In light of all of the disastrous attention recently directed at James Frey and his memoir, I have some questions about legality and autobiographies. Can we mention companies for whom we have worked by name? Do all names of persons have to be changed? DoI have to hint so as not to be sued? Do I have to fictionalize?
That’s a fascinating question and one that’s not just about Frey, but really reflects a lot of issues in our society, even resume falsification: if I make up a college degree, get a prestigious job, go on to grad school and eventually write in my memoirs about my [fictional] experiences at that college, is it actually legally actionable by the Regents? What if I falsely say that I was granted a degree even though I really dropped out of that school?
Or, more to the point, I worked at HP Labs years ago and hung out with folk at Xerox PARC, DEC’s Western Research Lab, Interval Research and many other R&D groups. If I got, um, confused and said that I’d worked at Xerox PARC and hung out with people from HP Labs, could Xerox sue me for lying? More importantly, would they want to sue me even if I said terrible things about them?
I’m not a lawyer so this certainly isn’t legal advice, but if you are citing historical fact then there’s no reason you cannot talk about your experiences at a college, in a particular town, as a member of a specific organization or as an employee of a company. When you get into opinions, when you start to embroider the truth, well, if it can’t be proven that you’re lying (e.g., you attended for one quarter, which the records show, but you write about your four years of time at the university) then it just becomes a “he said, she said” and you’re unlikely to get into trouble unless you have very powerful or very visible enemies.
Let’s say that you and a famous celebrity both attended a college at the same time, or you and a well-known business executive both shared a stint at a different firm. You might well talk about your experiences with them in the office / classroom while they have no memory of you at all. Can you be sued for that? Not unless they can prove you’re lying.
So the long and short of it is that, of course, you should be as honest and faithful to the facts as you can, but memoirs only work well when they’re stories, and whether you’re inventing a “plausible” conversation from decades ago, unwittingly misremembering a prom dress or band performance, or inadvertently mischaracterizing a meeting from your work life years ago, you’re still safe and still within the bounds of what’s accepted.
If you want to turn fiction into non-fiction like James Frey, well, then you will hopefully get the reward you deserve for your efforts, and for trying to hoodwink readers.
Hope that’s helpful.