Fact, not fiction: You can get sued for what you write in your memoir

Fact, not fiction: You can get sued for what you write in your memoir

A memoir of one’s trip to the wilderness or the supermarket can make for a compelling read if it’s well-written. It may even rise to the level of art if it manages to answer age-old questions about the meaning of life and/or if it succeeds in making the personal, universal.

And there are many reasons to write a memoir: to gain some insight into one’s past, to heal from trauma, or simply to pass the time. Celebrities may write their memoirs for any of the abovementioned reasons, but many of them do it simply because they can. Just as there are many reasons to write one’s memoirs, there are many reasons one could get into trouble for doing so.

Not-fiction-but-not-quite-nonfiction is not a literary genre

People who go to the bookstore need to be assured that when they pick up Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming from the nonfiction shelves, they’re getting a truthful account of the former first lady’s real life, not one she made up. Memoirists, take note.

In 2006, writer James Frey was fortunate to have his memoir about alcoholism and drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces, selected by the Oprah Book Club. Any writer would kill to get their books picked by Oprah’s book club (except Jonathan Franzen) as that is a surefire way to turn your book into a best seller if it isn’t already. Frey’s memoir was supposedly excellent; an over-enthusiastic critic even described it as “War and Peace for addiction,” which suggested that Frey’s memoir is equal in depth and scope to the Tolstoy epic.

But alas, the Smoking Gun website inadvertently revealed that A Million Little Pieces contained a million little lies. When the site tried to look for Frey’s mugshot, they had difficulty finding one and instead found evidence belying the author’s claims of committing a variety of criminal acts and other depravities as depicted in the memoir.

This resulted in Frey going on an apology tour (which included a return to Oprah’s couch), a relabeling of the book from nonfiction to “semi-fiction,” and lots of disappointed readers. Readers in California, Illinois, and New York claimed they were defrauded because the book they devoured was marketed and sold as nonfiction rather than fiction. They filed suit against Frey and his then-publisher Random House.

Similarly, Lance Armstrong’s attempts at becoming a literary sensation were not met with universal acclaim, but with disdain. In 2013, certain readers of his purported nonfiction books, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life (published by Penguin Group) and Every Second Counts (published by Random House), sued him and his publishers for $5 million for marketing his books as autobiographical. Two readers from California filed the suit (which sought a class-action status), claiming that the books contained lies particularly regarding his performance as a cyclist.

This is after Armstrong admitted on the Oprah show that he cheated throughout his cycling career by using banned drugs to boost his performance for which he won trophies. In his books, however, he was written as a drug-free cycling legend who overcame cancer to win the Tour de France.

Fictionists use material from real life all the time, but when memoirists/writers of autobiographies invoke creative freedom to embellish or fictionalize, readers tend to be less forgiving.

It’s called a memoir, not a historical document

It’s not uncommon for writers to remember things differently than the people in the events they may write about. In 2020, pop diva Mariah Carey released a memoir called The Meaning of Mariah Carey. Unlike Frey and Armstrong, none of what Carey and her co-author Michaela Angela Davis wrote in the memoir was fabricated. But Carey’s brother and sister insisted that certain accounts were “false and defamatory.”

Carey’s brother Morgan and sister Alison each sued the singer for portraying them in a negative light. They claimed that several passages in the book, specifically those depicting their family in a violent turmoil, were exploitative, contentious, and false. They both demanded $1.25 million each for emotional distress.

Carey has not made a public statement regarding these lawsuits, which can be taken to mean that her book has no double meaning and that she couldn’t be bothered to explain herself in public. This seemed like such a Mariah Carey thing to do.

A similar case happened to author Augusten Burroughs whose best-selling book Running with Scissors tripped over a legal conflict. In his memoirs, Burroughs wrote about his childhood growing up with a troubled mother and living with his therapist’s family. The members of the family weren’t happy with their unflattering portrayal and sued him for $2 million for defamation.

The case was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. Burroughs and his publishers were also required to relabel Scissors as a “book” instead of “memoirs” and to ensure that future reprints include a disclaimer saying that the author’s memories of certain events are different from the family described in the non-memoir.

The ghostwriter who got ghosted

As the case of former Hole frontwoman Courtney Love illustrates, you can get sued for not writing your memoirs. Love commissioned writer Anthony Bozza to write her memoirs for her, but when she received a draft of the book and didn’t love how she was portrayed, the project stayed in limbo. As a result, the second half of the project’s payment remained unpaid. Mr. Bozza sued the singer and asked for $200,000 in damages.

If you pay someone to ghostwrite your life’s story, ditch the project later on, and fail to make payments to the writer, you can expect a lawsuit. In today’s slang, that is called ghosting, and it is not an okay thing to do.

Anyone can write a memoir, but not everyone can write a prenuptial agreement, separation agreement, custody agreement, and other family law documents. Leave that to family law attorneys Buckingham, LaGrandeur, & Williams. Call our Renton, Seattle offices for your divorce and custody case in the Evergreen State.