Rachel: Oh, and I’m sorry I said you were a cow in high school.
Monica: That’s okay. I was a cow.
Rachel: Yes, but I’m still sorry I said it.
– Friends, Season 1, Episode 17 “The One With Two Parts”
This post offers a broad overview of defamation law but is not intended to be read as legal advice. This is a complex legal issue that should not be taken lightly. If you have concerns about your own writing with regards to libel liability, you should seek independent legal advice.
I’ve had authors who were worried about writing about the people in their family. Memoirs are always a bit tricky like that. It’s your story, but it’s also the story of how your life was affected by them.
It’s more complicated than just which details to include and which to leave out. It becomes a question of, do you even want to represent them as themselves, or would you rather change their name, age, occupation, everything, in fact, apart from what they did for you or how they impacted on your life?
It doesn’t have to be for negative reasons. Some people really don’t want the credit. One of the writers I knew in uni wrote their own stories as novels because they didn’t want their subject to be embarrassed by how the writer looked up to them as their role model, their hero.
At the Brisbane Writers Festival, I heard a great talk by Sian Prior about her memoir, ‘Shy’, which chronicles her struggles with social anxiety. She wrote about living in the shadow of an ex of hers who was very famous. In her case, she said she didn’t need to check with him before writing about him. They had already parted ways, but more importantly, he had already written about their relationship in his own book! He’d already set the rules by not asking her before he wrote about her.
Her approach, knowing that she would uncover things about their relationship that people didn’t know, was to be rigorous about being honest. By contrast, she did check with her family about her portrayal of each of them, and they were all surprised but happy with her including them in her story.
Lots of people worry about defamation law – specifically, the written form, ‘libel’. Here’s the raw basics: