A common question that crops up when writing your memoir is: “What if my sister, my mother, my weird uncle, or whoever else I mention in my story, objects to something I’ve written?”
Ask yourself two questions:
1. Is it my story to tell?
2. Is it relevant to my own life’s story that I do want to tell?
If episodes of the story centre around someone else’s actions, the second question becomes the deciding factor. Problems arise when you include information that reveals things about other people – things they may not want others to know about.
Perhaps your younger sister did something hilariously embarrassing as a six-year-old, but now she’s a high-powered motivational speaker or a politician. Unless that story had a powerful effect on the outcome of your own life, it probably shouldn’t be included in your memoir, no matter how funny, interesting or powerful it might be. It’s not your story to tell, and the repercussions could be devastating for your sister.
Another situation which could come back on you as a writer is one in which someone committed some crime or did something reprehensible. Unless you can document this behaviour with evidence, you can leave yourself open to Libel or Defamation charges.
From the website, Legalzoom.com:
Defamation is a false statement presented as a fact that causes injury or damage to the character of the person it is about.
Libel and slander are both types of defamation. Libel is an untrue defamatory statement that is made in writing. Slander is an untrue defamatory statement that is spoken orally. The difference between defamation and slander is that a defamatory statement can be made in any medium.
Even if the information is true and verifiable, the emotional fallout from such disclosure can be utterly ruinous to family relationships. Examine your motives for including the story. Why do you want to include it?
What’s Your Motive?
Are you including the story in order to seek revenge or retribution? Vengeance can destroy the reputations of both recipient and author. Leave it out.
Is it a cautionary tale or a story of emotional trauma and recovery? In that case, who will benefit and is it worth the possibility of destroying someone’s reputation?
Does the story explain how you arrived at your point of view on certain issues and the reasons for holding that opinion? Has it shaped you in ways you wouldn’t have done without the experience? These are legitimate reasons for including the material, but be careful how you word it.
What To Do
Always be clear that this is your viewpoint, your opinion of what happened. Without legal proof, it’s best not to state categorically that someone has committed a criminal act.
Then, of course, there’s always the old tried and true…”Names have been changed to protect the innocent” or in this case, the guilty.
When writing memoirs, characters’ names and identifying marks or habits can be altered in order to tell the story without incurring legal repercussions. Characters in your memoir can also be a composite of several people whom you have encountered and who share similar characteristics.
In the end, your memoir is your story, not that of other people. You’re writing about what happened to you from your own point of view. Why you write it comes down to your purpose in doing so. Only you can decide what that might be.