Anyone who has or is writing a memoir has run into it – the “do I name names dilemma.” This topic has come up in the Women’s Memoir Writing group I belong to on Linked In as well as in the Crafting the Personal Memoir course I am currently teaching. And the Internet is full of ideas about what to do and what others did.
Some of these ideas are wild. Wait to write you memoir until everybody in it (except you, of course) is dead. Well, if you wait, your spirit may have to come back to earth to do so. Show what you have written to everybody in it. That can just make matters worse as I can personally relate to from just showing one chapter to cousins. Change the names. Don’t tell anybody you are writing a memoir (except your writing critique group and swear them to secrecy) until it is published. Do you really think no one will blab about it?
A few years back when writing the original version of my memoir, I emailed one chapter to a cousin who had helped me with family background information. She must have passed it on to her siblings. But it wasn’t this chapter that stuck in the craw of one of her sisters. Nope. This cousin was upset because she didn’t want her children reading in a published book about the mental illness of a dead uncle. Our parents had “hidden” this uncle from us until one summer he showed up visiting another aunt and uncle and then our parents had to open up. Except their stories didn’t jibe. Flash forward to years later where some of us cousins discussed just what was the story with this uncle. The objecting cousin was not one of this bunch although she probably heard about it from her siblings. She later said she “would be very angry” if the book was published but wouldn’t sue me (I asked her). However, she had no problems with me writing it and publishing it as fiction, names changed, of course.
Which I’m doing. One family story became the basis of a fictional short story I wrote and had published in an anthology. The details and family situation changed – only the theme remained. And no, it wasn’t about my late uncle with the mental illness. Not yet…
At the same time I had done a manuscript evaluation exchange with another author and he said that my story was the most interesting in my memoir.
So, I changed it, including the title to You Can Go Home – Deconstructing the Demons. I deleted all the old family history (except for my parents and my grandfather) and wrote more of my story – the whole focus and theme changed. I also used pseudonyms (and state that in a Disclaimer at the beginning) for all but my parents and myself. That won’t hide it all but I felt it was the best way for me to handle the situation. Did I do it because of this cousin’s objections? Partly. But more so, from reader feedback.
The bottom line is when writing a memoir you have to decide for yourself whether to name names or not, what to show to family members or if to show anything to family members; only chapter excerpts for fact-checking might work best. If someone has a different take on something, why not include their take (but give them their credit)? Remember everyone sees a situation differently. You can always show the draft to a lawyer if you are really worried about libel.
And here are some of those websites I checked out.
Do a Google search for “naming names memoir” and see what you find.
Only Child Writes