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Real names in memoir? (1 Viewer)

MichelD

Senior Member
I lived in a small semi-isolated community on a small island on the Canadian west coast from 1977 to 1986.

I have a collection of memoirs I'm working on and I'm wondering whether to use real names or not.

There is one murder, many cases of adultery, bootlegging, poaching, thieving, cheating and many other incidents I will cover.

Even if I change the names, the people involved will recognize who I'm writing about if this thing is ever published.

What to do? Name names or not?

Or just pretend it's fiction?
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
My first two books were autobiographies, and I had the same concerns because there were some deaths, abuse, and criminal activity involved. I played it safe, and changed names, locations, and moved the timeline around; maybe that was undue paranoia, but it made me feel better.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
That's a tough one. Because as long as you stick to facts, it should be legal to use real names. However, you may need to get permissions, otherwise, I think there are potential issues with defamation, invasion of privacy, and misappropriation of the right of publicity. I don't really know much about it, but I wonder if it's worth the stress you put yourself under. Will you enjoy writing it, if you have to be careful on how you portray certain people always trying to cast a positive light?

I read @indianroads first autobiography and really enjoyed it, regardless of it not stating it was a true story up front. He alludes to that in an epilogue, so that serves the same purpose. And even if people in your community do recognize who you are writing of, others who read won't. If it were me, I'd take the route described by IR above.
 

TMarie

Senior Member
I've read memoirs where only initials were used for people which for me works just fine. Memoirs are about a personal interpretation of whatever the author has decided to write about. If you keep it to that perspective, meaning how You viewed the happenings in the community, I think it would make for excellent reading.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
I joked before, but when someone has an actual legal issue involved in writing, some of us may be able to give advice, and sometimes it might be good advice ... but in this sort of circumstances a conference with an attorney who has experience in defamation cases is mandatory. You don't really want critical legal advice from well-meaning random strangers. ;-)
 

Lawless

Senior Member
Even if I change the names, the people involved will recognize who I'm writing about
IMHO, if you change the names, people should not have grounds to sue you for damages, angry as they may be. No need to set the whole thing in Zanzibar.

That said, consulting a lawyer specialized on this is certainly advisable.
 

JJBuchholz

Senior Member
I've written several memoirs in recent years, and I only use a real name if that person is an integral part of the memory that I wish
to share to the reader in it's entirety. I don't make up false names, and in some cases will only use the person's first name to
maintain a semi-personal level of detail and whatnot.

-JJB
 

JJBuchholz

Senior Member
IMHO, if you change the names, people should not have grounds to sue you for damages, angry as they may be. No need to set the whole thing in Zanzibar.

That said, consulting a lawyer specialized on this is certainly advisable.

How can someone be sued for writing a memoir? I'd like to know more of your opinions on this, because I am of the thought process that says
because a memoir is about one's own experiences, it's not deflamation of character or libel in any way or form. Writing a memoir is not meant
to be malicious in any way or form, from my perspective. It's meant to help the reader see what you have seen.

-JJB
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
How can someone be sued for writing a memoir? I'd like to know more of your opinions on this, because I am of the thought process that says
because a memoir is about one's own experiences, it's not deflamation of character or libel in any way or form. Writing a memoir is not meant
to be malicious in any way or form, from my perspective. It's meant to help the reader see what you have seen.

-JJB
If you write about a person named Sam that killed someone, or was a drug dealer, or was engaged in an activity that if known would harm their reputation or livelihood, but can't prove the truth of what you wrote, Sam might sue you and could possibly win. Perhaps Sam turned his life around and is an upstanding citizen - dredging up his past would ruin his life.

I imagine that many people have things in their past they would rather forget. Out of courtesy I think it's appropriate to alter names etc.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
How can someone be sued for writing a memoir? I'd like to know more of your opinions on this, because I am of the thought process that says
because a memoir is about one's own experiences, it's not deflamation of character or libel in any way or form. Writing a memoir is not meant
to be malicious in any way or form, from my perspective. It's meant to help the reader see what you have seen.

-JJB
This is where you require a dive into defamation law. And since you should NOT take legal advice from people on internet forums, you should double check any information I give you here. However, I have done dives into defamation law, so what I write here will be pretty close to what you need to know.

One, are you writing about someone in a way which would cause them trouble in relationship or career? Calling someone a criminal could do that. Revealing unusual immoral behavior could do that. If it's true and you write that, are you prepared to prove, conclusively, in court, that it's true?

Two. You cannot defame the dead, so if the person you are writing about has expired, write away. However, if the incident could encompass living family or associates, refer back to #1.

Three. Should you be sued for defamation, there are two defenses: Opinion and Truth. You can call everyone you want a scumbag. That's opinion. However, if you call someone a child predator, that is a specific allegation you'd better be prepared to prove.

Four. In a civil case, the Judge makes a determination if the alleged defamation is opinion or fact. You don't just walk into court as a defendant as say, "Well, that's my opinion." There are volumes of Precedent determining which sorts of statements are opinion, and which are allegations purported to be fact. You need to know the difference.

Five. Defamation law is 180 degrees different from EVERY OTHER KIND OF COURT CASE in the USA. In every other kind of legal action, the plaintiff must prove their case. In a defamation case, the plaintiff only has to prove the defendant made the damaging statement, and then show how that statement damaged them. The defendant must prove the statement was true. Read that again. This is the ONLY type of case where a defendant MUST, in every circumstance, present a case proving facts. That may happen in other cases, but in other types of cases, the plaintiff may not prove their case. In a defamation case, the plaintiff has a very small burden, and the defendant has an inescapable burden. So if you called someone a child predator, you'd better have the record of their conviction in a criminal trial, or you'd be in big trouble.
 

Lawless

Senior Member
You cannot defame the dead, so if the person you are writing about has expired, write away.
Actually, the widow of Peter Sellers sued the makers of a movie made after Mr. Sellers's death that included earlier footage with him and was actually meant to pay respect to the great actor.

Still, thank you for your thorough explanation of this topic.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
Actually, the widow of Peter Sellers sued the makers of a movie made after Mr. Sellers's death that included earlier footage with him and was actually meant to pay respect to the great actor.
If that action occurred in the UK, they have an entirely different take on defamation law, and my research only applies to the USA. However, I'd also wonder if that action was taken on behalf of his estate, rather than him individually. It looks more like a property case than a defamation case.
 

JJBuchholz

Senior Member
I've never used a memoir to libel anyone per se. My most personal memoir ever written described the situation in which my
ex-fiancee had cheated on me. I go on to explain her deceit and what it did to me (emotionally/mentally), but it's not a piece
that slams her time and again. It as meant to paint the reader of how the wool can be pulled over one's eyes and have the
rug snatched out from under us at any given time.

I took the high road in the memoir, but still illustrated what she did and how she did it, as well as how I felt about the whole
situation and my mindset after the fact. I will never directly slam someone in a memoir, but I will make references to certain
people that know who they are, without using names.

-JJB
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
I've never used a memoir to libel anyone per se. My most personal memoir ever written described the situation in which my
ex-fiancee had cheated on me. I go on to explain her deceit and what it did to me (emotionally/mentally), but it's not a piece
that slams her time and again. It as meant to paint the reader of how the wool can be pulled over one's eyes and have the
rug snatched out from under us at any given time.

I took the high road in the memoir, but still illustrated what she did and how she did it, as well as how I felt about the whole
situation and my mindset after the fact. I will never directly slam someone in a memoir, but I will make references to certain
people that know who they are, without using names.

-JJB
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
Does this mean one can write that Abraham Lincoln had sex with sheep, and his descendants can't do anything about it?
Did you see the "Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter" movie? I pray not, btw.

Yes, you could. Just because it's not actionable defamation of the deceased person doesn't mean that someone writing such nonsense wouldn't be destroying their OWN reputation. ;-)
 

Lawless

Senior Member
In every other kind of legal action, the plaintiff must prove their case. In a defamation case, the plaintiff only has to prove the defendant made the damaging statement, and then show how that statement damaged them. The defendant must prove the statement was true.

Just to make this principle a little clearer to the people who haven't had much to do with law: the basic rule is that everyone must prove what he claims.

In very simple words: if I go to court and say you owe me money, then you don't have to prove you don't owe me money; I have to prove you do (for example, by producing a contract).
But if I have presented the court a contract according to which you owe me money, and you say you already paid me, then you have to prove you paid, I don't have to prove you never did.

When M and W want to get married, and D comes forward and says they can't because M is already married, then M doesn't have to prove he has never in his life gotten married to anyone. D has to prove M did get married.
But if D provides proof that M got married, and M then claims that marriage has ended by divorce, then it's M who has to prove he got divorced. D doesn't have to prove M never got divorced.

So in the case of A suggesting B has sold drugs, it's perfectly logical that the burden of proof is on the one who accuses (A has to prove B did sell drugs), not on the accused (B doesn't have to prove he never sold drugs).
 

Megan Pearson

Senior Member
...What to do? Name names or not?

Or just pretend it's fiction?

Does anyone remember the beloved James Herriot? I love his stories. Only, they're memoirs, not stories. I forget what his real name was, but he kept a list of real names that he cross-referenced with his fictional stand-in names, and changed not only names but places as well, and -- gosh, I don't want to google this -- any way, about the time he was really popular here in the states, it was the mid nineties, and there were James' Herriot Christmas gift books and related paraphernalia at the bookstores at the mall and the BBC was airing a charming series based on his life and stories. Except, when he died -- again, google it to find out the facts -- the whole real town of real people found out it was them he was writing about and decided to sue his estate. (The lawsuit might have been in the late eighties, but it didn't stop the stories from taking on a life of their own as a tv show.)

I think the long of the short of this is, don't just keep an eye out for liable & legal matters, but check to make sure you're not profiting too much from other people's real-experiences. They might want in on it someday. ;)
 
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