After Petraeus and Broadwell, Considering the Ethics of Biographies

Let’s start with an eminently reasonable suggestion from the ethicists: Preferred behavior for biographers does not include sleeping with the people they write about. So much for that business between David H. Petraeus and his chronicler, Paula Broadwell.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

Hang on, not so fast. Might hanky-panky between subject and biographer be somehow less objectionable if it is openly acknowledged?

A group of respected thinkers pondered that one for a moment Monday evening at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. But in the end the consensus among them boiled down to a single, if inelegant, word: Nah.

“I don’t think it would change the ethics of what she did,” said Carol Levine, an ethicist who is director of the Families and Health Care Project at the United Hospital Fund. Ms. Levine was referring to Ms. Broadwell. But she quickly edited herself. “What they did,” she said.

The Petraeus-Broadwell affair has been examined from almost every conceivable angle: national security, marital fidelity, military code of honor, human frailty, you name it. Monday evening, it inspired a discussion about the “ethics of biography,” conducted before an audience of 65 under the auspices of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, a division of the Graduate Center.

As you might have suspected, there are issues in play for biographers besides sex, the Petraeus-Broadwell spectacle notwithstanding.

Authors don’t have to hop into bed with their subjects to qualify as getting too close, said Gary Giddins, executive director of the biography center and author of books on Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Bing Crosby. To go way back, there is James Boswell, as in Samuel Johnson’s Boswell. “He wasn’t sleeping with Johnson,” Mr. Giddins said. “But he worshiped the ground Johnson walked on. He was a toady.” Not the most enviable label to have slapped on you, we’d say.

Joining this conversation, besides Ms. Levine, were John Matteson and Benjamin Anastas. Mr. Matteson wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father, and, more recently, one of Margaret Fuller, a 19th-century American transcendentalist. Mr. Anastas has just published a memoir, “Too Good to Be True,” which for some people has raised questions about whether it is possible to reveal perhaps a tad too much about oneself.

Does a memoirist have a responsibility to anyone other than himself? “Absolutely,” Mr. Anasta responded. Before publishing his book, he said, he showed it to people who figure in it. “I didn’t want anyone to be blindsided,” he said.

Mr. Matteson said that “a moral obligation” also extended to people long dead.

For example, Alcott, who died in 1888 at age 55, was a “very private” person. She so disliked having others poke into her life, he said, that she would turn a garden hose on reporters nosing around her house. (Don’t try this at home, people.)

“There’s no history of her ever having a lover,” Mr. Matteson said. Inevitably, that fed speculation: Was she hiding something? Might she have been gay? “There was no smoking gun, no evidence” as to her sexuality, Mr. Matteson said. In the end, “given how private she was,” he said, “I felt I had to step back” and not pursue the matter further.

Those among you who truly crave to know the sex life of the creator of Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy will have to search elsewhere. Sorry.

Some issues that arose on Monday were fairly straightforward: Does a biographer who has interviewed his or her subject take that person’s account as gospel? Plainly, no. Is it ethical for a writer to gussy up an absence of hard facts with fudge phrases like “maybe” this or that occurred, or such and such “could have” happened? Examples of that technique abound. But it’s “heavy-handed,” and best avoided, Mr. Matteson said.

Nor, the panelists agreed, is it a good idea to toss a juicy anecdote into a category favored by many a story teller: “too good to check.” Probe deeper, they said.

But not everything can be investigated thoroughly. Mr. Giddins inquired about “the ethics of letters.” How does a biographer treat letters written by a subject who died long ago: with the same critical eye that would be applied to a living person, or with an assumption that they, in Mr. Giddins’s words, “always tell the truth”?

“That won’t be a problem in 20 years,” Ms. Levine said. “We won’t have any letters.”

Not an encouraging thought, even if she was probably right. Then again, as Mr. Petraeus and Ms. Broadwell learned the hard way, letters aren’t everything. For a biographer, exchanges of e-mails may do you. They may do you in, too.


E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]

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