Who Owns Our Stories Anyway?

An exercise in finding that long lost voice.

Shannon Ashley
Sep 8, 2019 · 7 min read

e’ve all heard it said that there are at least two sides of every story, and it’s true. For every real life story there are the players and the bystanders. For every written story there is the writer and the readers.

With every single story, there are also different interpretations. This is a natural part of life. And it’s a natural hurdle for most writers to overcome.

I am not a journalist and never pretend to be one. Instead, I am an online writer who specializes in tackling uncomfortable issues and… my life.

It isn’t easy. I debate often with myself about how to discuss family issues. My daughter is only 5 years old right now, but one day I imagine she will read plenty of my work. Plus, I often talk about what’s happening with my mother, who happens to suffer from munchausen syndrome and who raised me in an spiritually, emotionally, and physically abusive home.

Some people believe that telling the truth about life with a mentally ill family member is unethical.

But as a woman with borderline personality disorder, I would never argue against a loved one’s right to tell their stories which include my own bad behavior. My symptoms can hurt others and I have to take responsibility for that.

It gets sticky sometimes, because family members don’t always agree. In fact, readers don’t always agree. There are two sides to every story at minimum, and then there are the countless interpretations.

Some of those interpretations can be pretty harsh. Some folks who have never met us or our families are quick to assign flaws to our character because we dare write our truths.

It begs the question, who owns our stories, anyway?

I grew up in strict purity culture and a home where I was often barred from using my voice or making my own decisions.

As a teenager, I wasn’t able to keep a diary that my mother didn’t invade. My friends couldn’t write me notes my mom didn’t go through unless I destroyed them at school.

From a very early age, I grew up with the understanding that my voice would be silenced. In fact, at 37 years old, I am still working through my right to use my voice in therapy.

The question my therapist often asks me is this: who owns your truth?

Is it mine or my mother’s? Mine or my readers’? And do the few negative comments outweigh the many more positive ones from readers who get something good from my work? Or vice versa?

The truth, of course, is that I own my stories, but I can’t expect everybody else to like them. Also, I have to live with the consequences of the words I write.

Let’s say that my sister reads something I write and says I got a fact wrong. That happened once, so I corrected the story because the detail pertained most to her life story and I was just a young bystander.

Now, my sister and I had very different experiences with my father. She and I talked about it and decided that we have to allow the other sibling to tell their story without guilt. She knew a side of my father that I never knew, and she no longer tries to convince me to see him in her light.

I do not share identifiable details of my family members without their permission. My whole family is grateful for the income I earn through my very personal writing, but there is no way to know which stories will fare better. I’ve made a career writing about some very hard truths.

Writing about family is complicated.

And I don’t think that will ever change. I make a choice to share as much as I do because I committed myself to honest writing about difficult issues. My high-level goal is to help others know they aren’t alone.

But I also want my daughter to read my work and understand where I came from.

When I’m honest about my life, it helps me better handle the pressure of it all.

And, of course, writing pays the bills. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to have my daughter in preschool at all. I wouldn’t be able to help my mom get what she needs. I wouldn’t be able to do much good at all.

You still have to be able to sleep at night.

The same is true for any writer. A lot of people didn’t believe I should have allowed my mother to stay with me and my daughter. Over the past 9 months, several other folks announced that I was weak (or harming my daughter) if I didn’t kick my mother out.

It never really mattered what other people thought, however. Not really. If I followed some of their advice I wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night. I had to handle it in a way that felt right to me.

These days, the situation still leaves much to be desired, but my mom is finally getting more of the medical attention she needs. Sure, some people feel I “handed my mother over to the hospital.” But that’s a very callous and gross misinterpretation by folks who know very little about wound care or Munchausen’s syndrome.

The reality is that my mother’s hospitalization had nothing to do with me. I simply urged her to see a doctor and they hospitalized her due to the seriousness of her diabetes. And I would have been a monster to have fought it when it’s just what she needed.

Don’t worry about making other people happy.

That includes your readers. People are going to say things which for a moment might make you feel like you’ve failed everybody.

Some readers have said things to suggest that I have failed them, my mother, my daughter, and the writing world at large.

But do you know what? I have no problem with anything I have written because I’ve written the truth. I don’t wish Munchausen syndrome upon any family because it is a helluva disease. And while writing about it helps keep me sane, there are people who think my duty is to shut up about the challenges.

Munchausen syndrome is a very manipulative factitious disease. I don’t get to play pretend and encourage my mother in her illness. Instead, I have to draw up boundaries and pick my battles.

It’s not entirely different from dealing with a loved one’s OCD. There’s exposure therapy and talk therapy. It sucks because sometimes, going along with whatever they say is the worst thing you can do.

Writers don’t owe their readers constant explanations.

When I talk about the guilt I feel in regards to my mother, my daughter, and my writing work, my therapist asks why I feel the need to justify everything I do to anyone.

My choices, my stories. It’s very hard to accept how that means I don’t owe anyone apologies or explanations at all. What I need to do is make the best choices I can and live with the consequences.

Thatcsaid, there are a few quotes which guide my writing every single day.

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

-Anne Lamott

That applies to me as much as anyone else.

“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you have to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.”

-Fred Rogers

This is a good way to write. Knowing yourself makes your work fall more into place.

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

-Fred Rogers

Not everyone is lucky enough to have someone to confide in. Some writers, like myself, choose to tackle some really tough feelings and situations because we know what it’s like to (feel we) have no voice.

There is no right way to tell our stories.

What’s right for one person may not be right for me. What’s good for me may not be good for them.

There is no formula, and there is no single look to love. Life is complicated and being there for abusive parents is no exception. But since there are at least two sides to every story, some people will interpret your stories however they see fit.

And do you know what? That’s okay. If you’re writing stories to help make sense of your struggles, and those stories help others in similar situations, you certainly don’t need to stop what you’re doing when someone complains.

You own your stories. Sure, that means you’ll have to deal with the aftermath too. But owning your truth and writing it down is worth it.

Join my email list to keep in touch and I’ll send you my 12 tips to crush it as a blogger. Or, check me out on Write Already for a behind-the-scenes look at two female writers who are making it work.

Honestly Yours

Essays with heart

Shannon Ashley

Written by

Single mama, full-time writer, ex-vangelical. It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. Top Writer. shannon.ashley.medium@gmail.com

Honestly Yours

No topic is off-limits, and nothing human is unmentionable. Read on.

Shannon Ashley

Written by

Single mama, full-time writer, ex-vangelical. It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. Top Writer. shannon.ashley.medium@gmail.com

Honestly Yours

No topic is off-limits, and nothing human is unmentionable. Read on.

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