Family Pauses over Woman's Posthumous Request

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One listener's mother, an artist, had asked that her artwork and journals be burned after her death, but the family can't decide whether to honor that wish. The Ethicist weighs in.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

The author Franz Kafka famously demanded that his papers be burned after his death, but his friend and literary executor Max Brod refuse to do it. Brod said, Franz should have appointed another executor if he had been absolutely and finally determined that his instruction should stand. Without Brod's defiance, we wouldn't have been able to read classic Kafka works like "The Trial."

This week, with ethicist Randy Cohen, we'll hear from a listener with a similar dilemma. Adeline Talbot(ph) wrote to us from Greensboro, North Carolina, and she joins us on the line now. Hello. Welcome.

Ms. ADELINE TALBOT (Listener): Hello.

ELLIOTT: And, Randy, are you with us again? Hello.

RANDY COHEN: I am indeed. Hi, Debbie. Hi, Adeline.

ELLIOTT: Adeline, you say you are wondering what to do with your mother's papers. What's the situation there?

Ms. TALBOT: Well, my mother died unexpectedly three years ago in an accident. And she had been a practicing artist for many years, and she left a large body of work including sketchbooks and journals. And over the years, she's asked two family friends to promise to burn her journal and sketchbooks should she die unexpectedly. Well, when she did die, we were conflicted about doing that, and it's interesting you read the Kafka intro because I was aware of that, and I thought of it often in the last three years.

And we just still don't know what to do. We packed them away, no one's read them, and just wondered what the ethical basis for making this decision. She's gone, so she can't be harmed by this, but also with her wish, who's right?

ELLIOTT: Now, did she put this in her will? You mentioned that friend - her friends have told you this. Was anything in writing?

Ms. TALBOT: No. Nothing was in writing. There's no legal - you know, legally binding aspect of - it's just to honor her wish. I'm the literalist. I feel like if she wanted us to burn it, then we should probably do that. But I'm one of four sisters and two family friends.

ELLIOT: How did the others feel?

Ms. TALBOT: They are - two are on the fence, and the other sister really wants to keep the material and if necessary have a neutral party go through and just pull all, for example, the sketches, anything that would be of value in relation to my mother's work.

Then there's the thought of just putting it away for two - for a generation. You know, after we're gone, our children can look at it in case there was hurtful material, you know?

ELLIOT: Well, let's get Randy in on this.

Ms. TALBOT: Okay.

ELLIOT: Randy, obviously this isn't a legal question then. This is simply a question of do they need to respect the wishes of Adeline's dead mother?

COHEN: I believe they do. I believe Adeline has the right end of this, the a promise is a promise end. And I think it's not just that her late mother would be hurt; it's that she may have written things that would hurt other people.

I get versions of this question regularly at the column, and that seems more often the concern that in our unguarded thoughts, we think things that might be very harmful to others, and it's a willingness not to do harm. So even though your mother is beyond harm, other people are not. But I would propose an exemption to the a promise is a promise rule, and that's the immortal-genius-a-person-of-historical-importance exemption, very much akin to your put-it-away-for-a-generation.

Yes, put the papers in a box for 50 years or pick your time limit…

Ms. TALBOT: Right.

COHEN: …to minimize any harm they can do. And they may still do some harm. You can't be absolutely sure, but it seems to me the benefit of doing this is overwhelmingly good that it meets the intentions of the persons who kept papers not to embarrass themselves or do harm to others.

And others, you know, what about my needs? You know, I want to read these papers. History gives us so many examples of papers tragically lost. Jane Austen's sister, Cassandra, destroyed all the letters she and Jane had exchanged.

Ms. TALBOT: (Unintelligible).

COHEN: Yeah. Boswell's heirs destroyed a passage in his diary where he describes a fling he had with Rosseau's mistress. I want sexy details. And my favorite is Thomas Hardy destroyed a manuscript of his wife entitled "What I think of My Husband."

Ms. TALBOT: I think he had to.

COHEN: I think you can honor the intent of a person who kept diaries as long as you put them aside for a while.

Ms. TALBOT: Wonderful. I think that answer is going to satisfy everybody.

ELLIOTT: Adeline Talbot, thank you for writing to the Ethicist.

Ms. TALBOT: Thank you.

ELLIOT: Randy Cohen writes The Ethicist column for the New York Times magazine, and he also answers your question here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. If you'd like advise from Randy, write to us. Go to our Web site, npr.org. Click on contact us and select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Put the word Ethics in the subject line, and please include a phone number where we can reach you.

Randy, good to talk with you, as always.

COHEN: Always a pleasure.

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