When the Truth Causes Trouble

by Melissa Petro

There’s at least one in every class: One semester, I taught a mother and orthodox Jew who feared that talking about her unhappy marriage would lead to ex-communication. Before her, a new writer worried that sharing his memoir would incite the wrath of his abusive ex. One semester, a young man expressed concerns that the famous and wealthy actor who’d molested him as a teen would retaliate if he ever published his story.

These writers were on the precipice of what psychiatrist and author Judith Herman might describe as the central dialectic of psychological trauma: “the conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud.”

Of course, it’s not just writers who’ve suffered abuse, and who are now left with traumatic stories, who worry. Most of us are at once excited by and trepidatious at the prospect of digging into our personal history and exposing its reality. We write to help others as much as to ease the burden and lessen our suffering.

Simultaneously, we worry that publishing will result in some unintended negative consequence. The truth is, it might. Publishing can cost a writer his or her day job, lead to a lawsuit, even threaten custody ofone’s children. Especially when we write for online publications—and our writing reaches wider, sometimes unintended audiences—we can’t always control the outcome of our written words.

I am something of a cautionary tale: In 2010, I lost my career as an elementary school teacher when it was discovered I was writing and sharing stories about my former life as a stripper and call girl. That September, I’d scored my second-ever byline, a 900-word op-ed on Huffington Post. The article was in defense of the defunct “erotic services” section on craigslist, and disclosed the fact that—years earlier and for a brief period—I’d used the online classifieds website to sell sex.

A reporter need only Google my name and to find my only other byline, an essay I’d written some months earlier for The Rumpus that talked about having worked as a stripper before becoming a teacher. Some days after my piece ran on Huffington Post, a New York Post reporter—along with a photographer— appeared on the front steps of the school where I taught.

What happened next goes steps beyond every writer’s worst nightmares. The next morning, an unflattering picture was plastered on the cover of the New York Post under the headline “Bronx Teacher Admits: I’m an ex-hooker.”

Following that, the story appeared everywhere from the New York Times to the Times of India, the Daily Mail to El Mundo. CBS News ran a slideshow of my Facebook photos. As proof of what a simpler time we lived in just eight years ago, the story of the “hooker teacher” was CNN’s “Breaking News.”

In subsequent articles, I argued my former occupation in no way made me unfit to work with children, highlighting the fact that my competence as a teacher was never called into question. Even so, the media firestorm resulted in my immediate removal from the classroom, and I was ultimately forced to leave a career that I’d loved.

But what about free speech? you might ask.

I’m by no means a lawyer, but I dealt with a lot of lawyers that year, and so I learned a little about the constitutionality of speech. As a public school teacher, I worked for the government, and so there were a

unique set of rules that impacted me. Essentially, a state or federal employee’s speech is protected so long as its political importance outweighs any distraction it creates in the workplace. To hold onto my career, Imight’ve argued that it was the speech of the New York Post, rather than my own, that created the distraction. Or else I would’ve had to have successfully argued that the rights and dignity of sex workers are politically important, and therefore my defending them was worth the commotion I’d caused. (This is something I believe. Society? Not so much.)

After months of public humiliation leading up to an arbitration hearing, I was broken—and broke. Instead of fighting it out, I agreed to resign, mostly because the New York City Department of Education promised me that if I did so, they wouldn’t contest my unemployment (which they did anyway, but that’sanother story).

If you’re not a government employee, the law is even simpler: You are free to say or write whateveryou’d like—and your employer is free to fire you. According to Virginia employment lawyer and Forbescontributor Tom Spiggle: “It’s often perfectly legal for an employer to take action against a worker for something they said or wrote.”

Let’s say you’re less afraid of pissing off your boss than you are terrified of upsetting your litigious sister. Laws vary state to state, but in most places, you can open yourself up to defamation and invasion of privacy if you’ve written something untrue about an identifiable living person and what you’ve said could seriously damage their reputation. But if you’re telling the truth, then it’s not defamatory no matter how offensive or embarrassing. That said, even if it’s true, you could still be charged with invasion of privacy if what you disclose is so embarrassing that it could harm a person’s personal and professional reputation.

Though it’s rare that writing results in legal action, it happens. Most famously, Augusten Burroughs settled a $2 million lawsuit for defamation brought against him by the family with whom he lived while growing up. In an article for Vanity Fair, family members said that Burroughs’ portrayal of them in his best-selling book Running with Scissors wasn’t true. Parts were greatly exaggerated, they said—and whatwas true was humiliating. While the financial terms of the settlement were confidential, Burroughs was ultimately forced to call the volume a “book” instead of a memoir and write a disclaimer in the acknowledgements saying the family’s memories of events were different from the author’s and express regret for “any unintentional harm” to them.

In the same Vanity Fair article, which described the book as “brutal,” Burroughs defended his work.“This is my story,” Burroughs said. “It’s not my mother’s story and it’s not the family’s story, and they may remember things differently and they may choose to not remember certain things, but I will never forget what happened to me, ever, and I have the scars from it and I wanted to rip those scars off of me.”


This was the attitude of Stephanie Land, whose estranged husband has tried to prevent her from writing about him. Land’s first book, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, published in January 2019, is about living in poverty and struggling to raise her young daughter alone while she worked as a housecleaner and took college classes.

When Land first met and married her now-estranged husband, she says he was supportive of her writing career. “He was proud of me,” she says. “But also, it was supporting him. He thought he’d never have to work again.”

“Still,” says Land, “I think he was nervous, anxious about negative portrayals and anxious about people finding out what he did.”

Land recently published “The Day My Husband Strangled Me” on the Guardian, which articulates the mental and physical abuse Land experienced during their short marriage of just over a year.

“[During the marriage], I worked very hard to make it seem like everything was perfect,” says Land. The essay was written in response to the pressure we often feel to perpetuate a perfect life on social media.“The more that people share and write about what’s really going on, the less pressure we have to constantly post the perfect family photo.”

Land wrote the Guardian piece three months after she and her husband had separated and were living apart. “I immediately started pitching it. I felt like I needed to confess what I’d done.”

After the piece was written but before she’d found a publisher, Land’s ex-husband’s lawyer had begun demanding restrictions related to her work. “His demands kept changing,” Land recollects. “For a while, he said, ‘OK, you can write about me, but if you do, you have to include a line that says it’s fiction.’ Next, he tried to say that he’d have the right to any money made from the work. For a few months, it seemed like they were coming up with whatever they could to get me to sign off on.”

Initially, Land says, she laughed.” I thought, ‘He has no right.’ It was ridiculous.” At the same time, his actions gave her pause. “I talked to several lawyers and asked ‘Can he really do this?’ It made me doubt myself a little bit.

“When people are being threatening,” Land says, “they feed off fear. The more afraid you are, the more they win.”

Ultimately, publishing the essay was less about striking back at her husband, Land says, as it was coming clean. Land placed the piece right after a Colorado man named Chris Watts murdered his pregnant wife and children. “All people could talk about was [the idyllic marriage she presented in] her Facebook posts; it gave me an urgent feeling.”

When I ask her if publishing the essay further complicated an already-complicated divorce proceeding, Land says she has no regrets. “I’m really proud of that piece. It’s one of my proudest pieces. It’s just a really good essay.”

“The product is a beautiful thing,” Land maintains. “I wouldn’t say that my life is complicated by my writing, I would say my life is complicated, and writing is how I process it.”

In a piece for Ravishly, Dena Landon reported on a number of instances where domestic violence survivors were sued for defamation after publicly sharing their stories. “Women can still be punished for speaking up,” Landon writes, “and not just by losing a job or enduring a barrage of nastiness in their Twitter DMs, but by a legal system that has consistently failed to protect them or deliver any justice.”

“I think of a lot of people calling me brave, and it reminds me of people calling me strong for being a single mom,” Land says. “I’m just doing what I have to do. That’s not really strength; that’s just showing up. Even though I’m scared, I do it anyway.” She laughs, “I guess that’s what bravery means. I don’t have a choice but to show up for my writing and the writer that I am.”


“The mistake that all of us made is that we told the truth.”

Art critic and museum curator Grady Turner tells me he didn’t set out to become a sex writer. But when his wife asked for a divorce after 15 years together, Turner felt discarded, pushed out, and alone.

“Being a single parent and dating after so many years,” Turner says, “it all felt very strange, like Rip Van Winkle waking up in a new world.”

Following this impulse to share and connect with people about what felt like a very novel situation, Turner started a blog called One Life, Take Two. Written under the pseudonym “Jefferson,” the blog vividly documented the then-40-year-old’s burgeoning sexual life, and how he balanced threesomes, orgies, and BDSM with life as a dad.

It was 2004, when blogs were becoming increasingly mainstream. One Life, Take Two quickly grew in popularity, and Turner found himself a part of an expanding community of sex writers. In 2008, Turner and his blog were featured in Time Out New York’s Secret Lives Issue. Turner’s ex-wife came across the article, and—using details Turner had given the reporter about their children—she connected the blog back to her ex. Months later, Turner’s wife filed an emergency motion claiming the children were in immediate danger and demanded full custody—something Turner says she’d wanted all along.

“It was awful,” Turner says, describing the next year of his life. “I was immediately pulled into court. I had to immediately get a lawyer. We had to have psychiatric evaluations for myself and each of thechildren.”

Turner immediately took the blog down. Still, he says, the damage was done. His ex-wife’s family, whom Turner had written about, poured financial support into her case. The judge instructed both parties to keep it a secret from the children, “but my kids aren’t stupid,” Turner says. In court, lawyers confronted Turner with a printout of his writing, thick as a phone book. He says, “I felt humiliated and exposed.”

Throughout the ordeal, Turner says he felt an extraordinary anxiety that he would lose his children. At the same time, he says, “I felt a fidelity to be honest, and an artistic integrity. I was proud of this work and the community I was building. I wanted to defend my writing.”

When lawyers representing the children asked Turner to agree to stop writing—and to stop writing about his children specifically—he said no. “On the one hand,” he said, “I was an anxious, frightened father. On the other hand, I was an artist, writer, and activist. I wanted to stand up in a principled way.”

After a lengthy and expensive ordeal, Turner’s ex-wife was denied her bid for full custody and the original custody agreement remained intact. “My children are damaged, I was damaged, but it was done,”he says.

When I ask Turner if it was worth it, he says it’s a difficult question to answer. “Artistically and community-wise,” he says, “yes. It’s good work, I’m proud of it, it changed a lot of people’s lives in a positive way, including mine. The custody case, though, introduced such difficulties.” He tells me his relationship with his children never recovered. “That’s not on the blog, though,” Turner quickly adds.“That’s on the way my art was used against me.”

After the custody case, the blog continued. Being out liberated him to do public appearances. Turner became a storyteller and has appeared onstage at The Moth. “I don’t know [if it’s worth it],” he says, “butI haven’t stopped. I keep pursuing ways of telling the truth.”


There may be ways to avoid these consequences.

The first, most obvious suggestion would be to simply call it fiction unless you are 100 percent willing to do the work to fact-check, defend your case, and print the absolute truth as you experienced it.

After that, you might want to consider changing names and identifying details when you can. Some writers choose to publish under a pen name.

You can share your manuscript with the possibly offended party in advance of publication, hoping to ease the blow. When my now-husband and I first started dating, we came up with the rule that he’d get to read stories that involved him before I turned them in to my editor. As any writer who’s written on deadline can imagine, this extra step proved tedious—and unhelpful, given the fact that the first draft we turn in is rarely the version that makes it to print. Of course, it’s one thing to run a story past your partner; it’ssomething else entirely to share a manuscript with your abuser, an estranged relative, or your boss.

In my experience as an instructor, I find that writers worry too early in the process. Sometimes, what needs to be written doesn’t need to be published. Whether you ultimately edit out the potentially offending details or decide to keep the entire story to yourself, you’ll be better off for having written it.

Setting aside the legal considerations, the real topic here is risk. When students approach me with a concern of this nature, I ask them to get clear on what exactly it is they fear happening. Are you afraid of being sued, I ask, or is it more a fear that people will be mad at you? The truth is that people rarely like being written about, even if we think our portrayal of them is benign or even positive. What’s the worst that could happen? I ask. Could you live with these consequences?

I tell my students that the choice is yours. If you choose to move forward, I say, get clear on why. Keep those noble motivations in mind, should you be challenged.

Nearly a decade later, I’ve had plenty of time to look back at what motivated me to begin writing. Whereas my writing today is much more practical (I do a lot of content writing to make ends meet), back then the motivation was a pure need to tell my story.

And was it worth it? Well, the ordeal triggered a post-traumatic stress I wasn’t prepared for. It was, quite honestly, the worst year of my life. It took many years to recover financially and to build my new career as a freelancer. And still, I don’t know who I’d be if not a writer—and to me, the only kind of writer worth being is the kind that dares to tell the difficult truth.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine