Privacy and the Biographer

How does a biographer deal with privacy issues?

As in, what if you stumble on something intimate, do you share or do you shield?

Or perhaps, side-step?

What would you do if you found a comment like this by your subject’s only child:

“She was always very hesitant, you see, I mean a lot of the things I’ve told you, she wouldn’t dream of putting in the book, you see, and both of them [her parents] sort of felt so much, their personal things, their personal experiences, were private, and their personal experiences with God were private.”

Privacy, Biddy Chambers, Oswald Chambers, biographer concerns, Kathleen Chambers, what to reveal and not to reveal in a biography, emotionWell?

What would you do if a biographer asked you?

Is there privacy in the age of the Internet?

Biddy Chambers died 50 years ago; Oswald died 100 years ago. Kathleen Chambers died 20 years ago. Does it matter now?

They have no descendents and little family. Who would care if I revealed secrets I stumbled upon?

I would care.

I’m not interested in being a gossip monger about people who cannot defend themselves and who lived in a different era.

Oswald and Biddy were both born during Queen Victoria’s reign. Their personal scruples mirrored mine in some areas and didn’t bother me in others.

So many well-known people have their lives shredded by the Internet these days, did I really want to follow suit?

Of course not.

Not to mention all the admonitions in the Bible about not slandering people, lying or giving poor reports.

In case you’re wondering, there’s nothing salacious in either Oswald or Biddy’s life.

Nor Kathleen’s life, for that matter.

Still, in a few areas, Kathleen’s comment made me wonder.

Seeking counsel about privacy

Most of the information I have about Biddy’s personal life came from a lengthy series of interviews author David McCasland and a friend conducted with Kathleen Chambers in 1991-92.

Privacy, Biddy Chambers, Oswald Chambers, biographer concerns, Kathleen Chambers, what to reveal and not to reveal in a biography, emotion

Confetti marks the interesting material!

At that time, Kathleen was 78 years old.

As I did background and confirming research on her statements, I found irregularities.

None of them were profound, undoubtedly the result of her age, the fact her father died when she was four, and not having many relatives alive anymore.

I have a transcript of those interviews which I obtained from Wheaton College‘s Special Collections Library.

It’s all marked up and tabbed with post-it notes, now.

Several times, Kathleen revealed information that gave me pause. Do I include, or not?

Does it matter?

How much do I need to shield and protect?

(Or, when is it research and when is it voyeurism?)

Most of the information wasn’t important, do you really care about which boarding school Kathleen attended?

But, one issue was very important.

My husband and I discussed it; I appealed to two spiritually wise friends whom I trusted.

The three made suggestions, books pertinent to the subject crossed my path and I thought and prayed.

Finally, I went to a source.

David McCasland

Biographer David McCasland’s Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God is the source of most information for Chambers researchers.

I examined the notes and primary source information he obtained while writing his biography in the 1990s during the week I spent at Wheaton College’s library.

I could not have written Mrs. Oswald Chambers without his material and his wise counsel when I wrote to ask him for it.Privacy, Biddy Chambers, Oswald Chambers, biographer concerns, Kathleen Chambers, what to reveal and not to reveal in a biography, emotion

Since he participated in those 1991-1992 interviews, I knew he would have insight into how Kathleen felt, or what she believed, that I could not pick up from the edited version of the video I’ve seen.

So, I called him and discussed my few issues and concerns.

Just as in every email he’s ever replied to me, he was wise, kind, insightful and helpful.

After our conversation, I knew what and how I needed to address those personal issues–which was a great relief.

It always helps to return to a primary source when you have questions.


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