Does memoir writing ruin relationships?

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Clairels

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It's not exactly a common thing for a 23-year-old non-celebrity to find him or herself a prominent "character" (is that even the right word?) in a soon-to-be-published memoir, and yet that's exactly the situation here. To be very clear, I did not use his real name.

Through a mutual friend, I sent one of the main figures in my memoir a chapter-long except from my upcoming memoir...and he was not a fan, to say the least. In fact, he's cut off all contact with me. He did not say why or give me a chance to explain.

And so I ask, given that I gave him fair, advance warning that I planned to write a book about the experience we shared together, am I being unfair? I feel like I sold him out for 30 pieces of silver. Is this just par for the course in memoir writing, or is he being unreasonable? I know not everyone reacts the same way to being written about, so I'm curious to know other people's experiences with this.

It seems to me that most of the time, when people write memoirs, they're writing about things that happened 30 years ago, benefiting from the distance of time and space, and the people involved are more mature and have the emotional resources to deal with it.

In case you're wondering, he doesn't come off like an angel--but on the other hand, if he'd been a one-note jerk, he wouldn't be very interesting to write about, so there's a lot of complimentary stuff in there, too.

Did I cross a line by bringing his family, whom I've never met, into it in a couple places? People don't become who they are in vacuums, and I felt the memoir would not be complete if I didn't dig into what I thought made him tick. Maybe I was completely off-base, but it's not like anyone is named or recognizable, and they play a very small role at best.

Please do share any and all experiences that might help me understand these dynamics. Some of this may even go beyond the scope of what anyone can answer, but I'm asking it here because I always find advice I can trust on AW. Thanks!
 

cornflake

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It's not exactly a common thing for a 23-year-old non-celebrity to find him or herself a prominent "character" (is that even the right word?) in a soon-to-be-published memoir, and yet that's exactly the situation here. To be very clear, I did not use his real name.

Through a mutual friend, I sent one of the main figures in my memoir a chapter-long except from my upcoming memoir...and he was not a fan, to say the least. In fact, he's cut off all contact with me. He did not say why or give me a chance to explain.

And so I ask, given that I gave him fair, advance warning that I planned to write a book about the experience we shared together, am I being unfair? I feel like I sold him out for 30 pieces of silver. Is this just par for the course in memoir writing, or is he being unreasonable? I know not everyone reacts the same way to being written about, so I'm curious to know other people's experiences with this.

It seems to me that most of the time, when people write memoirs, they're writing about things that happened 30 years ago, benefiting from the distance of time and space, and the people involved are more mature and have the emotional resources to deal with it.

In case you're wondering, he doesn't come off like an angel--but on the other hand, if he'd been a one-note jerk, he wouldn't be very interesting to write about, so there's a lot of complimentary stuff in there, too.

Did I cross a line by bringing his family, whom I've never met, into it in a couple places? People don't become who they are in vacuums, and I felt the memoir would not be complete if I didn't dig into what I thought made him tick. Maybe I was completely off-base, but it's not like anyone is named or recognizable, and they play a very small role at best.

Please do share any and all experiences that might help me understand these dynamics. Some of this may even go beyond the scope of what anyone can answer, but I'm asking it here because I always find advice I can trust on AW. Thanks!

You wrote a memoir and included a lot about someone who doesn't want to be included, including speculating about his family members, whom you've never met, and their role in what makes him a jerk?

I'm surprised your publisher's legal team let that happen, and hope they enjoy litigation.
 

Clairels

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Not exactly, Cornflake.

He wanted to be written about, and up till the point I gave him the sample chapter, he seemed fine, even enthusiastic with it--so I don't really see what I'm supposed to do now. I can't change the heart of the story. This isn't libelous material, and all of it is, to the best of my knowledge, true. It's not like I called him or any of his family members liars or cheats or drunks or abusers. Its more like I'm speculating on the psychology of their relationships, which I think as a writer I have a right to do. Basically it's me saying, "his parents must have messed him up bad"--how does he disprove that in court, or prove that it in some way harmed him?

I suppose I could take out the stuff about the family members without changing the story too much. But I really think I've covered my ass from a legal standpoint.
 

cornflake

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Not exactly, Cornflake.

He wanted to be written about, and up till the point I gave him the sample chapter, he seemed fine, even enthusiastic with it--so I don't really see what I'm supposed to do now. I can't change the heart of the story. This isn't libelous material, and all of it is, to the best of my knowledge, true. It's not like I called him or any of his family members liars or cheats or drunks or abusers. Its more like I'm speculating on the psychology of their relationships, which I think as a writer I have a right to do. Basically it's me saying, "his parents must have messed him up bad"--how does he disprove that in court, or prove that it in some way harmed him?

I suppose I could take out the stuff about the family members without changing the story too much. But I really think I've covered my ass from a legal standpoint.

I think suggesting he's messed up in some way and suggesting that his family, in fact, messed him up, is probably actionable, at least it seems somewhat unlikely it'd be tossed. They don't have to prove it's not true, you have to prove it is in that sense. However, there are plenty of things they could sue for besides libel.

However, consult your publisher's legal team. They should be on top of this.
 
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Roxxsmom

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If it's a memoir, isn't it supposed to be based on verifiable facts, or at the very least, shouldn't it make the parts that are speculation very clear? Isn't a memoir a bit like an autobiography, but it focuses on a specific time in your own life?

Now if you wrote a work of fiction that is simply based on reality, but all identifying markers have been removed, that might be different.

Is this memoir something you intend to submit to publishers, or self publish, or is it simply for family posterity?

My answer to your original question, though, is yes. Memoirs can definitely cause friction, unless they're written solely as therapy for the writer and not shared with anyone. Even if they're completely true and/or don't paint anyone in a bad light as far as you're concerned.

For instance, my mom and I have some very different versions of some things that happened when I was a kid. I've sort of noticed over the years that her versions of some events from my childhood are different from mine. They tend to put her in a much better light by modern parenting standards. I love my mom, and overall I think she was (and is) a great parent. But there were some times where my memory is that she and my dad made mistakes or did things that created issues for me for a while.

I can guarantee that if I wrote a memoir and portrayed these things in a way that felt honest to me, even if I made it clear that this is how I'm remembering things, she'd be hurt and angry. Even if it was just something I shared with no one but family and a few close friends.

It's just something people who feel the need to write memoirs must deal with. I know nothing of the potential legal issues involved, however. I know memoirs, unauthorized biographies, and autobiographies get published without lawsuits, so I assume there's a way around the inevitable hurt feelings and anger, but heck if I know what they are.
 
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mccardey

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I would think revenge memoirs ruin relationships - assuming the relationship was still intact...
 

Osulagh

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But I really think I've covered my ass from a legal standpoint.

Do you have this person's written and signed consent to use their likeness in the memoir? If you do, you might have your ass covered... unless the judge overlooks that, which they can.

It doesn't really matter how you write them in the memoir; if they can prove you have used their likeness without permission, they can take you to court.

Although, IANAL.

If you have their expressed written and signed consent after reading what you have written about them in the memoir, then your question "Does memoir writing ruin relationships?" in regards to your situation should already be answered.
 

frimble3

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"Does memoir writing ruin relationships?"
Sorry, but telling stories involving other people in front of them, live, with no intention of them going beyond the immediate gathering can ruin relationships. See Roxxsmom on how people remember things differently.
Surely I'm not the only person with the kind of family where one supposedly 'humourous' story about someone else can lead to narrowed eyes and tightened lips and a few choice words in the car, afterwards?

Possibly your 'character' has edited his behavior in his head into something very different from your memories. Apparently his behavior is 'the heart' of your story, and then you speculate on how his parents messed him up so bad, so it's not like this is some throwaway paragraph. He could possibly claim that the story is about him.

Was he 23 when the events occurred, or is he 23 now, and the events occurred when he was even younger? I'm guessing that you're both around the same age, and, yes, this is part of the reason that people frequently wait for a few decades before writing about their youths.
 
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Clairels

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Was he 23 when the events occurred, or is he 23 now, and the events occurred when he was even younger? I'm guessing that you're both around the same age, and, yes, this is part of the reason that people frequently wait for a few decades before writing about their youths.

He's 23 now; he was younger then (not by that much). I am almost a decade older. I think I might have overestimated his emotional intelligence in being able to deal with this.

Do you have this person's written and signed consent to use their likeness in the memoir? If you do, you might have your ass covered... unless the judge overlooks that, which they can.

I'm going to check with my publisher about sending advance copies of the book to everyone featured in it and asking for written permission. From what I've read, if you change enough identifying details, you don't need written consent, and vice versa, but as you said, it couldn't hurt. Also, if someone's going to hate me, they might as well hate me for the entire book instead of just one chapter. :Shrug:

I would think revenge memoirs ruin relationships - assuming the relationship was still intact...

It's not that. Sure, it's not all pleasant, but I had started writing this book long before I met this particular person, so it's not like I wrote it solely as a hatchet job against him.

If it's a memoir, isn't it supposed to be based on verifiable facts, or at the very least, shouldn't it make the parts that are speculation very clear? Isn't a memoir a bit like an autobiography, but it focuses on a specific time in your own life?

I have verified the facts to the extent that that's possible. As I told Cornflake, there's nothing libelous here. However, as you know, there's no accounting for people's emotions, and how they remember things. I've shared excerpts with other people featured in the book, with whom it was quite well-received. Then again, their portrayals are more positive because my interactions with them were largely positive.

But a memoir needs conflict. I guess it's kind of expected that someone with whom I had conflict with during the events of the book would continue to cause conflict now.

Thanks for the help so far, everybody. My head is swimming and it helps to think and type it out.
 

Emily Winslow

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The way that this piece of the story is described here doesn't have much of you in it (especially the part about his family). That is probably just because of the way you summarized it, but I wonder if you should look for that in your book. If what you're describing is entwined with you and therefore at least half "yours," that is promising. But if you are describing his life as an observer, more caution is warranted regarding his privacy.

That it is true is good. That is the first step. The next thing to ask is, is this experience that you're describing yours? Or are you invading his privacy? His privacy is protected to an extent by the law, even true private things.

Maybe cutting speculation about his family will be sufficient.

I am not a lawyer, and I have not read your book. Just suggesting that truth and privacy are both legal factors.
 

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Yes, it would ruin my relationship with someone if they featured my personal life in their memoir after knowing the intrusion was unwanted. Also, nobody "has their ass covered legally" if they piss someone off enough to sue them.
 
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Amadan

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Yes, it would ruin my relationship with someone if they featured my personal life in their memoir after knowing the intrusion was unwanted. Also, nobody "has their ass covered legally" if they piss someone off enough to sue them.

This is something everyone needs to understand. There is no such thing as "immunity to lawsuit." Anyone can sue you for anything. If it's a really stupid lawsuit, it may be tossed out, but even then it's still going to cost you money. So the standard you should be concerned with is not "Can I be sure that I will win a lawsuit?" (unless you have so much money that you don't care about blowing tons on lawyers), it should be "Will this piss someone off enough that he will be willing to spend money on lawyers to sue me?"

Of course sometimes you may decide it's worth getting sued to tell the truth or take a stand or whatever. But writing a memoir about some 23-year-old whom you have apparently cast as, if not the villain, not in a very flattering light, complete with speculation about how his family screwed him up? That is the sort of thing that pisses people off, yes.
 

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He's 23 now; he was younger then (not by that much). I am almost a decade older. I think I might have overestimated his emotional intelligence in being able to deal with this.

Maybe you want to examine the tone you used in your writing, as much as the content of what you wrote. I'm getting a pretty dismissive vibe from some of what you're saying about this guy, and if you're saying unflattering things about him AND being dismissive of his concerns, then--yeah, I think he's got a right to object.

If someone I thought I could trust chose to record revealing details about me for his own benefit, and then said I wasn't 'emotionally intelligent' if I objected to the betrayal? I'd object quite a bit harder.

A memoir is supposed to be about you, not about this other guy. It's not your place to speculate about his motives or history or anything else. This is your memoir, not his.

But a memoir needs conflict. I guess it's kind of expected that someone with whom I had conflict with during the events of the book would continue to cause conflict now.

And from his perspective, he'd say that you're the one causing conflict, right? You're trying to share these personal details about him that cast him in an unflattering light, and blaming him for objecting. Maybe you can use your emotional intelligence to figure out why he might resent that.
 

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This is a sensitive topic and not just from a legal standpoint. Even if you have the legal right to publish something, should you do so? That is an important question to ask. For me personally, writing is a serious responsibility - so much so, I address it in the very first article I wrote for my blog: http://novelwrites.com/2016/01/27/getting-started/

It's hard to walk away from a project and I am not making a judgment here that you should since it is not my place and we don't have enough information. But obviously you are concerned or you wouldn't be asking about it. I would advise you to just make sure you don't do something you will regret. Perhaps Roxxsmom's observation about writing fiction based on reality with all identifying markers removed may be a route to consider.
 

Jwriter

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It's too bad the guy in question didn't tell you what his exact complaints with your story were. If he had, there would've been at least a chance you could have changed enough identifying information or adjusted just enough to keep your story authentic and still let him and his family feel protected. He probably could have handled this a lot better -- shutting the door on you just makes it more likely you'll publish something he considers derogatory -- but now you have to watch your six, as they say.
 

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I'm confused. You are planning on publishing a memoir of an event, which involved someone else, over their objections, and you bring their family into it, and you want to know if that ruins relationships? And you worry about his emotional intelligence?

I must be missing something. There must be a lot more to it because I could not agree more that if legal issues are your first concern, the "relationship" is probably not a significant for you and "ruining" it is simply collateral damage.I certainly would not be happy to be cast as a villain because someone "needed conflict." Again, I must be missing something (which happens a lot!!)

I totally agree with Roxxmom that memories of events vary widely, even among eye witnesses! And sure, if I published my "memoir" of events in our family, not only would people be very hurt but they really do remember things quite differently. i'm pretty sure I'm right ( ;) ) but have no interest in hurting people unnecessarily (there is no cause that must be exposed, no crime that must come to light.)

Good luck with this but if the relationship is a priority enough that you fear "ruining" it - maybe rethink the whole project.
 

KTC

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I'm surprised you would speculate on things outside the realm of your own picture. To me--when I write memoir--I take it as a first person narrative rule of thumb that I only write what the narrator character can see. Speculation, especially in memoir, is an icy slope. These, of course, are just my own opinions.

As for the relationships ruined thing? YES. I remember the first piece of writing I actually submitted and had accepted for publication in the Globe & Mail...Canada's national newspaper. The column editor had me go through her legal department and they walked me through the step by step to get those involved to sign off on the piece. My brother was the biggest hurdle. We have had an on again off again relationship for our entire lives. But it was fairly decent at the time the memoir piece was accepted for publication. Until he read the memoir piece. He reluctantly signed the waiver---because every word I wrote was true---but he made it clear that he was not happy. He was hostile, in fact. Our relationship took an ugly turn after that memoir piece actually hit the newspaper. And it was made more hostile when he signed off on a memoir piece I wrote and recorded for CBC Radio...which also went Canada wide. The CBC radio piece had an even bigger result...because I swear every year or two the piece is re-aired and everybody is happy to alert me that they heard that piece again...and it re-opens wounds each time. I come from a family that exploded. Everything I have to write about the family is calamitous. I think that if your memoir has calamity in it---you're probably on a constantly shifting fault-line with your cast members to begin with---or you are no longer in touch or they have drifted and they don't mean much to you to begin with. My memoir is anything goes, blunt, honest, in your face. I take down whoever is takedownable...myself included. I see memoir as my truth. I write it. When I find an outlet for it, I let the publication decide how to handle the legal shit...if they can't publish it, they can't. If I'm not talking to the people who need to give consent, the publication can deal with attempting to get a release. if they don't, they don't. My memoir comes with a 'fuck it, it happened' mentality. If someone is going to leave my life because I told a truth about them, so be it. It is what it is...they can't rewrite it. They can stop me from putting it out there if they want. Usually, though, they don't. They just get angrier at my pen...after they sign the waiver.
 

leifwright

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It's not exactly a common thing for a 23-year-old non-celebrity to find him or herself a prominent "character" (is that even the right word?) in a soon-to-be-published memoir, and yet that's exactly the situation here. To be very clear, I did not use his real name.

Through a mutual friend, I sent one of the main figures in my memoir a chapter-long except from my upcoming memoir...and he was not a fan, to say the least. In fact, he's cut off all contact with me. He did not say why or give me a chance to explain.

And so I ask, given that I gave him fair, advance warning that I planned to write a book about the experience we shared together, am I being unfair? I feel like I sold him out for 30 pieces of silver. Is this just par for the course in memoir writing, or is he being unreasonable? I know not everyone reacts the same way to being written about, so I'm curious to know other people's experiences with this.

It seems to me that most of the time, when people write memoirs, they're writing about things that happened 30 years ago, benefiting from the distance of time and space, and the people involved are more mature and have the emotional resources to deal with it.

In case you're wondering, he doesn't come off like an angel--but on the other hand, if he'd been a one-note jerk, he wouldn't be very interesting to write about, so there's a lot of complimentary stuff in there, too.

Did I cross a line by bringing his family, whom I've never met, into it in a couple places? People don't become who they are in vacuums, and I felt the memoir would not be complete if I didn't dig into what I thought made him tick. Maybe I was completely off-base, but it's not like anyone is named or recognizable, and they play a very small role at best.

Please do share any and all experiences that might help me understand these dynamics. Some of this may even go beyond the scope of what anyone can answer, but I'm asking it here because I always find advice I can trust on AW. Thanks!

Sorry I'm late to this game, but I have some experience in this area.

My first book, Deadly Vows, was a true crime book about my former best friend, who became a polygamist and murdered one of his plural wives.

I think it's safe to say he did not want the book written.

From a legal standpoint, I was covered because he's been convicted of the crime, but from a moral standpoint, which is what you're asking, I think the question is different. Was it a betrayal on my part to exploit the friendship I had with him and write a book about his life without his consent?

Believe me when I say it's a question I struggled long and hard with. (And don't mention the preposition at the end of that sentence. I know).

In the end, I wrote the book because there were already two national TV shows focusing on the crime, with a third on the way at the time, and I didn't think any of them had touched on the real issue in the case - the twisting of religion that allowed him to justify enslaving three women and eventually killing one of them.

New Horizon Press, the publisher of my book, is one of the bigger true crime publishers, and they spent a great deal of time working out the legal issues - we changed names and details of some of the people in the book who wouldn't sign consent forms, but we left my friend (Sean Goff)'s name in, as we did with his victim and with several celebrities who were tangentially involved in the case.

I voluntarily changed one person's name because he asked me to, and I completely omitted the name of the wife who survived, even though her name is public record in the multiple court documents surrounding the case. Again, I did that because she asked me to, and the last thing I wanted to do was drag her through more muck.

The issues I think you have to look at are: *Are your friend's name and details absolutely necessary to the telling of the story? *Will including him hurt more people, or is he a douchebag roundly deserving whatever he gets?

I'm skipping the legal issues, because you and your publisher should both be versed in libel law before you publish something about someone against their will.

Ultimately, I kept my friend's name in the book because he killed someone. And he was convicted of it. And his name had already been plastered nationwide in TV shows such as Dateline and a DiscoveryID show. But I kept other friends' names out of it as best I could, and changed the names of those who absolutely had to have names in there. And if details that might tend to identify them were not important to the story, I left those details out.

Even though I never named her in the book, the sister of his surviving wife, who used to be one of my closest friends, lost her mind when she found out I was writing the book. She took to Facebook and called me every name under the sun, demanding that I stop writing it. Ironically, her sister, who was the wife who survived, was far more friendly about it. Sean's family also freaked out, with one pastor telling me I was a piece of shit for writing about a case they all just wished would have gone away.

But I got the last laugh. My book sold tens of copies! (It might have done better than that; I earned out my advance, at least).
 
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leifwright

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So the standard you should be concerned with is not "Can I be sure that I will win a lawsuit?" (unless you have so much money that you don't care about blowing tons on lawyers), it should be "Will this piss someone off enough that he will be willing to spend money on lawyers to sue me?"
This is an issue my publisher made clear to me. They didn't care about winning a lawsuit, they cared about having to fight one in the first place.
 

leifwright

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It's not like I called him or any of his family members liars or cheats or drunks or abusers. Its more like I'm speculating on the psychology of their relationships, which I think as a writer I have a right to do. Basically it's me saying, "his parents must have messed him up bad"--how does he disprove that in court, or prove that it in some way harmed him?

I suppose I could take out the stuff about the family members without changing the story too much. But I really think I've covered my ass from a legal standpoint.

Oh, man. I missed this. I think you're making a HUGE mistake here.

I hate my parents. They're horrible parents who abused me and neglected me and essentially taught me the exact opposite of how to be a good parent.

And I can say that, because they're my parents. But you better not say that about them.

Do you understand the psychology behind that? Even if his parents really did "mess him up bad," unless he explicitly told you to write that, you're betraying him by assuming it - and then putting it out there for whoever buys your book to read. He doesn't have to prove or disprove it in court for it to be a dick move.

And I think Cleis Press/Viva Editions might think twice before publishing that part of your book, because as I said above, it's the legal fees that are the big gotcha here, not winning or losing. The late Dr. Joan Dunphy explained to me why my publisher was such a stickler on getting releases: she knew the publisher of another house that was sued for libel. The house eventually won the suit, but went out of business anyway because of the legal fees they had to pay to win that suit.

I really think you should reconsider including speculation about your friend's psychology.
 

Jamesaritchie

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Not exactly, Cornflake.

He wanted to be written about, and up till the point I gave him the sample chapter, he seemed fine, even enthusiastic with it--so I don't really see what I'm supposed to do now. I can't change the heart of the story. This isn't libelous material, and all of it is, to the best of my knowledge, true. It's not like I called him or any of his family members liars or cheats or drunks or abusers. Its more like I'm speculating on the psychology of their relationships, which I think as a writer I have a right to do. Basically it's me saying, "his parents must have messed him up bad"--how does he disprove that in court, or prove that it in some way harmed him?

I suppose I could take out the stuff about the family members without changing the story too much. But I really think I've covered my ass from a legal standpoint.

You're legally allowed to speculate, as long as you make it plain that you're merely expressing your opinion. This does not mean it's a smart move, or a fair one. The best recourse is to always stick to verifiable facts, and allow readers to do any speculating about causation.

But, look, did you really expect him to be happy about this? Covering your ass from a legal standpoint should not be the issue. The issue should be what harm you're needlessly causing other people.

You also need to understand that covering you ass does not mean you won't be sued, or that the suit won't cost you tens of thousands of dollars, even if you win. Winning a lawsuit can cost almost as much as losing one.
 

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