A note on using other people's true stories

This cropped up on the Passive Voice--a therapist wrote and published an entire book about a patient and her drug addiction without ever mentioning it to the patient. The patient was in treatment the entire time, so there's no, "Oh, gee, I tried to get permission, but I couldn't find her" defense. The patient first found out about all this when she came across the book by accident.

Not surprisingly, she's suing.

As a former reporter, the thing that strikes me as especially dumb about this entire incident is that all of it--the lawsuit, the emotional distress--could have been obviated by the simple method of asking.

"Hey, you know, I was thinking that your story might help other people in the same situation. Would you mind sharing it? Like, maybe in a book if I can get the contract?" "Oh, I don't want people to know about everything that's happened to me and everything I've done." "Well, we could protect your identity by doing X and Y." "But what about Z?" "We could fix that by changing some of the details. I mean, the thing is, people don't think of drug addicts as being from your kind of background, so a book like this might really help other families and other kids." "Well, gee, that's true. Um, OK."

Honestly, a lot of people who have been through some pretty horrible crap are eager to share their stories. But it has to be sharing. They feel very differently about having their stories stolen from them, which is basically what the patient in this case is saying the therapist did--that he extracted her stories from her under the false pretence of helping her.

It's a more-extreme example, but it's in the same camp as going out on a date with a guy, and then trashing him publicly by name. The legal aspects are different (in that case, the date took place in a restaurant, which is a public place, and the guy didn't tell her anything that was actually that big a deal, so he can't sue), but the ethical imperative is the same: If you are told something by someone that they don't expect to see published, you need to get their permission to use it--or at least warn them beforehand.

It's just a dick move not to, frankly--if you publish your friends' confidences willy-nilly, you will soon find that you have no friends. And I found as a reporter that a "no surprises" policy (and yes, that's what it was called at one of my publications) was actually helpful--if you were more forthright about what you were doing in an interview, you were more likely to get useful information. (I couldn't always do this, because it's the nature of journalism that you don't always know what the story is going to be until after you finish the reporting, but it helped when I could.) Let's say you want to write a memoir, and it's going to include a long bit about a really nasty argument you had with your Aunt Edna. It could be really helpful to go back to Aunt Edna and have the (yes, uncomfortable) conversation with her to figure out why she felt the way she did. And even if she doesn't want to talk about it, you've given her a heads-up.

Why is it important to give people a heads-up? As the example of the patient and the therapist demonstrates, surprises get you sued. You thought that publication had a "no surprises" policy because we were so very ethical? Oh, no. Nooooo. In the United States, publications generally win the lawsuits against them because First Amendment protections are very broad. But getting sued is very, very expensive, even if you win. You want to not get sued in the first place, especially if you're self-published and don't have a legal department behind you. And when people find something out on their own that makes them feel shocked and betrayed and angry and outraged? That is when they call a lawyer.