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Do I Have to Reveal Secrets in My Memoir?
Ina Hillebrandt -- Author, Publisher, Writing Coach, Speaker Ina Hillebrandt -- Author, Publisher, Writing Coach, Speaker
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Los Angeles, CA
Friday, May 6, 2016

Here are a few articles on the subject:

Psychology Today


The Atlantic

The other good thing about exposing yourself on paper is your readers will admire your honesty. The writer who is not perfect is human. Someone with whom a reader can honestly identify. When I wrote my first book, Pawprints, I was quite pleased when friends remarked, "I can hear you talking as I read these stories." But I was actually surprised and a bit uncomfortable myself when people added, "I know so much more about you now," with a kind of knowing look. Ouch! But, the fact that I did reveal personal vignettes did much more for me than to me. Pawprints became an Amazon.com bestseller, and developed into a literacy program. And readers liked me!

Now, does this mean you have to tell everything? No. If you will really hurt yourself or someone else, consider whether or not it is such an important point that you must reveal all. If so, the other people who are afraid they might be tarnished by association, or whose secret you are telling, will just have to get over it. This is particularly true within families. There are always skeletons and everyone is afraid of letting them jump into the light. But, as the research shows, these secrets are harmful to everyone, and it really may wind up helping all involved if the cat is let out of the bag.

Thinking over your life for your memoir will bring to mind these secrets. And while it is a good thing to put some into print, there are valid reasons when other avenues at clearing the air may be a better choice.

A woman who came to me about a project had experienced the family secret issue. A relative was trying to urge her to have sex with his friends, who were strangers to her. Why? Probably  because he thought "free love" was healthy. She was so offended, and upset, that she chose to ostracize him, and never re-opened the door to the man again. The rest of the family knew nothing of this. They were all very upset with her.

In talking about her project, we discussed this issue in depth. The conclusion -- it would be too hurtful for the family to include the episode and its aftermath in her memoir, and it was not critical to the portion of her life about which she was writing. But it was important to talk to others in the family once he had died. They needed to know why she had seemed so ill mannered, to say the least. The result? Suddenly, the family understood her behavior. They wound up embracing her warmly. Family bonds were re-attached.

Another time you might opt not to include such a secret is if you might wind up getting hurt, for example kneecapped, as one lady who came to me for advice might have. In this case I also advised not to reveal the secrets.These were not about the author, but about characters she would include. The woman with the story had been married to a man who was famous in a field that was riddled with mafia. It would have been very dangerous for her to expose their behavior.

On a related note, is it OK to write stories about celebrities you might have encountered?
In general, the rule of thumb is, if it really happened, it is not libel (“slander” refers to telling the story orally) and you can write it. Celebrities are also considered public figures and as such are “fair game” for irony, or for stories that involve something you witnessed – as long as it is not degrading or defamatory. They are not, though, fair game for mean spirited, untrue stories. Again, if it is not true, you better watch out.

Here are two resources online to check out the legalities involved.



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