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When I was drafting my memoir, Tales of a Law School Dropout, I came upon a dilemma once I was ready to publish my book–should I change the names of my friends to protect their identities and privacy? What if they wouldn’t want to be my friend anymore after I wrote about them? What if they were offended by something I said in the book? What if they didn’t think my portrayal of them was accurate?
In fact, I went as far as asking my closest friends if they were okay about me writing about them. All I ever wanted out of writing a memoir was to tell people everything I wished I had known before attending law school so that they could avoid the pain I went through from going down the wrong career path. I certainly didn’t want to hurt any of my friends in the process of seeking catharsis after writing a memoir. To my surprise, most of my friends responded that they were flattered that I wrote a book and included them in it! Most of them didn’t care either way if I used their names or didn’t.
Even so, I changed their names. I spoke to an Intellectual Property attorney after he gave a presentation on copyright law at my writers’ group, and he said that I should change the names, not because of fear of getting sued, but because some day one of my friends might become a judge and wouldn’t want her real name published in a book about her first year of law school. So for the sake of my friends’ future careers, I concealed their names. But what about their personalities?
To find the answer, I consulted Tristine Rainer’s book, Your Life as Story, which advises memoir writers to change the names of their friends and loved ones, “not from concern about lawsuits, but out of desire to retain a margin of privacy for themselves and others” (p. 318). Phillip Lopate’s policy was to fictionalize only names, not identifying characteristics, in his personal essays (Rainer, 1997). Since opinions are protected under the First Amendment, it’s not libelous to state your opinion in your memoir.
However, it is good to keep in mind the elements of libel: “In most states, the plaintiff must be able to show that not only is what you wrote not true, but that the reader could recognize whom the character is based on, that the subject of your writing had been damaged by it in some demonstratable way, and that you wrote the lie with malicious intent” (p. 315).
So did I change people’s names? Yes. Did I lie about them? No. Did I deliberately try to hurt them? No. Whew.
Nevertheless, to my chagrin, one of my lawyer friends who read my book was able to recognize a mutual acquaintance. To find out who, check out Tales of a Law School Dropout.
Are you writing a memoir? Let me know your take on changing names.
Have a great day,