Delusional accusations: libel/actionable? (TL:DR warning!)

(Sorry in advance for the length of this… turns out it bothers me more than I thought.)

I have an older cousin (I’ll call her “Jenny”) who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. It manifested about thirty years ago; she’s now in her early fifties. Back when she first showed symptoms, she attempted suicide and was hospitalized. After a few rounds of this, she stopped treatment and left to hide in another state.

Jenny’s almost a textbook case of the illness: she started out believing a certain pop star sent coded messages to her through his album covers, invented all sorts of grand histories for our family (she thinks we’re related to the Russian royal family/Tsars), and has developed a belief that her mom and brother are out to destroy her.

Anyway. Jenny’s been missing/homeless/drifting for many years now. Not long ago, because I’m the most web-savvy of our family, and also because I’m nosy and a good researcher, I wondered if there were any way to track her down to see if she’s alive. Knowing her interests/obsessions/fantasies, I came across a few message board postings in a fan site for one of these stars she’s obsessed with, and through various links and clues I found a bunch of different personal webpages that are clearly my cousin’s work. All of them – no matter what the real topic – contain vicious comments about Jenny’s mother, accusing her of lying to Jenny about the identity of her real father, and claiming that she (Jenny) is actually the product of an “unnatural” relationship between Jenny’s mother and one of our mutual cousins. (This cousin is actually YOUNGER than Jenny, so the accusation is especially ridiculous.)

Now while I’m upset and creeped out by reading such things by someone related to me, I didn’t get really freaked until I discovered one of her pages includes a huge-ass biography of my nuclear family, including plenty of identifiable information. Worst of all, Jenny discusses the deaths of my brother and mother with lurid, conspiracy theory-laden details, including a theory frankly makes me want to vomit.

Jenny flat-out accuses my older sister of causing our brother’s drowning, apparently on ‘orders’ from Jenny’s mother. Please note that my sister was only four at the time. Our brother (who died before I was born) was several years older. His death was a terrible accident, verified as such by a police investigation at the time, and there is no way Jenny’s disgusting claims are true.

What bothers me most about this is that if I can find it, so can other members of our family. It’s not impossible for others to locate, if they know certain things about our childhood background. The thing that most scares me is the very real possibility that my sister’s young daughter may one day do some surfing and come across this pack of delusional rantings about her mom.

I haven’t told anyone in my family about this yet. As far as I know, no one knows that Jenny is still alive and posting these things on the Web. (Amazing to think that a jobless, homeless person can create webpages that include scanned and original images. Yay for free library internet access, I guess!)

My questions to anyone who bothers to read this rambling post is:

  1. What I want most is to get these pages taken down, unlikely as it is. The webpage is hosted on a free webhosting service based in the U.S. Do I have any recourse in asking the host to shut the page down? Is what she says libelous? And is libel even a reason for shutting down a site? I hate even thinking about this, because my nature is usually “sticks and stones etc. etc.”

  2. Should I tell my sister what’s being said about her? I’m wary of doing this because she’s suffered all her life from survivor’s guilt about our brother’s death as it is; I’m sickened by the thought of telling her that ‘out there’ is an actual accusation that she’s a murderer.

  3. A small part of me is tempted to email Jenny herself and make some attempt at a reasoned request. I almost certainly won’t, because the reality is she’s not someone you can reason with. Her illness is toxic. Plus I’m a bit scared – even though she doesn’t currently seem to think I’m part of this family-wide anti-Jenny conspiracy she’s invented, she may well start to weave me into her web of lies if I get on her radar. That I do not need.

Irony alert: This is almost as long as one of Jenny’s screeds. Sorry about that. Anyone have any advice?

You might want to tell your sister. I don’t know if anyone would be successful in getting the webpages removed, but if anyone would be it would be more likely to be your sister instead of you since she is the one being untruthfully written about

Do not attempt to contact this person yourself. You don’t need the hassle.

First, IANALawyer, and I think you’ll need to talk to one to get anything done. I would start however, by contacting the ISP. I would do this live, not by email, so you should track down a phone number. Talk to a supervisor and ask what the process is for removing objectional content from their server. What kind of evidence do they need, is there a complaint form, etc. In this conversation, you don’t need to make specific accusations, you are just collecting information about policies and procedures. Then you can make some more informed judgements about how to proceed.

I imagine that if she is posting RL identitied and posting demonstrably false and defamatory items about your family, and they are not ‘public figures’, you would have a good shot at getting it taken down. It might be that a complaint letter on a law firm’s letterhead might to do it, especially since your sister does not likely have any kind of financial ties to the ISP which would be worthwile to them to project.

OTOH, there’s a fair chance she will find another provider and start posting about the ‘conspiracy’ to silence her. So be prepared for that. How? No clue here.

I am not a lawyer, and I’m most especially not your lawyer. This is not legal advice. That said - from what I’ve seen in law school, I really doubt this stuff is libelous. You’d need to check local statutes and case law, of course - or, much better, get a lawyer to do it for you - but generally, libel is a statement that the writer knows is (a) untrue, and (b) likely to be harmful. I think it would be very, very hard to win a libel suit against someone who’d made an erroneous statement they honestly believed to be correct. In short, libel requires libelous intent.

I repeat, though - I’m just a law student. If you’re considering legal action, talk to a lawyer in your jurisdiction.

Thanks, guys.

Mr. Excellent, I bet you’re probably right in that it’s not libelous… it’s her opinion, unreasonable though it may be, and I’m pretty sure someone’s theory or opinion wouldn’t be considered actual, legally-actionable libel.

I wish I hadn’t mentioned “actionable” in the OP – really, I wasn’t (and am not) intending a whole legal mess. I’d rather just spook the webhost, whether I really have a case or not! I think Boyo Jim has a good idea, and I will look for contact info now. You’re right too in that my cousin can just repost the information. I’m hoping she’ll go off on some new tangent and leave my family out of it.

And Snakescatlady – that’s good advice too. I gotsta stay out of her sightlines! Nothing good can come out of it.

It’s such a sad situation. When I was little she used to babysit me and my sister (not the same one who’s the target now), and she used to be kinda fun. A bit quirky and eccentric, but certainly not the way she is now. What a waste.

I don’t think your goal should be to win, or even start, a libel lawsuit. Even if you do win, what does she have that you want? From what you’ve said, it seems your goal is to get this stuff off the internet. That means finding some leverage with the service provider. A lot depends on the nature of what is posted – does it seem batshit crazy, or plausible? A provider has no incentive at all to protect someone who is using their service for free to post crazy shit – expecially crazy shit that they’re getting complaints about and being contacted about posible litigation by a law firm.

I would guess a lawsuit would be pretty useless whether or not you would win. If whe’s just nuts, the odds are she won’t even show up to court and would pay no attention to a judgement. Besides, you would have to track her down and serve her papers to get going, and do you really want to find her?

Personally, I think you need to share this with your family, including your sister. Better she hear this from you than someone else, and she should have a choice of what to say to her daughter. I can speak from some experience when I say that burying family skeletons in the closet often doesn’t work. If you do get into an actual legal dispute, it’s for damn sure your sister will hear about it then anyway.

While I understand your concern and the pain it causes, I am not sure why you want to take any action, at all. Despite the presence of “identifying information,” based on what you have said, it seems unlikely that this will really come back to haunt your family. A simple timeline showing the dates of birth and death would demonstrate that the claims are pure fabrication–particularly the part where a four-year-old was the driving force behind or the agent of a plot to kill an older brother.

I am not trying to minimize the distress it causes you to read it. I am simply not sure how realistic it is to think that it will really come back to haunt the family.

If you are concerned about how the nonsense would affect your sister and niece, you might approach each of them with the information, not looking to stir things up, but just to note that “crazy aunt xxx has put some odd stuff on the web.”

If you fear additional trauma to your sister but are also concerned that your niece might stumble across this stuff as a “surprise” family history, I would say that you might leave your sister out of the discussion, but when your niece is old enough to understand what is going on, tell her the real story privately, asking that she not upset her mother with the information. (If the family has been hiding the existence of the crazy aunt from the kids and your niece is unaware of her existence, it is time to break that silence.)

I am not sure that trying to get the web pages removed is in your best interest. Even if she never connects you with the removal, she is simply going to move the material to a new host (while probably inventing new accusations against some member of your family as the agent trying to “suppress the truth”). If you rile her up, she might start naming names, making it more likely that someone will see it and come asking your sister what it all means.

I agree with Tom 100%. When your neice is old enough to get the whole story, fill her in. Leave your sister out of it entirely- she doesn’t need that kind of stress. It’s unfortunate and probably infuriating, but it just seems like a bees nest you don’t want to start poking at.

Like tomndebb said, there are thousands of free web hosts out there so even if you get this one to take it down, she’ll just move to another. Sure, you found it and it’s hurtful, but is anyone else actually looking at it? Or is she just a loonie shouting on the street corner that everyone ignores? You found it because you were actually looking for it.

My thoughts. Insert IANAL disclaimer here. You know where she is posting so you can monitor what is going on. If you force her to move you might not be able to pick up the new track. Don’t tell your sister unless and until the posting indicate she or someone else might be in harms way. And for your part, don’t obsess about it, just check in once a month or so and don’t let it bother you more than it has to.

Thanks guys. You’re all probably right. It’s good to get some perspective. For obvious reasons, this isn’t a matter I find it easy to be objective about.

Honestly if cousin Jenny hadn’t included such picayune details like our home address, a picture/bio of my sister, all our names, and an incredibly offensive and inaccurate description of my mom’s battle with cancer (a death that Jenny also blames my sister for) I might be able to shrug it off a bit better. Plus my brother’s accident was such a devastating event to my family, it affected all of us even though I wasn’t born at the time, and mom never recovered from the loss… it’s just heartbreaking to see all this turned into Jenny’s sick version of The Bad Seed.

Anyway I won’t obsess about it. I do know secrets can be toxic, even those that are kept out of a desire to protect someone. Actually that’s kinda been a theme in my family history – I didn’t even know I had a brother until I was like ten, and I didn’t find out how he died into years later. My parents later said they thought I’d be afraid of swimming if I found out. Guess what? I grew up afraid of water anyway because Mom was so intensely overprotective and obviously scared whenever I played in our pool. (Seems like a no-brainer now, but they weren’t very psychologically aware in those days.) But the point being that trying to protect someone doesn’t always help and can in fact hurt.

Maybe I should talk to my sister’s husband about this, see what he thinks. Presumably he knows how well my niece and sister can take this kinda thing.

Bolding mine. You might not be able to do anything about the libel part, but I think that there might be some kind of recourse when it involves revealing personal info like that. IANAL or anything, though.

I partly agree, (the extent of the information was not in the OP), but I still think it would be better to use a soft touch, e.g., asking the ISP if they could “suggest” to Jenny that the names and addresses be fuzzed a bit to reduce the possibility that the ISP would be sued–not that you would sue them, but that you would ask them to offer that as an excuse for them to give Jenny. I suspect that you really dop not want to chase her off into the dark corners of the internet where you have to keep tracking her down to keep an eye on her. Letting her post at her current location lets you keep an eye on her more easily.


Now that you’ve sort-of found her, is there a hope in hell of getting her into treatment again? A lot of new meds have come out in the past 30 years, and it would be ideal for everyone if she were rational enough to remove these wild stories herself.

Thanks for the hugs, coffeecat. :slight_smile: I think that’s my first SDMB huggles.

Well, the address is of our old house – our family hasn’t lived there for 20 years – but it still makes me shudder. I can just imagine the current owners doing a vanity search (what, it’s possible!) and finding this whole Grand Guignol drama apparently played out in their home. Shades of the Amityville Horror!

Re: the new meds… unfortunately I don’t see Jenny ever accepting assistance for long enough to stay on a treatment. According to posts she’s made on various fan message boards (where the members all hate her), she claims her own psychiatrist says there’s nothing wrong with her. Which is a big fat lie, obviously, but it’s all too typical of schizophrenia. The worst part of this illness is that it is so self-protective; it’s like a demon jealously guarding its home, and will ensure that things remain status quo. It assures Jenny she’s fine, that everyone else is fucked up and trying to destroy her. So basically, in her mind she’s Richard Kimble, perfectly sane but persecuted by one-armed enemies. She won’t give in, ever.

For copyright issues, IIRC there is no requirement to vet posts unless someone calls a violation to the intention of the hosting company. I don’t know if the same holds true here, but you might look at the website rules, which might ban this kind of post, especially of names and addresses are included. Politely calling this to the attention of the site, without yelling at them for not knowing about it, might get it taken down quickly. You might want to save a copy, so you can google every so often to see if she has replaced it.
I’d guess that most people running websites would be as shocked as you when they see the content.