To Name or Not to Name: That is the Question

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There is an age-old conundrum confronting writers of personal essays and memoirs. Should the writer change the names of persons who may come off negatively in the piece, or should the subjects be identified? 

I have done both during my five-decade writing career and sometimes have been uneasy about revealing true names of certain persons, as well as occasionally falsifying their cognomens. Assuming most writers don’t wish to embarrass or humiliate the subject, we often wrestle with how to approach the issue.

My initial experience using aliases occurred in the writing of my most significant book, The Lynchings in Duluth, first published back in 1979, with three subsequent reissues, most recently in 2016. In the early editions, names of two principals were altered after the neophyte author (me) interviewed persons with first-hand information about the young man and woman who had falsely accused six Black circus workers of accosting them on the circus grounds and raping the young woman on the evening of June 15, 1920. These sources insisted I change the names of the accusers or they would not agree to participate. As a tyro author, I didn’t argue the point; I believed I needed their information, so I acceded.

However, almost immediately following publication, these identities were revealed by other sources, making moot the pseudonyms employed in my book. And I inevitably had to defend that usage in several media interviews and bookstore signings that followed publication. I was embarrassed because of the implications that caving to pressure without resistance diminished my professionalism. 

Nevertheless, I did the same thing in future works with different results. I’d written about my late uncle’s relationship with a colorful, sometimes buffoonish neighbor. Since my uncle had passed, I used his name, Howard. However, I altered the name of his friend, an indolent Irish-American. In my text he was named Bert Carlson, a man of Scandinavian descent. His family, however, instantly recognized him and were amused to see his depiction in a book. At a signing after Chronicles of Aunt Hilma, and Other East Hillside Swedes was released, the man’s daughter approached me with a copy to autograph and, chuckling, said, “Make it out to Bert Carlson’s daughter.”

Also featured in that book was a woman I called Olga Engqvist, the neighborhood’s resident eccentric. Among myriad crochets, she took to wearing her late husband’s World War I naval attire around town and engaging young boys in spitting contests from her front steps. I didn’t disguise her at all, save the name. Eight months later, a teaching colleague of my wife’s mailed the book to her parents who lived far from the Duluth, Minnesota, setting of the story. The parents, after reading the book, loaned it to the next-door couple, who were Duluth natives. When the wife returned the book, she remarked, “I think this author is writing about my mother.” She was right, of course.

My 1987 unauthorized biography of Garrison Keillor, The Man From Lake Wobegon, earned me enmity from Mr. Keillor, who in an odd roman a clef, inserted an alias me in the final chapter of his novel, WLT: A Radio Romance. I’m (this part is true) a college communications instructor trying to write an unauthorized biography of one of the station’s celebrity personalities. However, before completing the manuscript, the would-be author is struck down by a truck and left brain-dead. This section of Keillor’s novel perplexed readers because a roman a clef usually employs recognizable figures, and almost no one knew who I was. My biography hadn’t sold more than 20,000 copies, compared to the seven-figure sales his early works attained.

Likewise, on my part, the central figure in a short story called Celebrity Death Watch, I created an aliased Keillor. In the text, his popularity had waned, and after several years in media exile, the character, named Dixon McTavish, was attempting a comeback as the host of a tabloid-style cable TV program which covered circumstances surrounding the imminent demise of celebrities. The piece is published in my short-story collection: Art’s Place: Stories & Diversions. Few are likely to see McTavish as Keillor, because my book was quietly released by an indie press, meaning minimal sales, and hardly anyone will realize that Celebrity Death Watch is a roman a clef. Despite this, it was cathartic and satisfying to have published that story.

So, have I answered the question posed at the beginning of this essay? It boils down to whatever the author is comfortable with; possible opprobrium from friends and relatives of your subject, or—as has been my occasional experience—amused reactions from the subject’s acquaintances and family.

Perhaps one consideration might be, when you don’t want to risk embarrassing someone, not only change the name but perhaps his or her age, physical appearance, and even sex. That way you might be able to say to your great Aunt Louise, who having read your piece and thinking you’ve exposed her quiddities, “How could you think that, Auntie? The person in the story was much younger than you and was also very lean. You were a buff professional wrestler back in the day. That you could perceive this was you is beyond belief.”

A final note for writers who may be less perplexed by the emotional ramifications than they are by the legal ones: 

Libel is indeed sensitive. However, the crux boils down to what a writer may say about his/her subject. If the subject is considered to be a "celebrity," almost anything goes, except if an author knowingly publishes a falsehood. Here, the aggrieved subject must prove the author knew the information was false and published it anyway. In a way, this may seem unfair to the subject. How can she/he prove the writer knew the information was false? My unauthorized bio of Keillor raised this issue. Keillor said I'd invaded his privacy, which was true. However, as a recognized celebrity, he was not entitled to the same privacy as an ordinary citizen. This is why tabloids have survived by publishing inane nonsense about celebrities' private lives. They can get away with it, because it is so difficult to prove in court that the tabloid editors knew they were printing falsehoods. 

In any case, writers should avoid publishing material that may invade the privacy of the so-called ordinary citizen. But neither should they publish unreliable info about celebrities. If the writer has questions about liable potential in a piece, it should be submitted to attorney for advice prior to publication. Authors should also be aware that when such issues arise, the author, not the publisher, is primarily responsible for damages, as spelled out in the contract between author and publisher.