Follow-up to Motherlode Story; Thoughts on the Responsibilities of Writers and Readers

There’s a “rest of the story” on Motherlode today, and the picture it paints, in the words of the father and wife involved in the “dirty little secret” post from earlier this week, is heartbreaking, and very sympathy-inducing. Basically, the father was served with papers a few months into his marriage, telling him he was the father of a two-year old. The financial strain of paying back child support, the financial and emotional hardship of going to court 40 times hoping to gain visitation, etc, and the regular stresses of starting a family and career have put them in the current situation.

This post tells such a radically different story than the first essay did. I feel horrified for everyone involved. I understand why they have given up for now on making the boy a part of their family, because it sounds impossibly complicated (maybe, simply, “impossible”). I applaud them for continuing to honor the father’s financial obligation.

But this brings up a slew of interesting writer-audience issues. I can’t apologize for reacting the way I did to the first essay, because my feelings were based not on conjecture or gossip or the writing of a critical reporter, but on the facts and feelings that one of the principal characters shared. In telling a story, the onus is on the writer to present relevant facts, to tell the story, and if things are misunderstood (especially by such large numbers of people), the fault is the writer’s, not the audience’s. If the claims made in the second post are true, then the mother/writer is either a very unreliable narrator, a poor writer, or an irresponsible attention-seeker.

The mother/writer in the first piece sounded shallow, image-conscious, and materialistic. Perhaps (hopefully) she’s not. But that’s how she herself presented herself.

It’s like if Shakespeare came along and said, “Wait! You think Romeo was foolish and short-sighted and impulsive to kill himself when he found Juliet lying on the tomb? He wasn’t! He gathered the top five doctors in Verona and each one pronounced her dead! He waited three days as her body decomposed and THEN he drove the dagger into his heart! DUH! You don’t know anything! You’re so quick to come to conclusions about somebody. … Oh? What? You say I FORGOT to put that in Act 5? Well, shucks, that story is so familiar to me, I thought EVERYBODY knew about the multiple autopsies and the mirror-breath test. You readers are so dumb and quick to judge.”

Except it’s even worse, because to really be a parallel case, it would have to be Romeo who wrote the play and then got hurt, defensive, and morally superior when people came to the inevitable conclusion that he was a big boob.

Another issue is Lisa Belkin’s responsibility in all this. As the writer of the Motherlode blog, she frequently has guest posters, and they often explicitly or implicitly ask for advice. Several times guest posters have been criticized for decisions they have made. Perhaps this is an ugly part of blogging, but it is also, in fact, an intrinsic part of blogging: reader response is the WHOLE POINT OF BLOGGING.

If you write a post on a blog with comments, you ask for and expect responses. If those responses do not include the fawning congratulation or commiseratory sympathy you thought your story deserved, you can’t then say, “How rude! I didn’t ask you to intrude on my private life! How dare you presume to comment!” Because when you posted to a public blog which asks people to “join the discussion,” you ASKED FOR COMMENTS.

I think Lisa Belkin’s editorial policy bears some of the burden here. Since it was not her story (so she presumably at least wasn’t “forgetting” important details), what was the motive for publishing such a damaging, one-sided initial account? Controversy? Link-baiting? In not urging her guest poster to dig deeper for and include these mitigating circumstances, I think she has betrayed the trust of a writer she should have mentored, in favor of the publicity-loving instincts of sensationalistic journalism.

And that’s all I’m gonna say about that.

(Except to say that I hope things work out for the family and the boy. What a difficult situation with no easy answers.)

14 thoughts on “Follow-up to Motherlode Story; Thoughts on the Responsibilities of Writers and Readers

  1. I, for one, am happy to be wrong in my assumptions, though I do wish the situation were better for all involved. (And I have to say I was at first and now am even more confused as to why the mother doesn’t just let her husband adopt the boy who already bears his name. The judgmental side of me says it’s because she wants the $1000.)

    Clearly, the first essay didn’t do its job if literally every single comment I read (hundreds) somehow “misinterpreted” the essay. Reminds me of a teacher I had in college. After a semester of open-book tests on a text she barely understood herself (a brand new method of diagramming Spanish sentences), she decided the final would be closed book. And wouldn’t you know? The whole class failed.

    She was very disappointed in us. But, hey, the feeling was mutual. (Still resent the B+ she gave me, since I’d worked really hard in that class and had gotten one of the highest scores on the final (despite, still, failing the test).)

    So, um, who didn’t do their job? Not the 30 students who couldn’t turn to their teacher for help in the first place.

    • Yes, I’m happy to be wrong, and also, I agree on suspecting the mother (not the wife) of mercenary motives. That is, after all, the one theme consistent throughout both pieces — that the whole fiasco is someone else’s (the mother’s) fault.

      And when I said Lisa Belkin had betrayed the writer’s vulnerabilities (her poor storytelling/presentation), I think an even better word would be “exploited.” I understand that all our “news” is probably sensationalized, but this was a pretty extreme example.

    • I am interested in this and have now read both posts and 90% of the comments and I have to say, I think most people misread the first piece. Yes, she focuses on the material items, but her point is not that she is impressed with herself for having them, but rather that other people might view her as having the perfect life BECAUSE of these material items, but, in actuality, they are lies, social constructs that are incorrect.

      I disagree with the commenter who suggested that “so many people could not misread a piece.” In fact, I think it was a mob mentality over there on motherlode and those people not only misread the piece (I did not even remotely see the things they claim to have seen), but then became angry at the piece for revealing them as moral absolutists who are unable to see an ambivalent situation. I think it says more about the audience and their lack of attention to detail.

  2. Even knowing the whole story, there are still things that the step-mother/author did (or allowed) that are completely unacceptable–like allowing her mother to introduce him as a friend’s son as the poor kid stood there.

    It’s a horrible situation, I agree, but it’s not the child’s fault. He’s really the only victim here.

    And if the author is going to write what she wrote and present the story in the way that she did, then she deserves every single comment she got.

  3. Hhmmm…I read these in order (as it should be). The most recent post does change a few things. Sheds light, etc.
    It doesn’t change that I feel sorry for the kid. No one should be another’s DLS. (another’s isn’t a word, apparently…I don’t care.)
    One of the things I adore about you Jane is how you break things down and present them logically. You make me think. You don’t settle for BS. You call it like you see it. I so admire that…
    I’m a fan.

  4. p.s. This may be controversial to say, but isn’t one of the saddest things that this was entirely preventable? I wish people realized that every time they slept with someone they might have a child out of the relationship, would it change our behavior?

  5. Honestly, one thing I hope in all this is that the writer has had her eyes opened. Maybe she didn’t realize how shallow and materialistic she was until she read those comments. And I also agree that the real tragedy is that boy, stuck in the middle. I wish I could take him home with me…..

  6. I am interested in this and have now read both posts and 90% of the comments and I have to say, I think most people misread the first piece. Yes, she focuses on the material items, but her point is not that she is impressed with herself for having them, but rather that other people might view her as having the perfect life BECAUSE of these material items, but, in actuality, they are lies, social constructs that are incorrect.

    I disagree with the commenter who suggested that “so many people could not misread a piece.” In fact, I think it was a mob mentality over there on motherlode and those people not only misread the piece (I did not even remotely see the things they claim to have seen), but then became angry at the piece for revealing them as moral absolutists who are unable to see an ambivalent situation. I think it says more about the audience and their lack of attention to detail.

    • You’re absolutely right that you can infer a lot about an audience (or a blogger) by their reaction to this sort of story. As I said in my first post, I don’t think my reaction would have been as strong if I didn’t know this other family that seemed to have very similar circumstances but very different results. Finding out that the father in the Motherlode story wasn’t aware of his son for almost 3 years makes for one HUGE difference in circumstances, as well as the mother being allegedly unsurpassed in uncooperativeness.

      Even thinking as I do, of course I (we) could have been more charitable and forbearing after reading the first piece — I have never regretted, after all, erring on the side of thinking well of people rather than thinking ill, but I stand by my analysis of the poor storytelling/writing being responsible for most of the negative reaction.

      (I hope you left a comment on Motherlode similar to yours here — it sounds like the writer would appreciate knowing that someone read her piece and understood.)

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