To whom does the story belong?

by Bruce Hiebert Ph.D.

Does the story belong to the story-teller or to those who seem identified in the story?

The academic view is that the work belongs to the story-teller, not to those identified. There is no need to consult with or respect the desires or well-being of those who might see themselves as identified in the story. Story-telling, from an academic point of view, is an inquiry into the life-world construction of the story-teller, a review of the internal experience of the story-teller as it emerges through the writing process, whether it attempts to be fact or fiction. The difference is that factual stories are expected to be critically defensible (a reasonable fit to the available facts) and fiction stories are expected to meet high standards of rhetoric. In neither case do academics expect them to be true, let alone Truth. Inasmuch as academics expect truth to appear, they would argue that good stories are efforts at a type of truthfulness, but for many reasons they may fall short. But always they represent the projected identity of the story-teller, and sometimes only that.

There is the further problem that sometimes story-tellers get things wrong, whether fact or fiction. Their perspectives are limited, their facts never full, and even with the best of intentions they can get it wrong. I admit to making this mistake myself. There is a serious error in my doctoral dissertation, though it passed all academic standards for legitimacy. Based on the best academic reasoning available the dissertation drew nauseating conclusions about the behaviour of some members of the community I was studying. It took me a further ten years of research to come up with and then begin to support a hypothesis that would explain the observed behaviour in more neutral, though still troubling, terms. But even then the new hypothesis might not stand the test of academic critical analysis since it posits a view of human behaviour not supported by other current research. The truth might never be known and an error be the final representation as fact and a whole community’s history be tarnished as a result.

For those who find themselves apparently identified in those stories this can be a very troubling perspective, especially if they are family members of the writer or members of a close or closed community. If a writer makes a serious error, or even merely fails to identify what the family or community think are pertinent facts or distorts characters in the interest of a good literary story, the results can be exceedingly painful. The sense of violation is acute. If the writer reveals (or appears to reveal) facts the family or community would rather repress or hold secret, the results can be devastating.

There is no easy solution. A responsible writer reflects on the outcomes that might ensue. While they have no responsibility to be kind or compassionate to those who might be hurt by the story as written, they try not to publish materials they know will cause enormous distress. Their academic responsibility is to the story as it expresses their view of reality, whether factual or literary, but their human responsibility is to take the lives of others as no less precious than the telling of a good story.


Bruce Hiebert is a former university professor and administrator who does research in ethno-history and ethics. He is currently retraining to become a family therapist.

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