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Mother sues author daughter over abuse claims

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LONDON — Another best-selling memoir, another battle over the line between truth and fiction.

A British lawyer who wrote a popular book recounting a childhood of emotional and physical abuse is being sued for libel by her mother, who says the claims are fantasy.

Constance Briscoe defends the veracity of her book, "Ugly" — the nickname she says her mother threw at her as a child. Her lawyer told London's High Court on Tuesday that the book contained some errors but was "quite properly put in the biography section of the bookshop, not the fiction section."

With its harrowing, inspirational and ostensibly true story, "Ugly" has sold more than half a million copies in Britain since it was published in 2006. It was followed by a sequel, "Beyond Ugly."

The child of Jamaican immigrants, Briscoe, 51, grew up in a poor part of London but went on to become a lawyer and one of the first black women in Britain to be appointed a recorder, or part-time judge.

In "Ugly," Briscoe alleges that her mother regularly beat and starved her before abandoning her when she was 13.

The book claims Briscoe's stepfather once stubbed a cigarette out on her hand, and says that as a teenager Briscoe needed surgery on her breasts because of trauma caused by her mother's assaults.

Her mother, Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell, 74, says these and other harrowing incidents are fiction. She is seeking damages from Briscoe and her publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

Briscoe-Mitchell's lawyer, William Panton, told the court the allegations of abuse were "nonsense" and said that as a child Briscoe had not complained to police, social services or teachers.

"There were opportunities to complain about ill-treatment — if that ill-treatment had in fact taken place," he said.

Briscoe-Mitchell wept on the witness stand Tuesday as she refuted her daughter's account. "It was a happy family, a very happy family," she said.

"My children were my pride and joy."

Briscoe's lawyer, Andrew Caldecott, showed jurors medical forms, tax records and other documents he said backed up Briscoe's claims that she was the victim of "sustained cruelty."

"If the book is from pillar to post a work of fiction, it is a quite extraordinarily wicked thing to do, or a mad thing to do," Caldecott said.

"We say it is a book which has its share of errors, but it was quite properly put in the biography section of the bookshop, not the fiction section."

The court case is expected to last two weeks.

Heart-rending "misery memoirs" are a booming genre in publishing, and this is not the first time an autobiography's truth has been questioned.

American writer Augusten Burroughs was sued by the family depicted in "Running With Scissors," his 2002 book about a bizarre and chaotic upbringing. The case was settled out of court, with Burroughs and his publisher agreeing to call the work a "book" instead of "memoirs."

U.S. author James Frey faced condemnation in 2006 when his best-selling addiction memoir "A Million Little Pieces" was shown to have been substantially fabricated.

Earlier this year Ishmael Beah, author of a best-selling memoir about his time as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, denied claims that he exaggerated his war service.

One of the most notorious cases involved Belgian-born, U.S.-based writer Misha Defonseca's 1997 book, "Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years," an extraordinary story of a child's survival during the Holocaust that was translated into 18 languages and made into a French feature film. Earlier this year Defonseca admitted that she had never lived with wolves to escape the Nazis, as the book claims, had not walked 3,000 miles across Europe in search of her parents — and isn't even Jewish.