Airing Someone Else’s Dirty Laundry in Print or Online… Is it REALLY Worth It?

Airing Someone Else’s Dirty Laundry in Print or Online… Is it REALLY Worth It?

I wrote this before my accident this week, thank goodness!

Q –

Regarding your article on obtaining releases from the people you write about in your memoir, etc. – If all of the people mentioned in your memoir are deceased and you have also changed their names, do you still need to get permission or releases from the families of these deceased people? Also, if your memoir contains names of government officials, if you change the names, but still describe the offices they hold, do you still need to get releases in order to mention them in your book?

A –

I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice. Please consult with your attorney for your specific legal needs.

That said…

Dead people can’t sue. However, there have been cases of family members and businesses suing for destroying a “brand” developed by those deceased people because the brand was later damaged by the revelations of those writers. For example, if the CEO of a major company assaulted you, and later died, and you then wrote about it, your article or book could damage that company’s brand.

Also, there was one case where an author wrote about a deceased person, but also described his family members. He changed all of the names but it was obvious (to some people) who he was writing about. They sued him and his publisher. It was settled out of court. The book was Running with Scissors.

To be safe, I would change the names and any other identifying material. For government officials, they are considered public figures but they can still sue (and often have the deep pockets to do so). I would change the names, locations, offices held, and any other details just to be safe.

Often, it’s just not worth it to play with that fire and it usually doesn’t detract from a memoir at all when the author anonymizes certain details in this manner. In some cases, the individual involved IS the story. For example, several years ago I was propositioned on an airplane (I’d been bumped up to 1st class) by a U.S. lawmaker who was later elected to another very high position.

I won’t go into details but it ended with him saying, “Your husband and my wife will never know.” He wanted to give me a personal tour of the White House, and then take me to his penthouse. I was in my early 20’s and he was 31 years my senior (Ewww!!). I still have the business card he gave me with his assistant’s name written on it. Apparently, she arranged these things for him all the time.

I wasn’t one of those girls who fancied getting involved with a guy three decades my senior, regardless of his station. I was loyal to my husband and children and I wasn’t a cheater.

I could tell he’d propositioned many women before. Smooth as butter. It was like he was asking me out for a coffee date and, being from a relatively small town in Texas (at the time), I was shocked that it was actually happening to me.

I would have LOVED to write about it later (I seriously considered it during the Monica Lewinsky saga years) but I ultimately decided that I really didn’t want to have to lawyer up, nor could I afford to do so.

He’s still alive. Maybe I’ll tell the story when he’s dead. Maybe I won’t. It’s pretty juicy because he followed me off the airplane. I won’t share more than that at this time.

Writers who aren’t very wealthy must tread very carefully when writing about actual events and people. While your story may be 100% true, you may be bankrupted by legal fees before you ever get the chance to tell your story in a courtroom. And, even if you win, you probably will NOT receive attorneys’ fees with the judgement. That rarely happens in the U.S.

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One Response to "Airing Someone Else’s Dirty Laundry in Print or Online… Is it REALLY Worth It?"

  1. Anonymous  November 12, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Sorry to hear about your accident. Regarding naming government officials being named in a memoir; what if the government officials who harmed you were reported to the authorities they reported to? Also, these same individuals have been named on websites containing segments of the memoir for more than 13 years? The government officials were only named in connection with their job positions, no personal information was given. Considering the fact that they were named for 13 years on the internet – a worldwide public forum, and had 13 years to complain, do they have any rights after so much time has passed to complain when they have not said a word during all this time? Has a statute of limitations passed for them to take any action?