Minimizing Hurt When Sharing Your Story

One of the most common questions I get asked by memoir writers is how to portray their story authentically, when memory fades, in a way that they won’t get sued. 

Not everyone in your story is going to come out smelling like roses and that can cause anything from hurt feelings to legal action. Thankfully, in Canada, the chances of a courtroom drama over a memoir are pretty slim, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tread carefully because a case doesn’t need to go to court to have an impact on your life. 

We often forget that once our story is on paper, the folks in our lives turn into characters for our readers who don’t see the full picture. They may not know that you have since mended that relationship with your uncle or that your friend eventually got help for their anger issue. Readers are only hearing the story from your perspective and will only know what you chose to tell them about these characters.

Remember, Memory’s a Tricky Thing

Memory is subjective. That’s just how our brains work. So, while you’re telling your side of the story, remember it’s exactly that—your side. Stick to the facts when you can—public records or anything that can be proven is fair game. You can’t argue with the facts!

Also, know that two people can be involved in the same situation and perceive it differently. I had a client who chose to omit their siblings from their story for this very reason—they didn’t want to assume that they had the same experience.

Avoid Libel and Slander

Whether it’s written down (libel) or said out loud (slander), no one wants to get into a legal mess about defamation. But proving that in court? It’s a headache and also unlikely but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t protect yourself. A good rule is to focus on how you felt in the particular scenario you are writing about. Saying “I felt threatened” is way different from “This person threatened me.” It’s all about ensuring that your reader knows that you are sharing this experience from your perspective. The author’s note is a great place to explain this.

A Little Heads-Up Goes a Long Way

There are some people in your story that you will want to extend a heads-up to. This will vary depending on your story, of course. If you have people in your story who you wish to have a good relationship with, I encourage you to have a conversation in advance. You may be surprised that they fully support you or they may request modifications to protect their identity. 

Modifying someone’s identity can be as simple as a name change but you may also want to consider other ways that people may identify a person. You can change the name of the mayor’s son in your small town but people will likely still know who you are talking about. It’s important to mention in your author’s note that you have taken liberties to protect the identity of certain characters. 

Another option, depending on the relationship, is to leave people out altogether but that will be a choice that only you can make. 

Measure the Hurt

My advice to writers is to create a character inventory and develop a scale to assess the potential hurt. This can be anything from a number scale, colour codes, or even flags. Whatever your system is, assign the level of hurt that you would expect. From here, I would recommend that you focus on the people who you have rated most likely to be hurt by sharing your story and then consider a couple more factors such as if they are still alive and if you want to have a positive relationship with them

Ultimately, you will end up with a list of who will be the most impacted and then determine what the worst-case scenario would be. Would this person simply roll their eyes and get over it in a week or will you be disowned and removed from a will? There is a range of possibilities but I would encourage a writer to consider these carefully because they will be living with the reactions. 

A note about those who have caused you harm: You are under no obligation to reach out to anyone who has abused you or caused you another type of harm. Some people in your story do not warrant you reaching out to them and putting yourself at risk for further harm. If a person who has harmed you was charged and went through the court system, that will all be public record and fair game for you to write about. If no charges were ever laid, I recommend you change the person’s name and identity and call it a day.

It’s Your Story

At the end of the day, remember this is your story. Sure, not everyone’s going to be thrilled about how they come across, and that’s okay. You can’t please everyone, nor should you try to and you certainly can’t control how other people will react. What matters is staying true to your experiences and sharing your truth.