Biography, Cultural Studies, Life Writing, Literary Studies

Private Lives, Intimate Readings

08.05.15 | Comment?

In any attempt to report on the life of another, or even one’s own life, an inescapable ethical dilemma arises that relates to entering intensely private areas of experience and presenting intimate subject matter for the world to see. How much intimate material should be revealed? For what purpose? To whose benefit? At what risk? How?

In an era when millions of people are willing to share the minutiae of their individual daily lives via social media and the private lives of the famous are exposed routinely to mass audiences, such questions loom larger than ever. With easier access to private information—by governments, hackers, marketers, and private citizens—this area has become one of global concern in the context of the fundamental human right to privacy.

Critical engagement with the private and the intimate has always been a key characteristic of life-writing studies, and this field has made a noteworthy contribution to contemporary reconceptualisations of the private and the public spheres and the intricate interconnections between them. For many life-writing scholars, their own family history has constituted a central site of exploration that has informed and shaped their theoretical perceptions.

Life writing frequently needs to use imaginative and fictional strategies to overcome gaps and absences (Miller; Hoffmann). Life writing is also required to perform acts of interpretation and translation—in the figurative and literal sense—concerning, for example, intergenerational acts of transfer (Hirsch) that may involve crossing languages, cultural contexts, time periods, or political ideologies. When dealing with intimate material, the choice of style, media, and degree of imaginative intervention can be a sensitive ethical as well as aesthetic matter. Further, there can be discord between place as a geographical entity today and its memorial implications with regard to lost and destroyed realities (Hirsch and Spitzer).

As the essays in this special issue attest, the transmission and preservation of stories from generation to generation frequently require crossing into private spaces. Sometimes the most secret memories or the most private remnants of information are also those that can lead to the most profound insights. Exposing secrets, even humiliating secrets, can then become a way of honouring lives. The delicate balance between life writing’s need to delve into the lives of others and the desire to be respectful towards them is the topic that each of the essays in this collection confronts, explores, or embodies. This, in turn, highlights an awareness of the relational nature of privacy that requires ‘understanding and respecting the kind of sociability each form of address presupposes’ (Jolly 232).

The sense of intergenerational obligation in these essays adds urgency to the task of preservation while foregrounding the special kinds of courtesies required when the subjects are from prior generations, including the distant past. Permission to publish can be sought from the living but not the dead.

A related matter is the practical task of locating clues and traces, and finding appropriate ways to use them—whether they are material items, such as letters, diaries, or photographs, or they take the form of spoken words, in which case the voice, language, and speech patterns become an important part of the subject’s portrayal and the world that person inhabited. In intimate exchanges, silences and hesitations can be as significant as the words themselves.

At the heart of the process of discovering, uncovering, and honouring lives are memories. Running through these essays is the major theme of memory as the source of all intergenerational transmission of culture and history—whether relating to family, community, nation, ancestry, or political allegiance—and the importance of the intimate and personal in that transmission. However, memory can be experienced and transmitted in many different ways, and it may be, as Paul Arthur’s essay suggests, that processes of remembering, as well as methods of storing and sharing memories, are currently being influenced and changed by digital technologies. There may be a need to develop strategies for forgetting as every life amasses uncontrollable quantities of data on multiple devices and on the Web. In this context, the sharing of life experiences and memories through letters, notebooks, or face-to-face contact is celebrated in this collection as something to be treasured.


Arthur, Paul Longley and Leena Kurvet-Käosaar. ‘Editorial,’ in ‘Private Lives, Intimate Readings,’ ed. Paul Longley Arthur and Leena Kurvet-Käosaar, special issue, Life Writing 12, no. 2 (2015): 119-23.

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Paul Arthur is Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Research Fellow and Chair in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He speaks and publishes widely on major challenges and changes facing 21st-century society, from the global impacts of technology on communication, culture and identity