Rules of engagement

As far as I can see there are any ethical problems involved in the theoretical part of my memoir project (→ approaches), because I don’t need to mention other people by name.

The empirical part of the project (the factual memoir → versions of my memoirs) is different, however. I have met many people throughout my life and can or will not mention all of them, of course, but neither will I avoid to mention those who have played an important role in my life.

Inspired by memoir writer Mary Karr’s The art of memoir (2015), I’ve outlined this set of rules of engagement with now living persons:

1. My memoirs are subjective and my interpretation of the causes and development of relations with others can be wrong from their point of view. Unless they have shared their thought and feelings about our relation in writing, I can only speculate about their motives and feelings, and will therefore avoid uninformed guesses.

2. If I believe someone might take offense, I will tell them about my project, remind them of our former relation, and inform them about the fact that I will mention them in the memoir.

3. In case I express negative opinions about others, I will do it with care and try to avoid direct quotations that risk exposing them; my memoir is about my thoughts and feelings, not about theirs. I make an exception for others’ expression of thoughts and feelings if these reveal something important about me as a person.

4. I will accept demands for pseudonymity by replacing full names with first name or initials, or anonymize the source in different ways, for example, “as one of my students said”.

5. It’s in my own interest to send relevant chapters or paragraphs of the manuscript to individuals that I’ve had close personal relations to, like intimate partners, children and close friends.

6. I’m willing to delete facts and passages that are factually incorrect, and I will seriously consider deleting passages that make someone very upset (‘principle of mercy’).

With my mother. Stockholm, 1947.
I will mention my mother by her full name, Ann-Louise Ekborg, earlier Ann-Louise Richardsson (born Söderqvist)


I have an immense personal interest in the project (→ personal aims), and I have a professional interest in the sense that the (hopefully) high quality of my work may be good for my professional reputation. I also have a political interest: I see myself as an activist for graceful ageing. But I have no economic interests, i.e., I don’t expect to generate any income from my  research, and I’m not attached to any political group or party.

Possible biases

Whereas my self-interest has to do with my future ambitions and benefits, bias is the more or less subconscious result of my life history, education, social position and experiences. I have accumulated seven decades of experiences, opinions, prejudices and inclinations, which undoubtedly influence my views of the world and the value of autobiography and memoir work, not to mention my understanding of my own life course.

Below, I list biases that I’m aware of today. The list will probably become more comprehensive as a consequence of my reading of the archival material and my continual uncovering of memories.

Does my social background influence my thinking on autobiography?

I grew up in an urban secular, modern, Swedish lower middle-class family. My mother and grandparents (and their parents and brothers and sisters in turn) were all employed at non-executive levels in the public administration, with no one having any experience from the private sector or the daily life of the manual working class. They didn’t live in luxury, but they had the privilege of a social safety net and secure pension after retirement. “Statens kaka är liten men säker” (‘The cake of the state is small but safe’), they used to say. For me getting a higher education and being employed at the university was a large step upwards on the social — within a decade I went from a lower middle-class background to becoming a member of the narrow educated elite.

It is more difficult to say how my economic and social class background can have influenced my views of the world and my own self, and my views on autobiography. If anything, I long felt a bit guilty over my relatively privileged and secure life. My turn to extreme left-wing organisations in the late 1960s and my transient embrace of (what I thought was) ‘maoism’ was probably fuelled by this feeling of guilt (maybe this was a common attitude among middle-class young men and women at the time?), and I’ve never really felt that my position as a high-salaried professor in a rich and stable country was something I deserved. My research on esoteric topics like the history of ecology, history of immunology, and scientific biography, has always been accompanied by a slight feeling of bad conscience — as if I were selfishly pursuing my own egotistical appetites instead of doing something more socially and politically ‘useful’, for example to alleviate suffering and save the world, like medical doctors, public health researchers or green engineers do.

Similarly, my present interest in my own life-history and, more generally, in academic autobiography as a genre is also slightly tainted by this basic feeling of undeserved privilege. How this shadow of guilt might influence my approach and my specific findings is more difficult to say, however. Maybe my Facebook friends can help me?

Do I have a gender bias?


Is my ethnicity and national background important in this context?


Does my language, education and cultural background play a role?


Does my genetic architecture make me biased in any way?


Am I biased because of my childhood experiences?


My life-long social experiences, social environment and social interaction?


My earlier academic/research experiences?


Other possible sources of bias?