Can a Family Memoir Talk About Sex?

Through scientific research and Agatha Christie's own memoir, I found my answer.

Posted May 31, 2016

As I was editing a story today about my 104-year-old great grandmother and her younger love, I began to wonder about the role of love and sex in memoir projects. When I first began writing family history, the intent was to have a record of growing up with Italian grandparents to share with my own young grandchildren. I wanted to create a bridge to the past. Then in writing about the "whisperers" pointing fingers at my Nonna, as she was called, I paused. Was she creating a scandal?

From gossips to the padre at the village parish, many stories emerged about Nonna and the younger man often seen on her arm. In talking with relatives, it was challenging to discern truth from fanciful images.  And this is the beauty of creative non-fiction. You can write what you know even before doing an extensive genealogy search.

An elderly aunt did remind me that indeed Nonna may have been the center of village gossip, but never a scandal. And the one uncle, who fiercely defended her, traveled back and forth to Italy just to be sure everything was “all right” with her.  Eventually I learned that he was a philanderer and would have used any excuse to go back to the old country to charm the ladies. Nonetheless, we never heard Grandma say, 'E ' un donnaiolo,' noting that he was a ladies’ man.  Instead she spoke of his "tendency.”

Uncle had quite the active life of love and sex. But as a colleague warned me when I began expanding vignettes from my Italian Kisses: Grandma’s Wisdom series, “Your family lives forever;  some people are still alive who may remember him.  Are you sure that you want to talk about sex in a family memoir?” (1)

This weekend, as I was completing a 4,000 word article interwoven with family vignettes , I began looking at the periodical section at the Boston Athenaeum (*  First I came upon a new article about  Agatha Christie and her second husband, 14 years her junior.  And yes, such was the case with my Nonna.  Then I began a literature search. Words by Diana Raab, Ph.D., from the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, seemed to resonate:

"The decision to write a memoir is dependent upon both intrinsic and extrinsic factors that are illuminated by pivotal or transcendent experiences. The intrinsic factors may relate to the individual’s emotions, and the extrinsic factors may pertain to what occurs in his or her world.” (2)

For me, the more I wrote about Nonna, the greater the sadness that I felt in knowing that the family life that nurtured me, could never be replicated for my grandchildren.  I felt even more compelled to discuss every detail that I could remember.

Then in reading about Agatha Christie, in Fine Books & Collections, Spring 2016 I saw her experiences in a different light.  A.N. Danvers gives us a look at Christie's travels with the archaeologist who would become her husband.  What is memorable here are Danvers's words and the title of Christie's memoir:

"Her ability to unearth clues served her well both in the field and on the page, from Murder in Mesopotamia to They Came to Baghdad to her lesser known memoir about her time in Syria, Come, Tell Me How You Live.” (3)

The title alone, helped me solve my dilemma. Great grandma loved life, her husband, and her 12 children. But one day, when she was in her 80s, she found new love.  And I wanted my children to know how she lived and how she charmed a man some 14 years her junior. 

I again looked to Dr. Raab, who said of her work:

“In lieu of presenting a problem, this study presented an opportunity to examine the transcendent or pivotal experiences that encourage individuals to choose memoir writing to transform, grow, and become empowered. The transcendent event may be seen as a unique experience that can confirm or affirm an individual’s identity.” (2) 

In exploring my family history, I have come to a new understanding of my great grandmother.  But more importantly, I have an even greater appreciation for my mother's mother. She was a woman who struggled with depression and yet always brought us joy. She may be the reason I have been so committed to gratitude research. Her world was one of the Golden Rule. Her simple wisdom brings life to each little story.  And I still hear her reminding us to "speak kindly of others, always say 'thank you,' and count your blessings."

Although my elderly aunt remembered well the uncle who was "a ladies' man," she reminded me of all the trips he took to check on Nonna. Then she paused, remembering his ways and added: “Sometimes, maybe often, the tendency returned. But he was a good man; always remember him as a good man.”

Should love and sex be included in one’s memoir?”  If  love and sex play a meaningful role, and it can be dealt with tactfully, then for me, that answer is “Yes.”  

*An academic member of the Boston Athenaeum as adjunct professor, English Department, Suffolk University, Boston, MA.


1. Italian Kisses: Grandma's Wisdom,the Providence Journal and

2. Diana Raab, Ph.D., "Creative Transcendence: Memoir Writing for Transformation and Empowerment." Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2014, Vol. 46, No.

For, Diana Raab writes The Empowerment Diary./blog/the-empowerment-diary

3. Devers, A.N. "Digging for Stories." Fine Books & Collections, Spring 2016

Copyright Rita Watson 2016