Sunday, November 7, 2010

Nothing Left To Burn, Jay Varner, reconsidered....

Ethics in memoir-writing:  exactly what are you entitled to reveal?

A few months ago I reviewed a popular new memoir by Jay Varner, called Nothing Left To Burn (the link is above).  It was his story of moving back to his hometown of McVeytown, Pennsylvania and becoming a journalist for the small town paper, covering the police and fire beat.  His new position is significant because he was also writing the life story of his father, an extremely devoted firefighter, and his grandfather, who he depicts as the town crazy and a prolific arsonist.  He also places himself in the story as he recounts numerous memories and anecdotal stories of the lives of the Varner family. 

When I read it, I was fascinated by the dichotomy between having an arsonist and a firefighter within the same family, and I read with interest the small town details.  I was a little bit annoyed by his constant complaints of his father placing his career over fatherhood, and I mentioned in my review that it seemed to lack balance because he admits most of his details are from his mother and her family.  That might not seem to be a big deal, but he rips his father's family apart.  They are portrayed as depraved and hostile, and he accuses them flat out of criminal activity.

I really didn't give that a ton of thought, although he does mention that he knows he is certain to alienate people.  But I got quite a bit of response over the review from residents of the small town, and published two of the comments (the most civil, shall we say?).  After reading their viewpoint, I see things from another perspective.  Yes, it does bother me that he spoke of the family that way, and I think he should have in some way allowed them to comment or explain things.  But that doesn't bother me as much as some smaller details that he allowed into the text.  These don't pertain to his family's story, but invade the privacy of some of McVeytown's citizens.

For example, at one point I was horrified when he described an accidental shooting that killed a small child.  He was very graphic in his details, far beyond what would be appropriate for a newspaper.  In fact, none of those details would even be allowed into a newspaper-there is a limit to what is newsworthy and what is just gore.  It never occurred to me at the time, but how would a family member of that small child feel reading those awful details?  Certainly, they wouldn't have been privy to every graphic detail before, nor would any policeman or morgue worker subject them to it.  As a journalist, Varner would know better to include it in a news story.  So, why did it find its way into the memoir?  At the time I didn't consider what it really was:  a completely unnecessary invasion of the child's privacy as well as his grieving parents.  Those who pointed this out to me via comments made a very valid point-how dare he put that into his own book when it had nothing to do with him?

Additionally, on his police beat duties, he covered other deaths and frequent suicides.  Similarly, he included details that exceed what is necessary for covering a story.  Was it for the shock value?  To fill pages?  He admits he was excited to cover this portion of the news, but at what point is he a thrill seeker and no longer a journalist?  I looked online for what is considered the ethical standard for journalists, and found the website for the Society of Professional Journalists (  Below are some selected portions:

— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing. At no point in the memoir does he give the family members an opportunity to confirm or deny his allegations. 

— Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.  By taking information he gathered when acting as a journalist and using it in his personal memoir, for profit, he crossed a line.  There was no point to the inclusion of the graphic descriptions of death and dismemberment in his memoir.  It was not public knowledge.

I guess what bugs me the most is that I have no problem with him telling his story.  But he goes further-he fills his pages with other people's stories, and not in a sweet Charles Kuralt sort of way, but rather exposing their most private pain for no discernible reason.  In Mary Karr's memoir Lit, released earlier this year, she revealed many details about her struggle with alcohol, some tragic and shameful, but they were hers to tell.  She didn't reveal any other person's struggles, and in cases where there may have been a connection, she altered names. 

Given that I've read several memoirs lately, this subject really has me confused.  How much can a person rightfully tell?


  1. Good re-visit, Amy. The memoir genre was so strong a couple years ago. Just about everyone had a memoir out. I think that the fad has just about run its course. Not everyone has that interesting of a life, and so one "borrows" from the lives of others. At that point it is not longer memoir.

  2. Interesting! I read this book a couple of months ago and actually met the author. He seemed sad. He's gotten a lot of negative response from his hometown as you note, including from his family. I think most memoir-writers when writing about scenes like the ones your describe above (accidental shooting, suicide), change details so people can't really tell who it is without a lot of digging. But I think he is entitled to tell those stories. They are a part of his own story, and the pain and damage in his town was a part of the story. I wonder if you might ask a professor who teaches "creative nonfiction" (which is usually what memoir-writing is called) to weigh in on this topic? I adore memoirs and read tons of them, but have never really thought about this aspect myself. Thanks for the deep read!