From the archives: The ethics of writing about those who have died

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Dad in late 1988/early 1989.

Dad in late 1988/early 1989.

NOTE: This was originally published on July 8, 2012.

I have no doubt that my dad would approve of my memoir. He was the type of guy who enjoyed meeting people. I like to think he had such a big personality that he’s not going to let death stop him from meeting new people, which he can continue to do through my book. I think he’d be thrilled to know his name will be in print.

But as I work on my next project, I face a different scenario. I have reams of documents on Camilla Hall, a member of the 1970s Symbionese Liberation Army. I wrote about Camilla for my master’s thesis in history. Camilla’s story drew me in. She was a St. Peter native, a southern Minnesota girl just like me. She was a pastor’s daughter and strong believer in social justice. In many ways, she was an outsider, and I feel that way at times, too. Her story is a compelling one, filled with narrative tension, intriguing characters and lingering mysteries.

Camilla Hall.

Camilla Hall.

Camilla died in a shoot-out with Los Angeles police on May 17, 1974, along with five other SLA members. Patty Hearst and two other original SLA members not involved in the shoot-out continued a fugitive lifestyle for more than a year.

Camilla had three siblings—all of whom preceded her in death. Her parents long outlived their children, but they are now dead, too. Relatives who are still alive are distant. Camilla remains the SLA’s least-known member. In effect, I am the keeper of her story, one of few people who know her life intimately.

I’ve been sitting on this story for about eight years. After I finished my thesis, I continued to do more research, including spending two weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area—where the SLA formed—thanks to a Jerome Travel and Study Grant in 2008. My full intent throughout this time is to write a narrative nonfiction book about Camilla, modeled on Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

But whereas I feel so certain about my dad’s wishes, I remain unclear about what Camilla wants. She’s not here to tell her story. But does she want her story told? Who I am to decide that the world should know about her? What if she doesn’t want to be known? What if she wants to recede into the shadows of history? But on the other hand, maybe she wants her story out in the open. It just doesn’t feel right to make that decision on my own.

How do other writers choose to write about the dead? I’m not talking about famous dead (if you were famous in life, then you probably don’t mind that people still know your name and your story). I’m talking about someone rather obscure who has no family or friends left to express their wishes. Am I putting too much thought into this? It just seems really important to me to try to intuit what Camilla would want before moving forward.

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