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I am writing a memoir about my abusive childhood. Do I need permission from everyone I write about? My abuser is deceased, but my brothers are part of the story and I don't know where one of them is to request permission, but I don't want to go ahead without knowing I don't need their permission.

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Is this a legal question, an ethical question, or a practical ("I want to still be able to go to family reunions") question? –  Monica Cellio Jul 4 '13 at 1:44

1 Answer 1

NOTE: I am not a lawyer, and the following is just the result of some Google searching.

You're allowed to publish basically anything you want; the concern is not whether you will be able to publish it to begin with, but whether you can be sued (for libel or misrepresentation) later on. Even if you would win such a lawsuit, it would probably be expensive and a lot of work.

There are two ways to reliably protect yourself from lawsuits. The first is to get explicit permission from the individuals involved; what you want here is a release form, a legal document that basically says "I won't sue you over this book in the future." The second option is to anonymize your the individuals involved - if an individual's name isn't used (or, I assume, directly clear from context), then they have no basis for a lawsuit. That is, if you were to write under a pseudonym and change everybody's names, it would be difficult to connect your actual brother to the character in the book; therefore there would be no basis for a lawsuit. (I do not know what extent of "anonymizing" is necessary - whether name changes are enough, or major identifying details need to be changed as well.)

A few questions you might want to consider:

  • Will your memoir portray your brother in a favorable light, or a negative one? If favorable, then there should be no basis for a lawsuit.
  • How likely is your brother to, at some point, actually find out about your book? If you literally cannot find him, perhaps (perhaps!) the odds of him finding your particular memoir and taking offense are slim.
  • To what extent can you defend your writing about him as accurate? If you ever actually come to a lawsuit, the question is not whether you have portrayed him negatively without permission, but whether you have committed libel - that is, whether you've published lies about him that could hurt him or his reputation.
  • How hard would it be to write your memoir with fake names, without identifying your brother?

At any rate, if you do proceed, you should try to get release forms from anybody relevant who can give you one - that's the strongest protection there is. Having one chink in the wall doesn't mean you can leave the main gates wide open.


I relied on detail I found at the following sources:

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Please notice that your word alone isn't a valid proof in a trial. You would need also witness and real evidence, what sometimes can be difficult to obtain. That means that if you say something happened in a book as a real event, somebody will be able to prosecute you for defamation. Using the anonymizer option seems the best approach for a book that deals with some more difficult problems. –  Psicofrenia Jul 3 '13 at 10:18

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