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  1. JLT

    JLT Contributor Contributor

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    Pseudonyms in non-fiction

    Discussion in 'Non-Fiction' started by JLT, Mar 18, 2017.

    I'm currently writing a memoir which has posed an awkward situation for me.

    At one point in my life shortly after my divorce, a friend of mine gave me a sort of "mercy fuck" to see if she could snap me out of my depression. It turned out to be a big mistake, which we both regretted (although she regretted it a lot sooner than I did). The result of the incident was that I was tipped from depression into a full-blown nervous breakdown, which took me months to recover from. It's a key part of the story, particularly since much of the next few years was devoted to re-connecting with her in search of an explanation of what happened and why it happened, and whether we could have any sort of relationship afterwards. As for the incident, she never spoke of it again, even when I pressed her; she obviously wanted to obliterate it from her life.

    The problem is that this woman is now a rather prominent theologian, and telling the story might harm her standing in her community as well as cause her some emotional pain. The chances are pretty good that she'll see the book, since I know she has followed my literary career. I see three ways I could go:

    1. I could tell the story just as it happened, using her true name, on the grounds of artistic integrity. This seems to be the course recommended by former editor Betsy Lerner in her book The Forest for the Trees. In her view, the paramount thing is to tell the story accurately and let the chips fall where they may.

    2. I could reference her obliquely by giving her a pseudonym. There are only a few people in the world anymore who would be able to identify her, and none of these people impinge at all on her current calling and social scene. This, in turn, would bring up the question of whether, in the name of journalistic integrity, I should state up front that the name is a pseudonym. That solution, of course, won't insulate her from any emotional pain she may take from reading the book, but it would protect her standing with her community.

    3. I could just delete all references to her, and skip that part of my life. It could be done, but at the expense of weakening the narrative.

    What do you all think about this?
     
  2. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Get off my Balzac... Staff Contributor

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    I'd say that all depends on you. Changing her name shouldn't hurt the quality of the book, and I don't see how journalistic integrity would be at issue. Memoirs change names all the time. None of the readers would care in my opinion. The only question is whether you care or not. It sounds like a complicated relationship to say the least. If it were me, I would change it without hesitation unless I was looking to bury somebody, but that does not seem to be your intention at all.
     
  3. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I'd use a pseudonym for her. This is YOUR memoir, not hers. She deserves to be protected.
     
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  4. NigeTheHat

    NigeTheHat Contributor Contributor

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    What @BayView said. Option 1 sounds like a fucking horrible thing to do.
     
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  5. Laurin Kelly

    Laurin Kelly Contributor Contributor

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    Thirded.
     
  6. Alphonse Capone

    Alphonse Capone Active Member

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    You'd need to be an absolute **** to do the first one. There's no obvious benefit to 1 over option 2 except to be a ****.
     
  7. JLT

    JLT Contributor Contributor

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    I agree. So I'll use the pseudonym. That's what I wanted to do in the first place, but it's good that so many other people saw it my way.

    I think I'll tell her before publication that she's going to be in the book with her name and other identifying markers changed. That would seem to be more ethical than letting her discover that for herself once the book's out. It would be interesting to see if our friendship survives this, though. On the one hand, I think she deserves a lot of credit for what she tried to do, even though it backfired, and I want her to know that. On the other hand, it doesn't give her the out of simply ignoring the book.

    Maybe it's time to write her a long letter explaining what's up, and getting a sense of how she'll react.
     
  8. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    If you contact her, I'd keep it very short. She was trying to help you and it sounds like she's already had lots of reasons to regret it. You said she wanted to obliterate this incident from her life. So... maybe something vague, like telling her you're writing about that time in your life and just wanted to give her a heads up so she can avoid the book if she wants to. I wouldn't think this should be used as another opportunity for you to try to force a conversation she's made it clear she doesn't want to have.
     
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  9. JLT

    JLT Contributor Contributor

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    I understand your point. From what I've gathered from recent communications with her, she's past that point (you'll have to know that all this fu happened over forty years ago). That's why I thought that she deserved, and could embrace, a long letter rather than a short one. But your point is very well taken.
     

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