October 20, 2014

British legal case so weird that pithy headline is impossible


This is a picture of what might be a British courtroom, which will have to suffice, because everything about this case—other than the country where it is taking place—is a secret. Via Shutterstock.

This is a picture of what might be a British courtroom, which will have to suffice, because everything about this case—other than the country where it is taking place—is a secret. Via Shutterstock.

Books and legal issues have converged in some odd ways over the last few weeks. First there was Arizona’s controversial revenge porn law, which was opposed by booksellers and librarians, who have taken the state to court. And then there was the novelist and lawyer John Grisham, who said some . . . things. (I’ll let yesterday’s MobyLives report tell you more about that one.) And now, in perhaps the weirdest story yet, the ex-wife of a famous British performing artist is trying to prevent him from publishing a book, because some of the descriptions—based on the childhood sexual abuse he suffered as a child—might traumatize their son.

I realize that the previous sentence might not make much sense. This is because OPO V MLA is an extremely strange case. It’s so strange, in fact, that the usually splenetic, hyperbolic, unhinged Daily Mail can’t do much other than describe the details of the case in precise detail. Here’s what the newspaper had to say:

In a case which has been shrouded in secrecy, [a] woman, known only as BHM, successfully obtained an injunction to stop her ex-husband, known as MLA, publishing the book until the issue has been decided at trial.

Media lawyers and publishers have warned the case—known only as OPO v MLA—could set a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression and fear it could extend privacy laws “by the back door.”

Accounts of the case are similarly cryptic, because of the unusual degree of anonymity granted to all of the parties in the case. Even the country where BHM and the couple’s son (OPO) now live is a mystery—in court documents, it is referred to as Ruritania, the John Doe of countries.

What is known, however, is that BHM’s legal strategy depends on a case from 1897 called Wilkinson v Downton, in which the defendant (Mr. Downton) played a practical joke on the plaintiff (Mrs. Wilkinson), telling her that her husband had been badly injured in an accident, and that she needed to bring two pillows to retrieve him from the ditch where he was lying with two broken legs. Mrs. Wilkinson claimed to have suffered a terrible shock due to the practical joke, which led to all kinds of trauma, and the jury agreed. The jury probably also noted that this was a very unfunny practical joke.

Though an application for an injunction (officially brought by OPO) was first refused, it was accepted on appeal. BHM claims that OPO has serious health problems, and that when she and MLA were divorced, they agreed to keep their past lives a secret from their child, because details about their past lives “would have a detrimental effect on the child’s well-being.”

On its blog, the International Forum for Responsible Media called the granting of the injunction “the most bewildering judgment for many years,” and a “rogue decision,” and referred to Wilkinson v Downton as not much more than “a legal curiosity.” The performer’s lawyer was even starker, telling the Guardian that the case presents “really serious implications for freedom of speech for people who want to write about subjects like this.”

In a case that’s not lacking for oddities, it seems only right that in the appellate court’s judgment, the lead judge, Lady Justice Arden, could not even offer a simple description of the controversial book in question. Instead, she wrote . . . literary criticism:

[MLA] has obtained a high degree of distinction in his chosen career despite having had a tormented childhood. When he was still very young, he was for many years the subject of sexual abuse, not at home but at school. He was traumatised by this, as well as suffering physically, and it has led him to have episodes of severe mental illness, and to have got a thrill out of self-harm. Yet despite all that he has now been able to speak out about his experiences and to describe them. He brings them together in an artistic and insightful way in the Work. He has found a means through his art of coping with the trauma and the past. In the Work, he provides new perspectives on the subject of his professional work, with also descriptions of the past abuse and illnesses he suffered as a result. It is striking prose. It is said that the Work contains an important message of encouragement to those who have suffered similar abuse to speak about their past.

For now, however, the British reading public has no access to this book, and its publisher, STL, cannot discuss it. The book’s “important message” is known only to a handful of people. And indeed, the author behind the important message is himself unknowable.

MobyLives will bring you more news about this exceptionally strange case as it develops.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.