This month's guest blogger is (once again) Mimi Schwartz. Like Richard Hoffman's June/July post, Mimi's essay, "What's in a Name, Really" is adapted from the same March, 2017 AWP conference panel. Readers might want to take a look at both pieces.
Though Mimi offers a somewhat different point of view, her essay deals with a similar issue: how and why memoirists and personal essayists decide whether to use real or made-up names in their work.
Interested readers might want also want to read Mimi's personal essay/memoir, "Lesson From a Last Day"." The piece, about the circumstances surrounding her husband's death, raises very specific questions about the use of real and/or made-up names. Here's the link. Pangyrus.
"Lesson From a Last Day" also appears in her forthcoming collection When History is Personal. University of Nebraska Press, 2018.
# 61, What’s in a Name, Really? by Mimi Schwartz
A man I know, let’s call him Harry, told me recently what others have said over the years: “I’m worried about you being a writer. I’ll end up in your book!” I laughed. His intuition was good. That morning, in fact, I began writing about a being a widow and he, a.k.a. Harry, appeared in paragraph two. “Don’t worry! I haven’t lost a friend yet!” I assured him—and, mostly, that’s true, because I often avoid real names and change identifying details as needed. I once changed my sister Ruth, always litigious, to Cousin Dora in my book, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, and the first time I mentioned Dora, I added this footnote:
"To protect the privacy of friends and relatives I’ve changed names and some locations, but the rest is true, as I see it."
Ruth called me when the book came out, delighted that “I got our family just right.” She was certain that Cousin Dora was really Cousin Anne; I did not correct her.
Most of my readers, I’ve found, don’t care about real names as long as I signal name changes--either with “Let’s call him (or her) XX ” Or with a footnote or with initials. I did get one indignant phone call from my friend, J.L. after she read my essay about having lunch with a close friend Anna, who announces her divorce. “I’ve known you for thirty years,” J.L. said, “and you never once mentioned any friend named Anna!”
“You’re Anna!” I said, “At least part of you.” This was the 1970s when marriages were breaking up left and right. I’d had almost the same conversation with three friends that year, so I combined them for privacy’s sake—and said so in a footnote. “That story was less about Anna and more about me and my marriage.” I said, “ And besides I figured otherwise I’d have no friends left to talk to.” She laughed, saw the light—and we made a date for lunch.
When I write about my immediate family, I use real names because, in memoir, they are my story—and identifiably so. Therefore, I ask those involved to read what I wrote before publication, giving up some editorial power for family peace with those I want to keep in my life. My daughter Julie has corrected her dress size. My late husband Stu once requested that I cut a sentence about his eating Corn Flakes at midnight with a not-to-be-named syrup. All doable requests; in part, because they are reasonable people; in part, because I hear Annie Dillard’s warning in my head as I write: “While literature is an art, it’s not a martial art.” That plus one other rule of thumb has served me well over the years: that whenever I needed to call my husband an idiot, I let him call me a moron, usually through dialogue. Fair is fair.
In Katharine Graham’s Personal History, the rich and powerful sit at her dining room table, people like John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Warren Buffet—all named. We read her book, even fifteen years later, to have a seat at that table, an inside scoop on what these public leaders thought and said off the record.
Memoirs about the infamous should also use real names. In Richard Hoffman’s Half the House, for example, he names the coach, Tom Feifel, who sexually abused him and other boys on Feifel’s soccer team in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The memoir broke the silence of shame; the boys, as grown men, stepped forward, and Feifel went to jail. His real name mattered to bear witness, to expose—and also, as Richard has pointed out to me, to protect the reputations of the other coaches in Allentown at that time.
But using names should not be the default, I realized when one of my students read an essay in class about her gay roommate-- who had not come out. I started to encourage students to ask themselves: Why use a name when it is harmful and there is no good reason? I urged them to change a name and identifying details as needed, and if that undercuts the story’s authenticity, they should share the draft and get permission. Or switch to fiction which creates a “what if” world that let’s you say: “That’s not you. I made it up!”
My friend, a former journalist for The Washington Post, told me he would never invent names or disguise identifying details. He was writing a book about his Amish neighbors at the same time that I was writing a book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times, about Christians and Jews in my father’s German village before, during and after Nazi times. I had decided to rename the village and the people, and he argued against that. “Truth is truth,” he said. ”Names matter.”
“But if there were no great betrayals and no heroics, why not preserve privacy?” I countered, especially when people, often strangers, trust you. That was my concern, and in my book’s introduction, I said this:
“I realized that my subjects, who were in their seventies or older, kept thinking my book was only about the facts: the who, what, when, where and how of their lives. What they didn’t realize, no matter how often I explained, is that I wanted their personalities to come alive on the page so that readers would meet them and discover as I did: who they were in their memories, who they are now, and how they struggled between those old and new selves.”
Closer to his publication date, my journalist friend had second thoughts. He realized that he might cause trouble for his neighbors in the Amish community and decided to give them anonymity. The book is Plain Secrets; the author is Joe Mackall—and I checked with him before using his name. He read the draft, made two small corrections, and said fine, adding that he also changed all the horses’ names “because everyone knew everyone’s horses.”
I didn’t need Joe’s name for this anecdote. ‘My journalist friend’ would have sufficed for me, so I left the decision to Joe. I don’t always do that. If I need that name to tell my story, I do so. I decide case-by-case each time I write.
I wonder how journalists, and their editors, go through this struggle, especially when quoting everyday people who live in dangerous neighborhoods like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. First and last names are often given (I assume they are real); and even if only the first name is used, some identifying detail is often added: he works in a bakery, she teaches school. Sometimes there is a photo. Why put these people at risk? They are not heads of state; they wield no power; their quotes add local opinion and flavor, but do not shape events.
Take the Afghani resident who was quoted in the New York Times about life under the lawless local militias after the American troops pulled out:
“We are shivering with fear,” said one resident, Abdul Ahad. Then he explained: He and his neighbors did not fear the Taliban nearly as much as they did their protectors, Rahimulmah’s militiamen, who have turned to kidnappings and extortion. - “After U.S. Exit, Rough Justice of Afghan Militias”-March 17, 2015.
It was a front-page news story. What if someone in this militia has a cousin in the U.S. who sends him this article, translated? I would have been content with a quotation from an Abdul or even from “a veteran farmer,” or “a grim-faced student.” I didn’t need the full name to trust what he said, especially when there was no consequence for others. His remarks could hurt no one except himself.
I called a friend, John Timpane, Features Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer to check on the criteria for journalists using real names. Do they worry about people like Abdul Ahad?
“It’s a moral dilemma,” John said, “but we can’t be seen as protecting folks. Our policy is to use real names at all times with a rare humanitarian exception. Otherwise newspapers would lose credibility. If we protect one, why not all?”
Besides, as John pointed out, journalists don’t know these people. Maybe Abdul is a good guy, maybe not. “We don’t know someone’s backstory, and we have a deadline in two hours.” That, I realized, is a big difference between journalists and those of us writing memoir, essays, and narrative nonfiction. We do have time to retrieve and assess the backstory.
The other big difference is that memoir and personal essay focus less on the moment and more on the universality of people and events: to recreate rather than to report, blame or accuse. That’s why in my Pangyrus essay “Lessons from a Last Day” (see link below), I didn’t name the hospital where my husband died, identifying it only as “a small New England hospital south of a big one 30 miles to the north.” (Pangyrus) -
Lessons from a Last Day
There were legal concerns, but more important, I felt that naming one hospital would have cleared the others: “That’s X, but we are Y,” other hospitals could say.
My friend, aka Harry, told me recently that the movie “Whiplash,” is based on the band teacher at the high school my kids attended. The writer, Damien Chazelle, played the drums in the band class and the teacher did have a reputation for being severe and tough; but he was not the sadist in the movie. Chazelle calls his script fiction, making no claim that the real story happened that way. But if the real teacher was as mean and terrifying as portrayed, then I say call it nonfiction, and yes, name him.
It matters, not like the name of my friend—who may be Harry, Bernie or Rob.
Mimi Schwartz’s books include Good Neighbors, Bad Times - Echoes of My Father’s German Village, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed; and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (with Sondra Perl). A longer version of this essay appears in Schwartz’s forthcoming book of essays, When History Is Personal (University of Nebraska Press, Spring 2018) that explores the way memoir—i.e. 25 key moments of her life—reveals the history, politics, and culture of the world she lives in. Read More
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction