Saturday, January 15, 2011

Can You Tell Your Own True Story Even If It Impinges on the Privacy of Your Lovers, Friends, and Family?

Autobiographers and memoirists sometimes face thorny legal issues when they write about aspects of their own lives that are inseparably intertwined with the private lives of others.  Can a woman truthfully describe the intimate details of her sex life if, in doing so, she identifies her partner and aspects of his life (adultery, promiscuity, kinkiness?) he would prefer to keep forever secret?  Can a gay man write about his HIV-positive status if, in doing so, he effectively discloses that his partner is also infected with the virus?  The answer is an unsatisfying: "Sometimes -- provided it is done the right way."

Public disclosure of private facts is an aspect of the right of privacy that is actionable in some (but not all) states.  While the prerequisites vary somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, a plaintiff typically must prove:
(1) publicity was given to matters concerning the plaintiff's private life;
(2) the matters made public would be highly offensive to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities; and
(3) the matters publicized were not newsworthy, i.e., not of legitimate public interest.
The third element is often crucial to the defense of invasion of privacy lawsuits.  Fortunately, the mainstream media have had considerable success in persuading courts to find that their disclosures of otherwise private facts are protected because they shed light on important aspects of the human condition.  The courts are especially likely to cut authors and publishers some slack in accounts that touch on the private lives of public figures.  But the courts have also often found that even disclosures of private facts about private figures qualify as newsworthy.   Sometimes, however, newsworthiness is a close call.  And, as University of Georgia law professor Sonja West explains in this law review article entitled The Story of Me, the courts' focus on whether a disclosure of private facts is "newsworthy" is arguably misguided.

Anonsen v. Donahue is one of a few interesting cases that have taken a different approach.  The dispute arose out of an appearance by Miriam Booher on The Phil Donahue Show in January 1989.  During the course of the program, Booher disclosed that her husband had raped and impregnated Nancy Anonsen, her daughter from a past marriage, when Anonsen was 11 years old.   Booher and her husband then adopted the baby boy born from the incestuous relationship.  Prior to Booher's appearance on the show, the family had never reported the crime to the authorities or publicly disclosed the events.

As touched on in a prior post, a highly-charged statement of this sort potentially implicates two separate, but interrelated areas of the law.  If the statement was false, Booher would have run the risk of a libel suit from her husband.  On the other hand, if the statement was true, she ran the risk of a claim for public disclosure of private facts.

Anonsen and her son acknowledged that the statement was true; they sued their mother/grandmother, Phil Donahue, and his production company for public disclosure of private facts. Anonsen and her son argued that, even though Booher did not mention their names on the show, by disclosing her own true name to a national television audience, Booher had inevitably revealed the family's nightmarish private tragedy to everyone who knew Booher's relationship to them.

Analyzing the three elements of the claim under Texas law, the court had no problem concluding that the crimes of incest and rape are newsworthy matters of legitimate public interest, but, in the judge's view, that did not necessarily mean that the (albeit indirect) disclosure of the victims' identities was a matter of public interest.  But, importantly, the court reasoned:
We do not believe that the issue of newsworthiness of the parties' identities . . . is relevant to the ultimate inquiry before us: whether Booher had the right to reveal her own identity.
Ultimately, the court concluded that:
to allow a cause of action based upon Booher's truthful and undisguised account of her own and her family's experience is inconsistent with the first amendment. 
A Massachusetts court adopted the Anonsen approach, at least in part, in Bonome v. Kaysen.  Susana Kaysen, the author of Girl Interrupted, also wrote a memoir about her post-teen life entitled The Camera My Mother Gave Me in which she recounted in intimate detail her then-live-in boyfriend's alleged abusive response to her refusal to have sex with him when she was suffering from a painful medical condition.  Although he was not named in the book, the boyfriend sued for invasion of privacy, arguing that many people knew that he had been Kaysen's companion and understood that Kaysen was referring to him.  The judge dismissed the claim, finding that the disclosures were a matter of legitimate public concern.  But he also went on to say that:
In this case, it is critical that Kaysen was not a disinterested third party telling Bonome’s personal story in order to develop the themes in her book. Rather, she is telling her own personal story-- which inextricably involves Bonome in an intimate way . . . . it is within the context of Bonome and Kaysen’s lives being inextricably bound together by their intimate relationship that the disclosures in this  case must be viewed. Because the First Amendment protects Kaysen’s ability to contribute her own personal experiences to the public discourse on important and legitimate issues of public concern, disclosing Bonome’s involvement in those experiences is a necessary incident thereto.
I cannot overemphasize that publishing private facts about others carries significant legal risks and must be done cautiously, if at all.  Not only may there be a question as to whether another person's story is integral to your own -- an essential aspect of the courts' reasoning in Anonsen and Kaysen.  But there is always the risk that the "dislosee" will contend that the disclosures about him/her are not only intimate, but false, as in this spicy yet disturbing case involving the blogger Washingtonienne.

If you are publishing a tell-all memoir with a major publishing house or a tell-all article with a major magazine, chances are that somewhere along the line you will get advice from an in-house lawyer about how to reduce the legal risks.  You can change names, change locations, change all sorts of identifying details, while keeping the core truth of your story intact. All of these precautions help to make the disclosee less identifiable.  But all of these precautions cannot provide an absolute guarantee that a disclosee will not be able to argue successfully that he or she is inevitably identifiable by some people who new the author and her relationship to the disclosee.

The greatest risks are likely incurred by bloggers, Facebook posters, and other online self-publishers who nonchalantly publish the intimate details of their personal lives and those of their lovers and friends, without the benefit of any legal advice.  Perhaps like Washingtonienne they take at least some precautions to conceal the identities of those they portray.  But perhaps, like Washingtonienne's embarrassed lover, their lovers and friends will feel that not enough has been done to safeguard their secrets and protect their privacy.  And it may be far more difficult for a private blogger (in contrast to a well-known author, like Kaysen, published by a powerful publisher, like Random House) to persuade a court that the private facts disclosed are matters of genuine public concern.  If the court believes they are not, then the blogger's last, best hope is that the court may conclude, as in Anonsen and Kaysen, that an autobiographer has "a right to disclose her own intimate affairs."  It's an appealing legal principle, a potentially important principle, but not one you should count on.

Postscript:  this post is not, by any means, intended to discourage memoirists from practicing their craft.  Remember, to be actionable, the disclosure must be of private facts that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.  Most memoirs don't venture into that territory.  Moreover, book editors often tell their authors to write the truth and let the in-house lawyers figure out how the truth -- or at least most of it -- can be safely published.


  1. In writing my memoir about having cancer over 30 years ago, I mention a psycho girlfriend of that time. I must admit that even though I've changed her name, and write about her as an integral part of my own story, its still a little scary. But since its so long ago and nobody would know of us, I think its probably ok.

    More difficult, however, is my mention of my sister in another story I wrote about caring for my father. Obviously, changing her name won't help. I do try to keep to the facts rather than opinions, but she's not portrayed in a very good light. I have to wonder, even if she's retired, does it affect her in an actionable way? Can her family sue on her behalf if they wanted to? If it did go to court, would having people confirm the truth of statements change the outcome? Thanks.

    1. Just a reminder: I thank you -- and all readers -- for your comments and questions. But I cannot provide individualized legal advice through this blog -- only generalized information about the law. I recommend that readers and writers with specific questions seek out experienced media-law attorneys in their own jurisdictions, who can advise them on legal issues within the protections of an attorney-client relationship. An attorney can explore with you all of the background facts and legal and practical considerations and take into account the laws of the state or country in which you live, which may, in some instances, differ from the laws in a state, such as New York, where I am licensed to practice law. Writers and other creative people with limited means can sometimes obtain low-cost legal help through volunteer and pro bono lawyers. See my post

  2. A great post on the law when it comes to depicting fictional characters based on real people. I was surprised to read about the case against Kathryn Stockett, author of Help. I wonder what she was thinking to use a name for the maid so close to the one, she based her character on? She should've at least asked the living maid's permission.

  3. Jeffe, I can't provide individualized legal advice. (Legal ethics rules etc.) But you might want to speak with a media lawyer in your jurisdiction or check out one of these potential sources of free advice.

  4. Thanks, Diana, for reminding me of the Stockett case. Amended blog to mention.

  5. Thanks for your posts Mr. Fowler. I have been struggling with a manuscript for a couple of years- a truthful story of my experiences with domestic violence, international custody issues, the police, courts and judges of Las Vegas.

    I teeter totter on wanting to publish these true accounts (and real names) and whether to change things so it is fiction to avoid the issues you mention. But, I feel the right to free speech will protect me as well as the truth itself.

    I guess I will, while writing, preemptively prepare a file of evidence to prove all that I write about in anticipation of a potential law suit.

    Thanks for the blog. :)

  6. Cecile, thanks very much for your comment. I can't, of course, offer advice on personal legal situations to non-clients.

    There are many reasons for writing about one's experiences, even if one never intends to publish a word. But if you have legal doubts, questions, or concerns, you should seriously consider consulting an experienced publishing lawyer in your jurisdiction (Las Vegas?) before publishing.

    I wish you satisfaction and success with your manuscript.

  7. My concern is not of the people I mention in my memoir but of the places. What are the legalities of using names like Walmart, McDonalds, YMCA, etc.? For example to say "We parked outside of Walmart" nothing that would be insulting or slander, just simply using the names.

  8. I have been tossing around the idea of writting a book about my life, but I too am worried about people trying to sue me for what I write. One on my biggest concerns is my mentally ill mother. If I write about what I went through as a child and whatnot, I'm worried that she might come after me legally. And then there is the issue of adding details of what I went through with my first sons father. If you put in your book that these are your views and may not actually be how the other parties viewed the situations, does that cover you? I'm just trying to figure out how to add what I feel is important, without having them come back on me.

  9. Boy do I understand the problems that are arising from writing a book where by family names are involved.
    I'm in the same predicament. My life, from when I was a youngster in the second world war, to the fall years of my life
    There is a need to write this information, but again there is the problem of family names used. I've been thinking of sticking to the story, but change the names and inform the relatives as of my intentions. . .

  10. For now I have accumulated 140 pages for my book. Here is where I am on a stand still. Family names or even if they were changed,does make me wonder, if I am not personally involving them.There are moments when I'm writing, that I need to stop due to my own emotional involvement and still asking my self the question; Did this all happen to me?
    So what do you do? You feel the need to write. It also helps
    as self healing by expressing your own life's story.

  11. So what it all boils down too ,i cant write my truth about
    phedophiles and abusers even if i chage their name,whats the sece of writing the true story,then lie abought the charectors that ar not real,ot only if i write the true story , the real names should of been in prison ,so they are still pertected and that is the way it is

  12. I would like to write a book about people whose lives were changed or ruined by a relative posting false information or creating a fake FaceBook page on them. This happened to my husband and we found out about the situation before it actually harmed him. But what about the people who were not so lucky?? In what way do I place an ad so these people can contact me with their stories. I am anxious to get started!! Please help

  13. How does having a court case effect revealing intimate details about someone who abused you?

  14. I am currently writing my own memoir about several years of my life a band/radio and club DJ - much of which I myself was a public figure. I want to be able to talk about bands, radio stations, songs, record labels and other public figures I worked with. I don't plan on including anything offensive or what should be considered private. Do you see any problems with this?

  15. I wrote a book using my real name and photo. I changed the characters descriptions and names but it's probably obvious how I was able to write it. I do publically speak about it and let the audience know that my mother was diagnosed with 8 personalities (she passed away a few years ago) and I share the disturbing things she did to my sister and I. I also tell about my father who was a dumpster diver and pan handler as well as sexually abusive to me. I have since been 'disowned' due to the book which is fine but the book is growing in the foster care, social services in CA and I am hoping no one can sue me. Thoughts? Also, thank you for this post, I plan to share it. Jori Nunes

  16. I have been writing a book about an experience I had involving a game show. I tell some of the game show but mainly about my life and how the game show changed it. Is it legal to write it without the gameshows permission?

  17. I am writing a book that is a personal story that also includes being on a game show. Do I legally have to get the game shows permission? Any and all help is appreciated. I have tried to get ahold of the game show people and no luck as of yet...

  18. I've noticed there are a lot of questions in this thread, but no answers. I hope someone replies to me, at least offline!

    In the story I'm writing, all of the characters are now deceased, except for one glaring exception: an elderly woman who was the product of incest.
    She is not a central character, and her origins are mentioned only at the end. 1) Can the descendants of the characters with shady histories come after a writer, and 2) since this is not a first-hand account of my life, is there a danger in disclosing this fringe character's origins? She has been unreachable for comment.

  19. (1) publicity was given to matters concerning the plaintiff's private life;

    (2) the matters made public would be highly offensive to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities; and

    (3) the matters publicized were not newsworthy, i.e., not of legitimate public interest.

    so . . . am i protect from a lawsuit if the activities of the person being mentioned were done in both private and public life and the information is newsworthy . . . 2 out of 3

  20. I am currently working what I think will be a memoir. I have considered fictionalizing it, but am not sure (still getting ideas down). It's about how I came to terms with being depressed and how I got onto Prozac. I have not mentioned anyone by name, but am afraid some of those referred to will know they are the ones I am talking about. One is a girl I hated throughout junior high and high school and one is a former boss who was always yelling at everyone. Others I've mentioned I don't remember the names of, so I not sure if they would figure it out. I mention relations with my grandfather and aunt, but don't have to worry about them, since both are deceased.

    Even if I did it fictionally, the persons being disguised still might know it's them.

  21. I grew up in an extreme conservative family. When I was in my 20ies my parents found out that I am gay and stopped contact. Over the course of 20 years they did a lot of things which hurt me, destroyed my business etc. Now I have found out that they try to reduce my legal claim of inheritance as much as possible.

    After I have posted on my Facebook that I plan to write a book about my life which should help other young gay people to deal with a difficult parental situation like I grew up in, my parents have hired a lawyer who informed me that I have to withdraw the statement on my Facebook and urged me not to write my life story as it is purely subjective and contains only things which don't correspond with actual facts.

    I am right now in the process of writing that book and intend to write the truth about my difficult childhood and years of growing up.

    As my parents live in a small town, even if I change the names everyone will know their identity as they know my name as a writer.

    Question: As the intention of my book is to help other young gay people to learn to live with conservative parents who have a problem for them being gay, will it override privacy concerns?

    Further: My parents will insist that they are not homophobic and had even state their lawyer that they have no problem with my "different choice of lifestyle". Other than how my life took its course, how can I proof that what I am telling is the truth?

    Writing the book is for me very important as it is a therapeutic process which is not easy to go through for me. I do feel that my book will be able to help others and myself. It is not a book written with feelings of anger or revenge towards my parents, just my account of bringing out truth.

    How valid are my arguments if my parents sue me for defamation which is very likely.



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