My book Vanished: True Stories of the Missing relays seven harrowing stories of people who went off the grid.
Three of those seven are still with us (meaning they were found); one more might be (but probably isn’t) and, if supernatural power exists, a fifth might also be (but almost certainly isn’t).
Aside from a straightforward institutional Rosa Parks biography years ago, this was my first experience writing a book in which a "starring" figure in the story was still alive. It got me thinking about the increased responsibility inherent in that.
Of course, serious writers of nonfiction strive to be as accurate as possible no matter who they are writing about. But when the subject of a book or story is still around, certain mistakes could lead to more than just a tsk-tsk from a librarian. Certain mistakes can be embarrassing or, worse, damaging to the person in question.
What do writers owe the people they write about? I asked myself this as I was researching Vanished, particularly after I encountered some friction from one of the people the book would feature.
I feel a writer must be fair to his subject but not overly protective—because that would not be fair to his readers and to the "record." I don’t know if there is a formal definition of what makes a person a public figure, but I have been told that it is legal to write about anyone. (That doesn’t mean a person unhappy with your portrayal can’t sue you.)
But I am no journalist. I like to think I’d stop at nothing to get a story, and in some ways I can be relentless, but I’m not ruthless. I’ve found ways to tell unpleasant truths (or at least truths that a person wants to keep hidden) in ways that don’t completely expose a person. But there have been a couple of times I have held back on publishing a fact because I feel it’s not my right as a stranger to share it. Some writers would call this cowardly. I get that, but to me it’s more about conscience.
One of the more nerve-racking moments in my career was sending a copy of Vanished to the three people in it who survived their ordeals.
Normally during research for nonfiction, I try to speak with people I am writing about, or, if they’re deceased, people who knew them. But this book had different parameters and a tight deadline, plus the more recent incidents I was including had been well covered in the media. Therefore, two of those three people did not know that they were in a book until I asked for their addresses, and the third was the one mentioned above.
I was prepared for a disapproving reaction from all three, not because I knew a lot about their temperaments but because I would understand if they felt violated that someone had written about them without their permission or input, especially given the sensitive subject matter.
With one exception, I needn’t have worried.