The Line

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?

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Other posts about the Stockett lawsuit:

7 thoughts on “The Line

  1. I believe you know my take on this, but I think I would add that one question that seems to pop up form non-writers about this subject is Why? Why write about a real person? Why write about true events? If it’s going to hurt someone, why not just omit “it” or change “it” to be less recognizable? And that is where I see the biggest infringement on art or, for me, simple catharsis. Writers usually have very specific reasons for writing a character/event/situation the way they do. So, that being said, I’m more interested in WHY Stockett wouldn’t have just “changed” the name a bit more or, say, left out a specific detail or two.
    Also, this whole situation brings up the truth/fiction issue going on in publishing right now, which I would refer back to the James Frey/Oprah debacle. The sad fact is that the mass public is more interested in “true” stories than made-up ones. Why? I doubt many of the readers who feel that way have ever even asked themselves that question. They (we) may not want to know the answer either.

    • You raise an interesting question. It does seem that the reading audience out there is asking for more and more “truth” in their reading. I wonder if they’re aware of the issues and inherent danger (sorry, but that’s a fact) in writers writing “true” stuff.

      You also raise the oft questioned decision of Stockett to use a name so similar. My second collection has the “real” name (first and last) of a “real” person in the very title. I choose to do so because I felt the collection was a tribute to that person, but many, many readers did not see it in that vein. Because the person was deceased when I wrote it, I escaped what could have been an ugly battle (apparently the dead are open game) – but I wonder if I would have changed it just to save my ass? I’d like to say that I wouldn’t have – that my reasons were sound and my intentions were good – just as many have said about Stockett’s portrayal – that she writes Aibileen in a positive light. Maybe she just didn’t see this coming?

      Still, she was asked to not publish it with such a close characterization…. I don’t know. It’s a tough issue. I’m interested to hear what others have to say about it. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I’m relieved that all three of my stepfathers are dead.Yet, at least one of them does have living relatives which I do worry about including in a memoir even though they are pivotal in some parts of the story. So, I will have to concern myself with how to conceal identities so they are unrecognizable (not an easy task — the real names of my stepfather’s siblings are too good to not want to use — they all rhyme). I doubt they would approve of my writing the truth about them or give me permission to use their real names; my portrayal of them would definitely not be considered flattering. Because of this, I have thought of just scrapping the idea of writing a memoir or writing it in way where I could just leave out those parts, but, like I said, those people are pivotal to the story. I am trying to get back in contact with my stepsisters who told me years ago that I should write about what happened to them and my sister, the failings of the justice system due to early parole practices, and the tragic consequences this led to five years after their father was released from prison. I do want their insights. So, the question comes back to if they asked not to use their real names, I don’t know if I would honor that request. After all what happened to them is public record, so how I can be held liable for something that anyone has access to? Now if this is fiction, of course, I am not going to ask anyone’s permission. It’s fiction for goodness sake, and if I change the names, the setting, etc. — try to prove differently. I guess I’ll come to that bridge when I come to it. If I think about it too much, then I ‘ll start censoring myself, and that I don’t want to do.

    • The thing about printing things that are a part of public record is that you are bringing them to light. You are pushing them into the faces of those that experienced them, or at least to the hands and reading eyes of those that might judge. I can think of a few experiences in my life that I could write about or that someone else could write about that don’t portray me in the best light. I also can think of a few experiences that I feel strongly about that, if I wrote them, I would be judged and those around me would be judged for their participation. I tend to fall into the category of those who would make fiction of the past in order to spare others and leave their dignity intact, but then perhaps I am not as courageous as all of you memoir writers. I have long decided that writing down my past would likely hurt others and, in the end, myself. If it happens to appear in the fiction that I may or may not produce, that is my business. It’s a tough topic.

      I think the point about the reading audience wanting the truth is an interesting one. I tend to see it like this though: it is much like a court case. The prosecution sets up the evidence such that the defendant is guilty and it is the job of the defense lawyer to create reasonable doubt. A lawyer who does this with finesse gives the jury a story of “what really happened” – something they can write home to Ma about – so that they know what really happened and how it all went down. I think that this is often what the jury (i.e. reading audience) really wants. They want the real story on the real lives of people, but they want it with the defense lawyer’s finesse. They want it with the life that the writer gives to it. And when all is said and done, that means the reading audience wants perspective. They want the perspective of a good writer – nothing more and nothing less. This can be done by writing truth, or it can be done by masking the real life in a cloak of fiction. I suppose that’s a choice that is really left up to the writer.

      As for those who want their stories written (for them… or even perhaps about themselves), I have always wondered if this is for vidication, edification, or some combination of both. In my own reflections about writing my life in story, I have found that there were times I wished to do such a thing – for vindication and in hopes of self-edification – but as time has passed, I keep coming to the conclusion that I would do no such thing. I think that writing it would only serve to harm me and those involved. Again, this is my story and we each have our own.

      When it comes to telling my stories, I prefer tell them over a bottle or two of Chilean Merlot.

  3. Sorry to have dropped the conversation ball here – I was out of town and away from my computer 😦

    Cindy – I think if you’re writing about things that are already part of the public record, you are likely safe – unless you deviate too substantially from that record and call it “memoir” – if you’re calling it fiction, then I suppose you’re free to deviate away!

    Carina – I hear what you’re saying about reasons for writing memoir – but I would argue that there are lots of reasons for writing one’s story – more than just vindication or edification. In fact, I think that many (if not most) memoir writers feel compelled to tell their story because they believe it needs to be told for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is to encourage those who have been silenced or to speak on an issue that others feel compelled to not speak of. I think it’s the reason we see so many abuse narratives – because, believe it or not, the ability to speak about abuse and to be heard is a relatively new phenomenon. It wasn’t until the 60s before childhood sexual abuse was even categorized medically as “abuse” – and it’s historically been a “silent” topic, one that isn’t spoken of and, therefore, the very reason that abuse victims often feel they are alone in their experience.

    But, of course, there are other types of memoirs out there – those that deal with illness, death, violence, etc. (I’m trying to think of a happy memoir, but can’t!). And those too, I would argue, are not written for vindication or edification but simply because they are stories that deserve to be told, that must be told. There is literature out there on trauma that says something along the lines of: in order for a person to heal from trauma (any kind of trauma), that person must be able to tell his or her story and to tell it often and, most importantly, to be heard.

    I suppose, in the end, the question is not whether one should write – because you can’t stop that even if you wanted to – but whether the writer should be held accountable for injuring third parties in the act of writing and publishing. It’s a complicated issue and not one that I have any illusions about having answers to.

    I appreciate all of your comments and thoughts. You’ve made me think more about the topic and, as it always happens, I’m farther from an answer now than I was before!

    😉 xx.

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