Writing a memoir, especially when it involves the famous, friends, family or foes, can be tricky. Do you get legal advice before you start? Do you write it all down and worry about the consequences afterwards? How are publishers going to react to a manuscript that could bring with it suits of defamation?
I recently read a manuscript by a writer who got legal advice before he started as he wanted to write about a person who he’d identified as having a pathological condition. He was advised to change the name, change the years when he had a relationship with her, in fact, get rid of anything that could identify the subject of his fascinating and instructive book.
Erring on the side of caution
The lawyer was probably being overcautious. But then this is an area where publishers are also cautious because the consequences can be financially painful. Even if you have evidence (emails, voice recordings, WhatsApps, interviews) to back up your assertions, with contentious material you can quickly find yourself either defaming someone or libelling them.
Of course, when the matter is about private lives there is even less reason for a publisher to venture into legally murky waters. With public figures it’s slightly different: they are fair game if they behave badly.
One instance where this wasn’t the case was the recently published memoir by Deon Wiggett – My Only Story – where he told how Willem Breytenbach, once a brilliant teacher and later a media luminary, raped him as a schoolboy. In November 2019, in a series of weekly podcasts he detailed how he hunted down the paedophile. Of course, for his publishers, Penguin, the material was mostly in the public domain so the risk of legal action was negligible.
Too close to home
Some months back a writer friend started a project to document the life of a controversial family member. She didn’t take legal advice because she decided she’d rather write the book without worrying about the legal consequences. If she was guarding against defamation all the time, she said, she wouldn’t be able to write a word.
All writers usually want to publish what they write but in this instance, she was not sure if she would go all the way. She felt she needed to record the destructive effects of her subject’s sociopathic actions and behaviour so that in later years others in the family would understand.
The memoir as release
She has another reason for writing her memoir: catharsis. Recording an experience can be a great help in understanding and realising what you have been subjected to. Nothing reveals motives, manipulations, the sheer rage that drives people to act maliciously, than the chronology of events.
As my friend puts it, ‘I have taken the monster out of the darkness and he is less a monster now although he remains dangerous.’
Get more out of your writing.