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.