What You Can Learn From Olivia de Havilland

We all want to own our legacies, but we’re not fully in control of that. The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it would not consider 102-year-old “Gone With the Wind” actress Olivia de Havilland’s claim that a TV show needed her permission to present her likeness and character. The FX miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan,” was based on the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In it, Catherine Zeta-Jones portrayed de Havilland as somewhat of a gossip, which the elder actress found offensive. The Supreme Court let stand a California appeals court’s decision that de Havilland had no say in how she was depicted in art. The decision read in part: “Whether a person portrayed in one of these expressive works is a world-renowned film star—‘a living legend’—or a person no one knows, she or he does not own history. Nor does she or he have the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove, or veto the creator’s portrayal of actual people.”

You’re probably not famous, and you most likely will not find yourself portrayed as a character in a movie or TV show. But you still could be mentioned in someone’s memoir. Right now, someone who knows you could be writing up an account of your actions. Maybe in that person’s eyes you were the unfair boss, nerdy cousin or mean girl in high school, while you recall a completely different dynamic to the relationship between the two of you. Go to any of the memoir discussions on social media, and a common question is: Should I change the names of the people I include in my memoir? The thing is that changing the name doesn’t necessarily hide the identity. People who know the author are likely to recognize the person whether the name is real or not.

Sometimes these authors will approach the people and ask whether they mind being included in the memoir. If you’re approached, you can always plead with the author not to include you. That may work, or it may not. Sometimes all the author is doing is giving you a little advance notice, but the mention is a done deal. So what can you do? Write your own story. Own your truth. Provide the narrative of your life as you recall it. That way, you’ll at least have your version and, unlike Olivia de Havilland, won’t have to ask the Supreme Court to decide whether you’re a gossip or just a really open person.