3 Important Privacy Issues in Memoir

Today’s guest post is from author and professor Tracy Seeley. Her memoir,
My Ruby Slippers, will soon be available from University of Nebraska Press. Visit her blog, or pre-order the book from Amazon.

When we write memoir, we pull back the curtain on our private lives and invite readers in. We willingly give up our privacy, or a chunk of it. But because we’re human, our stories also include other people: parents and siblings, teachers and neighbors, lovers and friends—and they haven’t exactly signed on to the deal.

What about their privacy?  

This question can shut a memoirist right up. What if Aunt Betsy never speaks to me again? Or what if the next door neighbor decides to sue? Exposing others in the course of telling our story can feel pretty risky. So let’s tease apart the issues and address the fears.

1. What Will [So-and-So] Think? Will They Ever Speak to Me Again?
Writing memoir is not for the faint-hearted. We do think about how others will react, or worry we’ll damage our relationships. But writing out of fear is the worst way to go about creating a memoir. Our first obligation is to the art and truth of our story. And that means not censoring ourselves. 

Of course, writing always means choosing: which details to include, which to leave out, which elements of a story to foreground, which to minimize, how to shape a chapter, what events mean.

But the writer chooses.  

The fear censor doesn’t get to choose, and neither do the other characters in our story, who may take up residence in our heads and try to commandeer the pencil. 

When I wrote my memoir, I learned to listen for two inner voices. One was the quiet, sure voice of artistic instinct. Yes, it would say, this part of the story has to be told, and should be told in this way.   

The riskier the moment felt, the louder a second voice would pop up and say “No!” Every time, I had to take a deep breath, and despite the fear, follow the voice of the artist. 

2. Ethical Obligations: Clean Motives and Transparency
However, this doesn’t mean we should be callous in exposing others to the light. It’s essential to have clean motives in representing others. Memoir shouldn’t be an occasion for humiliating, shaming or punishing someone. It’s not an instrument of revenge, but of shaping meaning from our lives. 

In my book, a character does something that hurts me terribly at the time—and yet the story wasn’t really in what he did, but what I came to understand about myself afterward. 

So in writing about this episode, I had to make sure my motives were clean.  No revenge, no shaming.

To make sure I wasn’t exposing him for the wrong reasons, I decided early on not to use his real name, a choice I disclose to readers.

Once a manuscript is finished, many memoirists allow the other actors in their stories to read it, and then discuss anything they may find troubling.   This doesn’t mean you’re obligated to change things. But there may be room—now that the work is finished—for some negotiation.  

I let my sisters read my manuscript, and despite my having disclosed family stories, was surprised by their unqualified support. If they’d objected to something, I would have been open to negotiating a change if it wouldn’t have hampered the book. I also like to think that a conversation about why I thought something essential might have persuaded a reluctant sister to agree. 

I also sent the manuscript to a childhood friend who’s featured very positively in one chapter. I wasn’t asking for approval, but simply wanted her to know what was coming—public exposure. Simply letting our subjects in to the process goes a long way toward soothing any surprises down the road. 

3. The Legal Angle: Real and Unreal Fears
If you’re in doubt about the legality of your depiction of another person, there’s no substitute for trained legal advice. Still, with a basic understanding of the issues, it’s possible to guard against trouble. 

First, you should know that memoirists don’t often get sued. But when it happens, the claims are either for defamation or invasion of privacy. Here’s what you should know about both.

Defamation. If someone says you’ve defamed them, they’re claiming what you’ve written is untrue, and done so with malice. So besides having clean motives, your best protection is to write the truth. Check your facts and have evidence to back up your claims. Uncle Bert may be angry about your unflattering depiction of him, but if he really did hide his hooch in the hay loft, you’re on solid ground.

You also can’t be sued for your opinion. So if you depict Uncle Bert as an insensitive lout, he may withhold your birthday present, but he can’t sue.

Defamation claims can also arise when the writer and his or her subject remember things differently. Each claims his or her version is true, and that the other person is lying. This is what happened in the case of Augusten Burroughs, who was sued by the family featured in Running With Scissors

We all know memory is fickle, so it’s easy enough to acknowledge the fact and head off this kind of defamation problem. Perhaps in your preface, introduction or acknowledgments, write that you’ve been faithful to your memory, but your subjects may remember things differently. As part of the settlement in his case, this is what Burroughs wrote in subsequent editions of his book, as well as saying that he intended no harm. 

Invasion of Privacy. This legal claim might seem the scarier prospect. We are, after all, revealing things about others they may not have revealed on their own. Yet from a legal standpoint, this doesn’t  automatically mean you’ve invaded their privacy. A successful claim depends on proving that you have revealed facts “not related to public concern.”  

So what does this mean? Quite simply, a defense depends on arguing a legitimate “public concern.” This can take a number of forms. In some cases, the fact that a publisher chose to publish the book has been enough to show a legitimate public interest. 

Several strategies can help us avoid privacy lawsuits in the first place. Some memoirists get written permission from subjects before they start. Some disguise the identity of the person they’re depicting, giving them different physical characteristics, perhaps a different profession or different city of residence—whatever will prevent them from being recognized in their own community.  

Final Thoughts
As I wait for my book to come out this spring, I feel a bit of fear rise up.  My parents, central to my story, are no longer alive, so I rest easy on that score.  But people who knew and cared about them are still around, and I worry how they will react. But I also know that I’ve written the best book I can, with artistic aims foremost. I’ve been faithful to my own experience, acknowledging that others may remember things differently. I know that my motives have been clean, and as a sign of respect, I’ve shared the manuscript with those who have the most at stake.  

As you work on your own memoir, write with fidelity to your own experience while knowing that memory is fallible. Write with respect for your subjects, even if they come across as louts. And tell your sto
ry true, artfully and with courage.  

My Ruby Slippers will be available in March 2011 from the University of Nebraska Press.

Go find out more, or visit Tracy’s site.

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8 thoughts on “3 Important Privacy Issues in Memoir

  1. Tracy Seeley

    Andrea, I would also add that while the facts might seem raw, in memoir, as in all literary writing, we’re creating art. By the time you have shaped, selected, and organized the material, crafted chapters, and attended to beautiful language, you’ll have something quite different–and far more engaging–than a simple outpouring of self. Memoir asks that we work at some distance from the material, so that the artist is always foremost in the telling. Good luck as you begin–go for it!

  2. Andrea Costantine

    Great post. I’ve been considering writing a memoir and have definitely been concerned about the first issue – what will the people think that are featured in it. It does feel a bit raw to dish out all of your life’s details. But I know it’s more than the details, it’s about our personal journey. I’m glad to hear that your family was receptive and agreeable with your depiction of what happened. This definitely gives me a little more courage to get started on a memoir.

  3. Tracy Seeley

    Thanks, Gale, for your kind words–and everyone else in the thread for their thoughtful presence here. Linda, my understanding is that only a living person can sue, and that heirs and estates cannot sue on their behalf. Still worth checking out with legal counsel. Cheers, all!

  4. Linda Joy Myers

    Thank you for your post about your own struggles with what to include in your memoir, as well as your focus on writing artfully. I intend to return to this article as I gather some legal points together to help a student who is writing about someone famous, though dead. She is afraid the famous person’s estate can sue her for something, though what she writes is true and not vengeful.
    I look forward to your book, and congratulations!

  5. David W. Berner

    Great insight and suggestions!

    When I wrote my memoir – Accidental Lessons – my publisher asked that I get waivers from anyone who was named (their REAL name) in the story. I even had to get the okay from a school district to use the name of a school. I was afraid they wouldn’t agree since the school has had a not-so-good reputation and that reputation was being clearly focused on in the story. Amazingly, the district agreed. i just had to ask. My ex-wife even agreed to a waiver. She okayed the use of her name as long as, as she put it: "When the book is made into a movie, Susan Sarandon plays me." Of course, she was kidding. 🙂

    Changing names works in many cases, but even if the story is specific enough that anyone familiar with it can tell who the "newly-named" character is – well, you may still have issues.

    Memoir can be dangerous territory, but to be true to the story, you have to be true in the telling. Still, check with your editor and publisher first.

    David W. Berner
    Author, Accidental Lessons

  6. Gladys Hobson

    My book of childhood memories (When Phones Were Immobile and Lived in red Boxes) obviously contains friendships. I did change the names of most of them for privacy. But afterwards they asked me why! But I stopped the memoir when it came to the later story when I worked in Education and then Ministry. The fact is I don’t want to hurt anyone, certainly not the way I have been hurt by others. These are mostly Church matters. My time in Education is another matter though. I just might give that some thought. Not exactly Hell at St Trinian’s but some funny things happened.
    A very useful post — thank you,

  7. Angela Dove

    Thanks so much for your post. Like you, I faced these issues when my true crime memoir was published in 2009. Because the point was that good can come from a bad situation, I found it easy to change names and protect the privacy even of those who had been hurtful to me or others. I also found myself smiling and nodding at the legal bits in your post–Penguin had an attorney vet the ms VERY thoroughly; I hadn’t spent that much time on the phone with someone since high school!


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