Zoe FitzGerald Carter

Zoe FitzGerald Carter
March 27
I'm a journalist whose first book, Imperfect Endings (Simon & Schuster) was published last year. It's about my mother's decision to end her life after living with Parkinson's for many years and the struggle my two older sisters and I had coming to terms with that choice. The book was excerpted in O magazine and was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. Paula Span in the The New York Times, said "I could quote from this book all day." People magazine said, "Carter coaxes beauty from the bleak." And The Boston Globe called it "an engaging and insightful tale of familial love, understanding, and forgiveness, shot through with a surprising amount of wit." I currently live in Northern Cal with my husband and two daughters. I am available to talk to bookgroups by phone or Skype or -- if they are in the Greater Bay Area -- by person. You can read more about my book or contact me through my website: imperfectendings.com


MAY 24, 2010 5:30PM

Faking it: The Case for Pseudonyms

Rate: 5 Flag

  My two older sisters and me, France, circa 1962

Me and my two sisters, identities obscured, France, circa 1962

I was recently called out on a blog entitled “Mothers of Brothers” for using pseudonyms in my memoir, Imperfect Endings. A blogger named Jennifer (no last name) was bemoaning how all the mommy bloggers out there make up names for their children, post pictures of them with their faces obscured, and generally exhibit a high degree of paranoia about revealing personal data about their children.

She and fellow blogger, Emily, apparently do not bother with such unwieldy subterfuge. “First of all, we don’t think anyone would want to kidnap our children,” she writes. “And secondly, it’s too much trouble to have to remember what fake name we’re supposed to be calling our boys. Hard enough to come up with their real names."

Seems like a reasonable approach to me and I liked her practical, no-nonsense tone. I too am annoyed by rampant parental anxiety. But then Jennifer turned her lens on me and my decision to use pseudonyms in my book. (I changed all names except my own and a handful of public figures, something I specify in a disclaimer at the front of the book.) To quote her:

“So her husband isn’t Jack, and her kids aren’t Clara and Lane, and her mother wasn’t Margaret?  Who are they?  And did any of this really happen?  If you’re going to spill your guts about a real event, why sprinkle in fakery? There’s something terribly inconsistent, even cheapening, about the whole device…

“The business of the fake names seems coy at best – and a totally lame half-measure at worst.  I was disappointed by this revelation.  What was in many ways a beautiful, shiningly honest book began to take on the tarnish of untruth.”

The tarnish of untruth? Harsh words, but they made me wonder: Would the story I recounted be “more truthful” if I had used my family’s real name? It certainly would for those who knew my family, but for the average reader who picks up my book, why should they care? And what Jennifer may not have considered is that authors don’t arbitrarily make the decision to change people’s names; we have real reason to do so.

Primary among them is the desire to protect the people we love. In my case, I worried about my two older sisters, both of whom are major figures in the book. No one grows up thinking that their sibling is going to write about them someday and the news is not always greeted with unalloyed joy. Even if it is a flattering portrayal, the subject has to put up with the writer revealing intimate details of their lives from their perspective. It’s bad enough that your private experiences are being made public: it’s also somebody else’s version of events.

By not using their real names, I offered them some protection, limited as it was. While my sisters will still be easy to identify by friends of the family, they can at least choose to keep their appearance in my book unknown to more casual acquaintances. (All three of us live in different parts of the country and have many friends who have never met the rest of us.)

And there are often legal reasons to obscure people’s identities, something authors have to take seriously in these litigious times. (I know of one memoirist whose extremely successful book was torpedoed by an equally successful lawsuit from her ex-husband.)  While I don’t think my portrayal of anyone would have risen to the level of libel, the lawyer who vetted the book at Simon & Schuster did carefully consider the possibility of an “invasion of privacy” charge.  As I recall, when Augusten Burroughs was sued by several of the family members he wrote about in Running With Scissors, it wasn’t because he’d accused them of heinous crimes, it was because of the public embarrassment they’d suffered as private citizens  -- and he changed their names.

But authors aren’t just worrying about protecting themselves. I had a responsibility to protect the people I wrote about who might have faced legal consequences if I had revealed their identities. I wrote about a psychiatrist who gave my mother a prescription for a lethal dose of Seconal, and a volunteer from the Hemlock Society’s “Caring Friends” who offered to help my mother end her life. I did not want to “out” either of these people.

Deliberately obscuring people’s identities in order to protect your sources is a common journalistic device. Think how many articles in The New York Times quote “unnamed officials.” I would argue that this actually allows us to get to “the truth” of events in a way that a more rigid set of reporting guidelines might not. Yes there are those who take this fudging of names to extremes – Washington Post reporter Stephen Glass made up people as well as names, and let’s not even touch the sorry case of Stephen Frey– but I tend to think the risk of abuse is worth it. How many people would simply refuse to be quoted if they had to identify themselves? And think of how many books and articles would never get written if all names had to be revealed.

I may be flattering myself, but writing about my mother’s decision to end her life and the emotional fallout for my family felt like a story that needed to be told. There are seventy-eight million baby boomers out there dealing with their parents aging, getting sick and dying – and facing their own “endings” as well.  While relatively few will deal with a parent who chooses death rather than dying naturally, many will face the questions my sisters and I faced. Who in the family is willing or able to step up when a parent needs more care? How do we talk about “the end” ahead of time so we are not blindsided by it? And how do we make the transition from being an “adult child” to parenting our parents?

I could have written Imperfect Endings as a novel and yet there is an undeniable weight in telling “true” stories and, in the end, the names you use don’t seem that important.


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Zoe: stick to your guns! There will always be Jennifer's and Emily's out there to challenge your concepts. They are not important. They are 1000/th of one per cent. Your story was beautiful and needed to be told. Great Post!
Excellent post. There is certainly a valid place for skewing identities, and no, it does not in the least diminish the truth. I applaud you for your reasons, but frankly, I don't think you owe anyone explanations. And if Jennifer and Emily do not understand this, no problem. There are plenty of things to read!!!
Well, thanks for the support you guys! It totally made my day...
I actually wasn't that bothered by their post -- I've gotten worse out there in the blogosphere -- and I even appreciated how it got me thinking about the whole issue.
There's actually so much MORE to say about using pseudonyms. For example, I found it weirdly freeing to use made-up names for my friends and family members. It gave me some much-needed distance on the people I was writing about.
I'm curious what all you bloggers, memoirists, fiction writers think about this...
That is exactly what a fake name does_ gives us the space and distance to write about the person without constraints._r
Hi Zoe!

For me, the most telling words in the bloggers' criticism are "spill your guts"--a phrase that, for me, evokes an image of vomiting out truths or of having them pour out via evisceration. Telling a well-structured story and spilling one's guts are two very different things. The former imposes shape and art onto raw memories (and requires at least some small amount of artifice) in order to achieve a truth that is more beautiful and real than the sum of its parts. The latter is just an info dump.

Admittedly, I write and primarily read fiction, so perhaps I'm just seeing this from a very different angle than people who read a lot of memoirs, but changing the *names* in a story seems to me so minor, compared to all the other choices (what to put into a scene, what to omit) that go into constructing a story--even when everything in that story is true.

You wrote a great book, Zoe. And, as always, a great post.
I think the blogger's comment was facile, ignorant and self-serving.

Given she reveals her kids' names, I wonder how she would feel about the argument some people have -- including here on OS -- that revealing anything about your children while using their real names is exposing them to danger, and/or is even a form of emotional child abuse due to the invasion of privacy from someone who can't legally consent?? And if she's all for openness, why not give her own last name?

but mostly what she wrote strikes me as a behavior I see all too often these days, while is a kind of operational narcissism that says, "I don't do it that way, therefore no one should. Everyone should think and act as I do." The days of trying to understand why someone might do something you yourself wouldn't do and having interest in that as well as compassion seem to be over for many Jennifers in this country. If she'd taken 10 minutes to think about it, she might have figured out some reasons you would dare to make a choice different than the one she's made as a writer.
You don't need to defend yourself to your critics. You made the decision based on the people and the situation.
It's a personal decision, which depends on the situation. Coming from journalism, I tend to think that real names should be used if you're calling a piece non-fiction, unless it involves minors, victims or crimes, or embarassing things. Basically, if it is positive, go ahead- use the real names. Then again, there are times I think I've been too free in giving out my kids names, details about our lives.

Given the touchiness of your mother's choice to end her own life... yeah, name changes are warranted. It's YOUR story. You can make the call and go confidently forward.