I Witnessed a Murder. Is It Wrong to Write About It?

Recently, I rented a private office in a co-working space so I could work on personal writing projects. About two weeks into my tenure, I heard screams. When I went to investigate, I saw a man beating someone savagely with a metal pipe. I ran to my office, called 911 and then returned, only to see the man walking in my direction. I ran back to my office and hid until the police arrived. The victim — she was the office manager — was rushed to the hospital, where she was declared dead. The story that emerged is that the man, a fellow client who had been living in his office, was being evicted by the office manager.

Because I’m a writer, it’s not surprising that a number of my friends — writers and nonwriters alike — have asked whether I am writing about this story. Yet, from the beginning, I have struggled to even talk about what I witnessed. I do not want to dine out on it.

It feels unseemly to me, if not outright wrong, to take advantage of my very accidental connection to this murder and its victim. I am troubled by the idea of viewing another woman’s death as “material.” What are the ethics of writing about what is, at heart, someone else’s tragedy? Name Withheld

It’s worth recalling that “tragedy,” a word we use to describe events like this one, originally designated a literary genre, a form of storytelling. Whatever is going on in us when we experience a tragic narrative — Aristotle wasn’t the last to speculate about it — we surely learn something about our own emotional repertory; it may serve as a rehearsal of our responses to actual horrors. Classic novels have taken inspiration from real homicides; nonfiction works immortalizing such events have joined the literary canon, too.

There’s no single way of narrating an event, however banal, however horrific.

“We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative,” the literary scholar Barbara Hardy maintained. “In order really to live, we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social past and future.” But to whom does a story of a homicide belong? Is it shared by the perpetrator and the victim? Is it inherited as part of someone’s estate, like a piece of property? Is it a possession only of those who cared deeply about the life that was taken, or about the person who took it? Whose is it?

We’ll do better, in my view, if we don’t think about what happened as someone’s possession. To regard what happened merely as material for your writing, to be sure, would be to lose track of the fact that it was an event in which another human being suffered terribly and died. And it’s a natural anxiety that the friends and family of the murdered woman would be pained by what you might write. Yet they don’t own the event; indeed, there’s a sense in which it really did happen to you as well. Certainly your own experience, at once accidental and terrifying, was unique. Intimacy with your principals can be valuable for a writer; so can distance. That’s because there’s no single way of narrating an event, however banal, however horrific. And nobody has the “lived experience” of having been killed. Writing about the event you witnessed will be justified if what you write has value.

My elderly mother lives halfway across the country. Her eyesight is impaired, but she is otherwise very healthy and lively. She lives independently and has managed to stretch her modest financial resources to last for three decades since my father died. My brother lives in the same town as my mother. He has been battling depression for many years. He is on medication and sees a therapist, but he has been unemployed for several years and receives no public assistance. He lives in a nice apartment, drives a nice car and has lots of “stuff.” My mother supports him by depositing money directly into his account.

We don’t know how much money she has left — she doesn’t like discussing her finances — but it can’t be much, as my parents were never wealthy. My mother and the rest of us avoid confronting my brother about his situation; he tends to blow up and get very angry and emotional when we do so. His depression apparently keeps him from applying for benefits or seeking even part-time employment, although we have all encouraged him to take those steps. I’m worried about making it too easy for him to continue in his current situation, and I’m not comfortable giving him money directly. I’m also concerned that he may have racked up a huge amount of credit-card debt buying things he doesn’t need. I send money to my mother from time to time, but I have serious qualms about doing so, because the funds I send to her end up going toward maintaining my brother. How can I reconcile my desire to help my mother financially with my frustration about my inability to change my brother’s unsustainable situation? Name Withheld

Depression may not be a full accounting of your brother’s condition. Psychiatric research suggests that people with personality disorders — as you might find in people who respond to well-intended efforts to help with outbursts of rage, or who are spendthrift with other people’s limited resources — often struggle with major depression too. But we can leave diagnosis for the professionals. The point is that you’ve concluded your brother won’t change his habits so long as he can depend on your mother’s support, and that, in the longer term, your mother can’t really afford to keep it up.

Those are reasonable concerns. Your mother may, like many elderly people, come to need daily assistance of some sort. And whether it involves home caregivers or a move to a facility, that’s likely to increase her expenses. Neither she nor your brother is facing up to the possibility that her funds will run out at some point. Given the risks of a dire outcome, your mother’s reluctance to discuss her finances isn’t a sufficient reason not to press her for a sense of her circumstances. If she’s embarrassed to discuss these things with family, perhaps you could persuade her to talk to a financial planner. You refer to other family members. You could all work together on making this happen.

It would be good, too, if you could join forces to improve your brother’s situation. There are public programs (including the disability benefits provided by the Social Security Administration and by Medicaid) that are set up to help those who, owing to their physical or mental condition, are unable to hold a job. A legal professional might be able to figure out how he could receive whatever benefits he’s legally eligible for, rather than living off someone on a fixed income.

You say he responds badly to family interventions. You might seek family counseling in order to help you all sort through what’s going on. All of you have your reasons for letting things coast (your brother will blow up, your mother will shut down, it will be unpleasant in a dozen ways). But all of you have stronger reasons for heading off a disaster.

I recently left a job that I worked at for a short period of time before accepting a better opportunity. My former boss insisted that I leave her my personal cellphone number in case questions came up. I briefly trained someone who will take on some of my responsibilities, and I do anticipate some questions will arise, because this person is not an expert for the business unit that I was employed in. But I’m not sure I am obliged to answer them or to be responsible for anything once I surrendered my ID and laptop. (To reduce company costs, my former boss will not be hiring my replacement anytime soon, if ever.) I expect to be fairly busy with my new job, and probably do not want the headache of explaining something that I have already gone over at length with my former place of employment. Thoughts? Name Withheld

It’s a fine thing to maintain a healthy relationship with your previous employers. But once you stop working for someone, you aren’t obliged to go on providing free services. If you don’t have the time to consult, just say so. And if you do, you can decide that you’ll charge a consulting fee.

Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)