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Keepin' It Real and Out of Court

July 31, 2002|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In our more expansive states, we tell ourselves that our memories--and all the associations they trigger--are merely a personal perspective, the stuff of stories that are ours to tell. But most will concede that recollection lies somewhere in the gray territory between fact and fiction. And when a writer's pen points too close to home, and a story spills some shared secret--or shades an event more darkly than others recall it--the aggrieved might reach for a stronger description of what memory's wrought: Slander. Libel. Tattletales.

At a moment when many seem to be contemplating the gamble of mining secrets to make art (and/or money while they're at it), the Beverly Hills Bar Assn. Barristers Committee for the Arts just a few nights ago hosted a lively panel: "The Curse of the Red Kimono: Legal Issues for Memoir and One-Person-Show Writers," a nuts-and-bolts legal overview of the legal trapdoors of memoir and the challenges of bringing truth-based stories to the page or stage.

"This is not legal advice," attorney and event organizer Joel Zighelboim stressed to a packed crowd of men and women (and children!) who snatched up every last folding chair in the naked, art-stripped main gallery at Track 16 in Bergamot Station. "We wanted to provide a public service for the arts community who may not have access to the law, but again, this is not legal advice. Talk to a lawyer in a confidential situation. This is purely informational. OK. Disclaimer stops here," he joked.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 02, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 380 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong credits--Producer Frier McCollister was misidentified in a Southern California Living story Wednesday. He is not the producer of Sandra Tsing Loh's radio commentaries, but of Loh's solo theatrical pieces, "Bad Sex With Bud Kemp" and "Aliens in America."

For all the furious notebook scribbling, though, what was imparted may as well have been law--chapter and verse. One had to wonder what manner of secrets lay at home hidden in journals or password-locked on a computer hard drive. "They put an ad in Backstage West," explained a woman saving the last precious seat for a friend. "And Theater L.A....." piped in another.

A show of hands revealed that many of those assembled were playwrights, actors, memoirists. People with stories to tell. Or axes to grind.

In a culture that still feeds happily on the tawdriest of tabloids and roustabout reality TV, truth isn't just elastic, it's a conceit. Now, on screen, flashy Robert Evans resurrects himself by spinning his notion of the truth in "The Kid Stays in the Picture": "There are three sides to every story: Yours, mine and the truth. No one is lying. Memories shared serve differently."

In the literary world, the very girding of the late W.G. Sebald's award-winning "Austerlitz" is being contested by a woman, Susi Bechhofer, whose journey toward self-identity after the Holocaust ("Rosa's Child," co-written with Jeremy Josephs and published by IB Tauris & Co. in 1996) became one of the models for his book. "I felt once more that my identity had been usurped," she wrote in June in the Sunday Times of London. "I have no wish to detract from the masterpiece [he] has written. I just think 'Rosa's Child' should be allowed to take a bow."

Once a work debuts, it becomes all too clear that one person's "total recall" is another's "inflation" or "pure invention." Flaps erupt. Friendships falter. Family members are excised from wills.

To help artists navigate the sensitivities, Zighelboim invited a range of speakers: memoirist Hope Edelman ("Motherless Daughters," Perseus Books, 1994), playwright Nancy Balbirer ( "I Slept With Jack Kerouac"), literary agent Betsy Amster, entertainment lawyer Gordon Firemark, and Frier McCollister, who produces the radio commentaries of writer Sandra Tsing Loh ("A Year in Van Nuys," Crown, 2001).

The event's title, Zighelboim explained, was plucked from a 1931 California Appeals Court case--Melvin v. Reid--that involved a female prostitute who was charged with murder. She was tried and acquitted in 1918. Seven years later the film "The Red Kimona" (a.k.a. Kimono) was made, using her name and details from her life and the case. She sued the filmmakers and won. The court, Zighelboim says, "found that she had a right to live in seclusion after that. She had a right to protect that privacy. That case became one of the landmark cases for privacy in California."

Zighelboim and Firemark broke down the basics: What is libel? What is slander? What's a publication? What is defamation? What is highly offensive? Who is a reasonable person? What or who is considered newsworthy? What is actionable? Then they guided the gathering through the marshiness of what is public and what is private: "Does the Constitution mention a right to privacy?" queried Zighelboim. "That's a trick question. The U.S. doesn't. California does." It was up to the writers and agents to explore what happens when the process of reanimating the past on the page--for the world to see--comes bundled with something more than catharsis. As Firemark had suggested, it isn't always legal wranglings that vex storytellers but subtler issues--ethical choices and living with them.

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