Do we Have a Duty of Care Toward Those we Write About?

Is it ever acceptable to dehumanize anyone for profit?

Some words hit you so hard you can taste bile in your mouth when you read them.

No matter how inured we may be to human cruelty, nothing can prepare us for a personal narrative that deliberately dehumanizes a parent. Especially when said parent is sick and elderly and sounds like they need help navigating what ails them.

But when their offspring deny them dignity and reduce them to a laundry list of complaints that range from extra dollars on a utility bill to ruined furniture, it’s hard not to wonder how such trifling concerns can take precedence over ill health. Imagine bringing a child into the world and have them write they would rather wash their hands of you and hand you over to a hospital because you cramp their style.

How would you feel?

I haven’t had children yet but I have parents, one of whom is gravely ill. My beloved stepmom has been wrangling Stage IV cancer for a year now so I spend a lot of time in hospitals. In fact, the day oncology ward at the Institut Curie in Paris is practically a second home for my her, my dad, my stepbrother, and I.

And the day a hospital or hospice admits her for good, i.e. for palliative care, I can guarantee you none of us will cheer. In fact, we’ll probably resist it and care for her ourselves with the help of nurses instead. Losing the love of his life will likely kill my father; losing his mom will likely destroy my stepbrother; losing the mom I always wished for will likely torpedo my own mental health again. No matter what precautions we all take, our hearts aren’t made of stone. We’ve all been hanging by a thread since September 2018.

So to see an adult child exploit their mother’s distress for clicks and bucks is so disturbing to me I find myself unable to process it. How can someone unable to muster enough critical distance to see their sick parent as a fellow human in pain dare demand compassion from readers by playing the victim?

Perhaps I’m struggling to understand this because I come from a culture that emphasizes solidarity and respect for elders. Around here in the EU, we tend to put people first, not things. And perhaps this is because I come from journalism, a profession where respect for the whole person is at the heart of any human interest piece and enshrined in every single code of conduct, too.

Or perhaps this is simply because that story was a little too close for comfort.

Bar for the first 9 years of my life, I too was raised by a single mom.

Nothing special about this. It was as normalized when I was younger as it is now; sometimes raising a child alone is a choice, sometimes it’s not but many kids grow up well-adjusted regardless.

While I have no doubt my mother did the best she could, she was never not overwhelmed and this translated in frequently being unable to control her temper, which resulted in domestic abuse. She had postpartum depression that was never dealt with and she’s also a chronic depressive. What’s more, she suffered abuse at the hands of her own mother for her entire life. For my part, abuse started when my parents were still together and went on until I left home at 17.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a café at Paris-Nord waiting to board a train to go visit my mother with whom interactions are rare, often destructive, and therefore distant. On the one hand, my stepmom insists I make an effort to go see my genitor as she herself is estranged from her own daughter and I can see how much it consumes her. On the other, I still haven’t given up hope of building a mutually respectful and supportive relationship with my mom.

I’m an adult now, I can counter arguments, I can hold my own. And I hopefully have enough emotional intelligence and life experience by now to let bygones be bygones.

Why live in the past? It’s gone.

My mother is 73 and her health is declining fast. She leads a life steeped in the kind of isolation that very nearly killed me during the five years I lost to depression. Also, I’m an only child. While my mom understands my being here for my father and his wife in their hour of need, she too needs human warmth, attention, and whatever moral support I can give her.

Because if I don’t, who will? Some strangers in a nursing home? Her neighbor? The mail carrier? (The latter isn’t a joke: The French postal service has recently launched a paid care program whereby mail carriers check on seniors and stop by for a chat. This is because elderly parents often live far from their kids who have moved away to another part of France or even abroad)

As far back as I can recall, I’ve always been keenly aware of my mother’s existential pain.

She has always talked to me as if I were an adult, as if I could understand everything that was going on even when I was still way too young to do so. Even without being able to relate, I could sense clearly how much she was suffering, how unhappy, and how terribly uncomfortable in her own skin she was. And remains to this day, alas.

Even though she used to hit me, I never stopped trying to alleviate her pain somehow, I never stopped trying to get her to love me. I used to leave lots of little notes everywhere for her to find, sweet nothings from a little kid who was already more articulate in print than in person.

Emotional fluency, alas, isn’t our strong point as a family unless we take to the printed word. Be it on my father’s or my mother’s side, we’re doers, not talkers; in my family, love is implied, even when it hurts, even when it shouts.

It took emotional maturity and many, many years for me to understand this. As a child and a young adult, I longed for the kind of parental love that’s so omnipresent it’s almost overbearing. I’ve always admired close-knit families and longed to be one of those children who never question their parents’ love. Little did I know then that love is what also holds my family together, too, albeit in ways that aren’t exactly standard.

When death looms large and tries to kill one of you, it tends to remind you of what matters most, namely presence, dignity, and love. Everything else falls by the wayside.

Even our monsters feel pain, and the absence of compassion breeds more monsters, the kind of monsters who see nothing wrong with lining their pockets with the proceeds of someone else’s disempowerment, no matter how unethical this may be.

As the saying goes, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store