On Fearing Lawsuits When Writing Memoirs About Abuse
I suppose the threat of a lawsuit, which I got in Now I’m Being Stalked, had to happen eventually. I’ve always feared such a thing because not only do I write memoir (see my College Memoirs), including stories of the good and bad times (including abuse), but I also adapt real life into my fiction.
But I read Writer’s Digest for many years (until it seemed everything I’d already read kept being rehashed), and followed its guidelines for avoiding libel suits.
But as writers, we must not let this keep us from telling our truth. I continued telling my truth, but that lawsuit never materialized.
Now that the materials it was threatened over, have been published for at least a year, it seems the threat is over.
Also, my stalkers never said which “facts” were supposedly “false.” I have examined the materials many times, and find nothing whatsoever that is false. All I find is truth and opinion, neither of which are actionable.
I occasionally follow interesting Google searches which led readers to my blog. (I see them in my stats, and can click on them.)
Today, one such search was “can i write a memoir about abuse defamation,” which had led to my post Articles about abuse memoirs and abuse blogs: why we need to write them.
Clicking on the search link led me to Peering at Privacy in Creative Nonfiction by Kaylene Johnson. She writes many reassuring words, such as:
The influences of mass media and Freudian psychology have popularized biographies and memoirs and, for better or worse, opened the doors to a cavalcade of talk shows and tell-all celebrity.
Smith explains that “the more private our lives become, the more self-conscious, the more we attempt to define ourselves apart from tradition or communal expectations, the more we turn to memoir, biography, or celebrity tabloid to offer possibility.
When we read biographies, we search for a friend, a mentor, a kindred spirit, and ultimately for ourselves. What can we learn from his experience that will confirm, challenge, or enhance our own?”
One might even argue that the current modus operandi in media and publishing leans toward anything goes; the juicier and more sordid the detail the better. However, the freedom to discuss the most private experiences in a public forum has also given voice to the formerly silent and disenfranchised.
There is power in truth; and the freedom to tell the truth gives rise to transformation and change. It is precisely this power that authors of creative nonfiction tap into when they decide to write their stories. What to reveal and what to leave unspoken becomes, then, a decision of conscience.
…..In the end, Molly Peacock encourages writers to write first, to write honestly, and to worry about the risks later. “It’s best to go forward with your own truths and then go forward with your negotiations,” she advises. “The legal issues and the psychological trespass issues should be left to later when the work is done.”
She claims that authors write memoirs in order to figure things out, and that the writing itself is a genuine process of discovery. To self-censor over worries about privacy issues is to limit the possibilities of discovery. “Say whatever it is in you to say. You can decide later what to publish… you will endlessly be coping with obstacles if you don’t.”
…..Although libel laws are set and enforced by various state laws, authors cannot be sued for statements of opinion. Neither can they be sued for telling the truth.
However, the MLA notes “Belief in the truth of an offending statement is different from the ability to prove the truth of such a statement.” In other words, writers should research and make sure their facts are accurate.
And finally, “actual malice” must be proven for a libel suit to be successful. Publication had to be made “with the knowledge that the material was false or with reckless disregard of the truth.”
The bottom line is that responsible research and honorable intentions are usually enough to keep authors and publishers out of legal hot water. Truth is considered a complete defense and the more tangible the evidence of truth (public records, etc.) the better.
……Fear of legal entanglement and concerns over the trespass on another’s privacy can cripple a writer’s ability to get at the heart of the story she is trying to tell.
That is not to say that these issues are not legitimate concerns. However, if the work is honest and the writer is truthful, she has little to fear.
Perhaps the most important question to ask in the process of writing is whether or not the disclosure of private thoughts, events, conversations, and anecdotes will serve the work at hand.
……Connie May Fowler said she started writing her memoir, When Katie Wakes, as a tribute to her dog, yet the story graphically describes the horrors of domestic violence.
“I went into it innocently, not knowing how hard it would be. I wasn’t ready to write it, but in an odd way that helped contribute to its rawness,” she said. “Writing the book helped me get to a new point in my life. From here on my art and work will be artistically bolder.”
A creative nonfiction writing exercise at a Spalding MFA in Writing residency proved how wrenching the writing of personal narrative can be.
MFA students of all genres were asked to write a personal response to a public event such as the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Voices shook, hands trembled, and tears flowed as seasoned writers shared their writing in small groups. No one anticipated the emotional cost of this exercise or the “down time” some students needed afterward to recover.
The risk of crossing boundaries is not just limited to trespassing on another’s privacy: the ultimate challenge may lie in breaking through our reluctance to move into the tender and vulnerable places of our own lives.
As writers we must be willing to take those risks, not for journalistic reasons of the truth as fact, but for the sake of shaping the work into an art that transcends the circumstances about which we are writing.
Writing hard truths with candor and compassion legitimizes and validates not only one’s personal experience but, when artfully done, offers a passageway to universal truths that can illuminate and liberate.
Seasoned authors such as Terry Tempest Williams, Molly Peacock, Connie May Fowler, Rodger Kamenetz, and Thomas Lynch all had to tackle privacy issues when writing their memoirs and essays.
Theirs were not the questions of “amateurs” but the legitimate concerns of writers everywhere.
It turns out that permission to write about these hard truths is more easily gained than one might imagine-so long as truth, compassion, and empathy are braided throughout the work.
All authors agreed that writing is often a process of painful discovery. However, the movement toward greater honesty-writing about hard truths in the light of compassion-will serve the work by creating a room for the reader that is alive with presences.
In other words, we must tell our truth without fear of reprisal, if we want our work to be honest, if we want it to mean something.