Essay: Who's In A Name?

Aug 26, 2020

If you’re a writer, describing places and people in your life can be important to the context of your stories. But writers also come across the predicament of whether or not to use a person’s real name.

For Lake Effect contributor Joanne Nelson, she hadn’t really thought about asking her family’s permission to use their real names for her memoir. But, she came to realize it wasn’t something she should’ve assumed was alright. Nelson shares this in her essay titled, “Who’s in a Name?”

“Have you asked them?” A friend inquired after noticing I was using my kids’ real names in essays. Actually, I hadn’t. And then it seemed wrong that I hadn’t. I used pseudonyms for parents, neighbors, and childhood friends, assuming they deserved some modicum of invisibility from my faulty memory. Hmm, and the kids and spouse and my brother didn’t?

Years ago, I made a chart of names and aliases, deciding on the perfect alter ego for everyone I wrote about. The list took me several afternoons of overthinking and unfortunately, has been misplaced. I’ve memorized the key players’ pen names though, and now think of them as family members. My spouse, in fact, goes by “Bruce” in most of my work. I like thinking of him as a Bruce—especially as the change honors Bruce Springsteen. Truth be told, I like thinking about Bruce Springsteen in all kinds of ways.

I don’t recall why I switched back to using given names after relying on the chart for so long. Maybe I’d gotten serious about publishing and decided it was what bona fide writers did. Maybe because those liable to be upset by my work had all died. And with their deaths, somehow betrayal and honoring became reversed. Maybe that’s a load of crap and I simply forgot to switch the names one day and the new pattern stuck. Maybe I shouted out “Bruce” at an inconvenient time.

But when I was nearing publication of my memoir, I began rethinking this choice. After all, the kids were now adults and might have thoughtful opinions about the issue.

I secured my brother’s consent easily. He said he didn’t care, “he had nothing to hide.” His role in my work is primarily supportive, so I wondered about his comment. Did he have something to hide? Why would he say such a thing if he didn’t? Was there enough hidden material for a new book? “Great,” I said, and filed his response away for another day.

Getting my spouse’s permission proved equally effortless. Although he at least asked, “What happened to Bruce?” And acknowledged the loss with some sadness.

That left the girls. Also simple yeses I’d assumed. Or perhaps a double checking re anything embarrassing being shared (Nothing to worry about. Well, not in my mind anyway).

I spoke with my youngest on the phone. “Hey,” I said, “Do You care if I use your real name in my book?” She knows she’s gone by Lizzy in the past—a shout out to her childhood desire to have been named Elizabeth.

“I don’t know. How many times am I in there?”

An interesting question, which hadn’t occurred to me, and so, with great innocence, I pulled up the manuscript and hit the find function.

I rambled as I looked and initially couldn’t find her name. I said this.

“Oh. How many times is Polly in it?”

I began to sense I’d made a mistake.

“Here you are, I searched under the wrong spelling. Seventeen.”

“And Polly?”

I paused. Searched. Calculated.

“It’s not important.” I replied.

“We always wondered who you liked better, I guess we know now.”

I bumbled along, describing her placement in the narrative, the number of unnamed references that referred to her. She had none of it. The count was all that mattered.

Despite her self-described devastating drop in status, my youngest soon visited overnight. Her friend, Pete, spent most of the evening with us. Lizzy quickly, loudly, emotionally, described our phone call, and Pete, good friend that he is, made a point of referencing the situation as much as possible during our long, long evening together. When I tried to make light of the topic by saying Pete scored 22 mentions, she almost had a coronary. Pete ignored me when I confessed he wasn’t in the memoir at all, and worked his nonexistent numbers into every relevant and irrelevant subject for the rest of the evening.

Lesson learned, I approached my eldest with more caution, more skill, when she came to visit. We were chatting over dinner when I wove my question into the conversation. She asked what the permission could be traded for.

My goodness, my sweet girls are filled with surprises.

I laughed, considering the reply an almost clear “yes.” But she continued. She mentioned a horror movie she’d recently watched. How frightening it was. How she’d like to see it again. Her eyes lit up.

“Sure,” she said. “If you watch the movie with me.”

The thing to understand is that even hearing about the plot of a scary flick can keep me up at night. I tried distraction, I tried humor, I tried guilt: “If that’s what you need, knowing how upset I’d be, then fine.” She just smiled.

Eventually, with a lot of crafty topic changing work on my part, the subject faded. We cleaned the kitchen, spent the night relaxing, and moved onto other things. The next day Polly (not her real name) left for home and I got back to my rewrites.

Lake Effect contributor Joanne Nelson lives in Hartland, Wis., and is the author of the memoir This is How We Leave.