit, my husband and I included. We usually have lunch, some bottles of wine and everyone has fun. Last time my parents visited Peter my mother stumbled across an old newspaper. It had a eulogy for my mother-in-law (let’s call her Nora). She was a great woman, a social worker and activist. Unfortunately, she passed away before I met my husband.
After my mom read it, Peter came back with some printed documents and handed them to my parents. They were some poems written by Nora, that he found after her death. My mom started immediately to read them and after finishing the first page said if I wanted to read them too.
Peter and Nora had had problems during their marriage. By the time of her death, they barely speak to each other, and were practically divorced. For that reason I think Peter probably didn’t know what Nora wanted to do with her writings.
So I said “Thanks, but I don’t want to, it makes me feel uncomfortable.” And everyone asked why. So I said “well, because I don’t really know if Nora wanted them to be public. Maybe is personal stuff, and it feels wrong.”
Awkward silence ensued and then they replied the following:
Mom: “It’s no big deal sweetie, I’m sure Nora wouldn’t mind”.
Peter: “Well, it doesn’t matter much because she’s dead”
Dad: “But the only reason people write poems is to be published, isn’t’ it?”
They insisted, but I kept firm and refused to read anything. But as my parents read them and I didn’t, I was the one that ended up feeling out of place. (In case you wonder, my husband was taking a nap and missed the conversation.)
I’m super defensive about my privacy and the idea of being exposed terrifies me. My mom and I used to have big arguments about this topic. Some of the things she did include: Throw away T-shirts claiming that they made me look fat. Open bank slips with my name on it. Go to my University and asked my teachers about my grades. She finally stopped doing these things long time ago, but I still feel threatened when she starts asking me personal stuff or comments on photos or personal things I have around in my house.
And I also used to write a lot during my twenties. I have at least a dozen handwritten notebooks, with tons of personal stuff: poetry, therapy tasks, ideas, cooking recipes, drawings, rants about people, etc. I really would hate if someone reads them but I don’t have the courage to toss them.
So, I honestly don’t know if I did the right thing or if I just got defensive and missed a chance to get to know Nora better. Would you please give me your advice and opinions? And also, what can I do with my notebooks? Any ideas?
Thanks a lot.
Dear Privacy Champion,
You don’t have to read the poems if it makes you so uncomfortable.
However, however their marriage ended, absent a record of Nora’s stated wishes on the subject, Peter (and your spouse & Nora’s other children, if any) have the best right to decide what happens to her poems and other writings. There’s one story where this is a violation of Nora’s privacy, and another story where Peter shared something beautiful she made with you and your parents so that you could come to know her a little bit. And maybe also share his own surprise and wonder at finding these things he’d never known about when she was alive – there are the poems themselves, which are hers, and the mystery and feelings that sprung from finding them, which are his. He’s not exploiting the poems for financial reward or broadcasting them widely, he’s sharing them at home with family. We don’t know Nora’s true intentions for them (maybe she would be horrified, maybe she forgot about them completely, maybe she tried to have them published and was rejected and would be glad someone is reading). She’s not here, and whatever you would want in her shoes, she’s not you. Their marriage was imperfect, and Peter is an imperfect steward of what she left behind, but he is the steward you’ve got. Doubtless he has his own history & ethics around grief, death, and privacy.
Were your history with your parents and strong feelings around privacy important in that moment at Peter’s house? Of course, they’re your feelings, and you can’t really stop yourself from having feelings in the middle of having the feelings. Your parents were wrong to encroach on your privacy that way when you were growing up. You have good reasons for both having your shoulders up around your ears and the ethical stand you took about reading the poems.
Were those feelings the most important things in that moment (more important than Peter’s feelings)? That’s debatable for me. If your relationship with Peter is important to you, the episode might warrant an apology to him along the lines of “I realize you had only good intentions in sharing Nora’s writings with us. In the moment it bumped up against some of my own family history & fears about my private writings in an unexpected way, and I overreacted. I still don’t feel right about reading the poems, but I’m sorry I made things so uncomfortable that day.”
As for your own journals & writings, here’s what you do to make your wishes explicit:
- Store that stuff in a secure place.
- Find someone you trust.
- Tell that person that you’d like those writings to be destroyed, unread, in the event of your death and ask them to agree to handle that for you.
- Spell out those wishes in your Last Will & Testament. “In the event of my death, I would like (designated person) to be in charge of destroying my journals and other personal writings, stored (in location)(clearing my internet browser history)(resetting my cell phone to factory settings). Privacy is very important to me, and these are private things that I never wanted to be seen or published.“
If you don’t want to destroy your writings while you are alive, that’s probably the best you can do to protect them after your death. It’s not perfect, but we all die in the middle of having other plans.