Kathryn Stockett is being sued for her portrayal of a real-life person in her award-winning novel The Help. The suit, according the Times article, was encouraged by none other than Stockett’s brother and sister-in-law for whom Ablene Cooper, the maid portrayed in the novel, works. What is most distressing is the fact that Stockett’s family are the impetus for the legal action. The question is: why?
I was talking the other day with a friend about this case, and she told me a story about a woman she knows who wrote a book and was threatened with legal action if she published it. The threat was made by her father. And the truth is, these stories are more plentiful than we’d like to believe.
It seems that family members can be a writer’s worst enemy. This is not news. Anyone who has been seriously in the writing game for any length of time has heard these stories. Stories of families being torn apart, mothers refusing to speak to daughters, estranged children and siblings. All because someone felt compelled to write it down and publish it. More often than not, these rifts are created by the writing of memoir – the real-life story of an event as told through one person’s perspective, though it happens in fiction and even poetry as well. The question is: where’s the line?
All artists create out of their own experience. I would argue that every character you’ve ever read was, in at least some small part, based on a real-life person or a composite of people. Every location in a story is taken from a real place. Even dialogue – the tricks and nuances of a person’s speech – is likely modeled on the speech patterns of a real person. It’s virtually impossible to make up a character out of thin air – without basing that character on things we see/have seen in real life. It’s what we do with that character that matters.
According to the Rights of Writers blog, writers writing the “truth” can be sued for three things: defamation of character, violation of privacy, and copyright infringement. It doesn’t matter if it’s “true” – if the writer’s words defame (seriously impact or injure the reputation of) a person or business – that writer can be sued. If a writer writes about extremely personal and private history (the statement of a person’s sexual orientation or embarrassing illness, for example) – that writer can be sued for violation of privacy. If the writer uses letters or emails sent to the writer without the sender’s permission – that writer can be sued for copyright infringement.
So. There’s the legal line.
But the fact is, lots of books get written and published without legal action. Although these stories are common in the writing world, they are not common occurrences. What is a common occurrence is hurt feelings, injured relationships and feelings of anger, bitterness, outrage, embarrassment, etc. So even if you manage to side-step the legal line, there’s another one waiting for you on the other side. And this is the real question that all writers must face and, ultimately, answer for themselves: where is the line between saying what I have to say and protecting the people I love?
I happen to have an incredibly supportive family that believes in my work and, even though some of the things I have to say don’t necessarily put the softest light on them, support my publishing goals. But it’s a tricky walk. I always – always – read or send my work to the people who have appeared in it in early drafts. I do this because their opinion is important to me and because I want to know how they will respond to it. I am not the person writing to extract some kind of revenge. That’s not what I’m doing (though some writers do). And, so far, I’ve been pretty lucky. No one has asked me to not publish something. But that doesn’t mean the day may not come. And if and when it does, I’ll be faced with a challenge I’m not sure I’ll know how to answer.
By all accounts, Kathryn Stockett’s portrayal of the maid, Aibileene, in her novel is a sympathetic and positive one. It’s also one that she was asked not to publish. What she did, I imagine, was put the art before the person – what’s best for the work is not always best for the people portrayed in the work. And it’s true that Stockett could have used a name more dissimilar to the real person’s name – and probably should have. But that’s really beside the point. No matter how well we think we are portraying a person, there is always the chance that person won’t see it in the same light. Should we censor everything we write? Should we be more focused on the impact a work of art might have on an individual than the art itself? What should a writer do when asked to not publish something they’ve written?
Other posts about the Stockett lawsuit: