Why I Write About My Daughter’s O.C.D.
By BETH BOYLE MACHLAN
Not long ago, I published an essay in the Times’s “Opinionator” section: “Two-Way Mirror: Facing a Daughter’s O.C.D.,” about my daughter Lucy’s treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette Syndrome, as well as my own history of mental illness. By doing so, I became what Phoebe Maltz Bovy, a blogger for The Atlantic, calls a “parental oversharer,” a writer “mining [her] children’s lives for material.” I disagree with Ms. Bovy’s diagnosis, but she raises valid questions. Should parents write publicly about the lives of their children? What, if anything, should be off-limits? How much is too much?
My essay juxtaposed my memories of severe depression with Lucy’s treatment for O.C.D., which on that day involved holding her finger above a piece of paper. I described how Lucy lined up her dolls and plucked out her eyebrows, as well as the thought process behind her behavior: “If I don’t do this, something bad will happen” – textbook symptoms shared by many children with O.C.D. Does recounting them make me an “oversharer” of “private” material? Some Times commenters thought so: “This author is exploiting her child for her own gains … Has [she] thought of how her child will feel? her child … can’t possibly understand all the ramifications this article will have on her future.”
I have published a few articles about Lucy, and we talked about each one as I was writing it. I also discussed the Times article with her therapist (whose full name and affiliation were not mentioned) and other family members, all of whom had Lucy’s well-being in mind. In the end, the only thing Lucy didn’t like was the chaotic illustration that accompanied the article on the Times’s Web site. Does this mean that all children approve of what their parents write about them, or have the capacity to do so? Of course not.
Nor does it mean that no child can grant informed consent. The inconveniently ambiguous truth is that some children do understand, and some don’t; some can, and some can’t.
Lucy understood, in part because she has had to address one of her conditions publicly since it appeared. Tourette Syndrome is a secret that “outs” itself, in myriad audible, visible ways. For the past three years, since she was 8, Lucy has had to explain to her classmates that she cannot control the noises and movements she makes, that Tourette’s is not contagious, and that she appreciates their support and understanding. This year, one child missed the memo, repeatedly asking her: “Why can’t you be quiet? What’s wrong with you?” After continued hounding, Lucy exploded. “I told you, I have Tourette Syndrome! What’s wrong with you?” By being brave enough to own her condition in public, Lucy turned a bully into the odd man out. Yes, she has Tourette’s and O.C.D., but she also has loyal friends, great fashion sense, and a brown belt in tae kwon do. So try explaining to her that she should keep her disorders a secret because some jerk might Google her some day. She’ll give you exactly the eye roll you deserve.
We weren’t always so confident. Back when Lucy’s symptoms terrified me and baffled three pediatricians in two states, I would have been thrilled to come across an “overshare” about Tourette Syndrome. I was positive that she had a brain tumor, and frantic for a diagnosis that took months to emerge. I wrote about Lucy in the hope of helping people understand her conditions, and the positive responses to my articles move and humble me. I receive e-mails from people with Tourette’s and O.C.D. thanking me for sharing our experiences, as well as from parents seeking medical referrals or encouragement. I agree that some parents air their children’s laundry for the wrong reasons, and in the wrong places (the clothesline is not automatically preferable to the closet). But we can’t judge a book by its backlash. Parents who open up about their children’s challenges may help other families find the resources they need.
Ms. Bovy claims that “parental overshare, however well-intentioned, is unethical.” I cannot speak for all parents who write, but I’d like to stick up for those of us who have our children’s best interests at heart. Is it ethical to allow prejudice against mental illness or other forms of difference to persist? Is it ethical to make a child stay silent about who she is and how she feels? Yes, parents should think twice, 200 times, even, before they write about their children, and editors and audiences should reject pieces that might humiliate or harm them. But readers have responsibilities, too. Read generously, respond thoughtfully, and keep in mind that one parent’s “overshare” may lead to another child’s treatment and relief.