May 14, 2008
Don't Invite a Lawsuit with Your Memoir By Angela Hoy | printable version
We recently received an angry email from a woman who claimed her father's book, which we published, constituted a violation of her privacy. She said she was going to have an attorney contact us (she didn't have one yet).
I know the author and also know he would never knowingly hurt anyone so I was pretty puzzled. I immediately opened the book file and searched for his daughter's name. He'd only used her first name in the book (she has a different last name now as she's an adult), and only talked about her in glowing, fatherly terms throughout the book. On one page, he mentioned in one sentence that she'd gotten pregnant at the age of 16. He then went on to write warmly of meeting his grandchild for the first time. Could that constitute an invasion of privacy? I wasn't sure. But, it sure had me thinking. Could my children sue me someday for some silly true story I told about them when they were children? That just didn't seem plausible or right to me. But, I'm not a lawyer.
I contacted the author and he was very upset about the situation. He admitted he'd been estranged from his daughter for several years and also told me she's on welfare.
First of all, I was stunned that anybody would include someone they were estranged from in their memoirs. Doing something like that is just asking for a lawsuit, no matter what you write about them. Family problems can really bring out the absolute worst in people.
Second, the fact that the author told me she was on welfare implied he thought she was looking for a quick buck. That was sad, too.
Fast-forward a month later. After a lot of time, probably extensive legal fees, and many lost nights of sleep, the situation appears to have been resolved. The author's attorney sent the daughter a letter explaining the book didn't violate her privacy for a variety of legal reasons (which I won't delve into here) and the author, wanting to avoid any further trouble from her, is removing all mentions of her from his book, which is sad because being a father is part of who he is and an important part of his memoirs. I can't imagine how much time it's going to take for him to remove his child from his life story.
So, what can we all learn from this author's mistake?
1. Use false names whenever possible. Doing so does not eliminate a lawsuit threat but it really does lessen the chance of a gold digger coming after you later.
2. If you're estranged from someone, don't write about them! If you do, give them a new name and write under a false name yourself so nobody can connect your book to that person.
3. You can easily change names and identifying facts about people without harming the integrity of your story.
4. Remember that many people think all writers are rich and will file a lawsuit for any reason at all just to try to get a few bucks out of you in a settlement.