The deeply peculiar business of choosing someone’s pseudonym

I write a lot for work. Pretty much everything on this page since August 2012, I wrote. What I didn’t write, I edited or found content for or helped reformat. My name is on 2 pieces of writing my organization has sent out–an invitation to a basketball game and an invitation to Facebook for people who signed a petition.

That’s anonymity is part of the job of doing online communications, but I’ve found that sending my words out into the world under other people’s names is tangential to normal when compared with the exercise of  choosing someone else’s pseudonym.

Pseudonyms address two basic tensions when trying to tell the story of human trafficking:

  1. Survivors of human trafficking must be at the center of any conversation around it, or that conversation will go whirling off into useless and occasionally dangerous wastes of time.
  2. Most survivors of human trafficking have better things to do with their time than talk to people on the internet, or the press, and those few who want to speak out often must do so under an assumed name to protect themselves, their families, and any on-going legal proceedings.

This means that when a survivor wants to speak out or have her/his story used for advocacy/outreach/education/fundraising, we have to change her/his name.

When it comes to what goes out online (rather than through grant reports or in our trainings) it becomes my job to find a pseudonym. Here’s how I do it:

  1. I read the survivor’s story, after it’s approved by the client and her/his caseworker for public use,
  2. I start to rewrite the story in a voice appropriate for my target audience,
  3. I either know or guess at the ethnic and religious background of the client and then go to an appropriate baby name website. I usually search by country name and “baby names.” I would give an example, but in this blog I don’t want the chance that I might out a client by referencing her/his homeland, so we’ll keep it vague.
  4. I find a name that is:
    1. Culturally appropriate
    2. Gender appropriate
    3. Faith appropriate (if I know the survivor’s faith)
    4. Not white-washing
    5. Not associated with any particularly awful stereotypes or historical figures
    6. Not the name of the client (since I try to choose from the top most popular baby names, it’s totally possible I’ll inadvertently choose the client’s real name, which I won’t usually know)
    7. Not the name of a current staff-member (both because it gets confusing in conversation, and because I’m going to populate the client’s story in my own head with the faces of other people I’ve known with that name and would rather not eat lunch with said inspirations while I’m trying to edit)
    8. Not the name of anyone I’m related to or care about (there are no Matthews, Pauls, Katys, Johns, Eleanors, Wades, Britannys, Lauras, Karens, Jacks, Petes, Antheas, Lillians, Lyndas, Daniels, Naomis, Daves, or Bens in my organization’s stories)
    9. A name I can live with letting reside in my head for the next 8 weeks of my campaign planning, execution, and read-out
    10. A name that holds within it some strong, empathetic meaning for me. It’s not like I need to help caring about human trafficking, but to write someone’s story I need to care about them individually and personally, and while the best choice would be using the name they were born with and grew into, the next-best is one I can attach to and hopefully the audience can attach to as well
  5. I finish writing the story, editing it again and again until it’s smooth and seamless,
  6. I send it around for more editing

Step 3 has lead to some pretty awkward conversations about my reproductive plans, particularly when I’m on Mexican or Indian baby names websites and my partner is as Anglo as I am.

Step 4 gets into those parts of this process which are hardest for me, because they get to the inherent creepiness of changing someone’s name. I have new language to think about this problem with after finishing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks last week. There, well-ish-intentioned doctors partially anonymized a patient’s name and then spread her DNA around the world. Her family came to see this name-change as a betrayal, both because other people were making significant amounts of money off of their mothers’ cancer cells and because in the absence of  true name many false ones became attributed to their mother’s vast contribution to science.

When I sit down to choose a pseudonym, I’m confronting my privilege. I don’t want to change everyone’s names to Anglo-popular names because that’s taking away something important. That choice stinks of the micro-aggressions these Harvard students bring up in this challenging and compelling photo series about race on campus. Henrietta Lacks’ case is just one in a long-and-ugly-line of white people changing and white-washing the names of people of color for nasty, often un-thought-through, reasons, and I don’t want to perpetuate that.

But I also have a goal with each story, a goal the client has signed-off-on. Getting petition signatures on a bill that would have improved the life of the client, fundraising for money to serve clients in the first lace. Because of that, I need to choose a name I think the audience will be able to connect with. I only have 250 – 300 words to hook into them. If they spend that time sounding out a name with a complexity of accent marks in their heads, I may have lost the chance to encourage them to act. That’s why I might choose a 3-letter traditional West African name rather than a 5 syllable traditional West African name. I might choose a Biblically-referential Filipino name, but use a non-Anglo-spelling of it.

I recently had my process put to the test because I had the privilege of working closely with someone who I met under her real name, and then–by her choice–began introducing to staff with the pseudonym I gave her. Luckily, she thought this process was as necessarily-absurd as I do. To her, when we talked about it, the name was just the wrapper for her story, and her story is what mattered.

I still spend precious TV-watching time thinking about how I would feel if someone picked the wrong false-name for me. One that brought the wrong meaning, was the name of a girl I disliked in high school, sang was sour rather than the sweet every time I read it. If my re-namer’s choice carried an obvious cultural bias rather than the care I try to put into any use of someone else’s story that I make.

I think this worrying-time is my payment for having the privilege of not having to hide my name, for being able to blog and speak and write and engage in the world in all ways through it. My awareness of this tension brings me closer to basic questions of checking my privilege and understanding my power in the time I get to spend writing for a good cause. It is uncomfortable.

And it should be.

Inspirational Quote:

“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.”–Frank A. Clark

Get in touch

%d bloggers like this: