Change the Names to Protect the Innocent


He’s angry. I can tell because raised pink welts speckle his arms. His tell.  I’ve seen him angry dozens of times. It’s gotten easier to bear his seething petulance. It no longer slays me when other people don’t like what I do. I sit up taller.  Almost proud that I danced far enough from my comfort zone to step on some toes.

And I didn’t do anything wrong. I stage a protest in my head. Guilt and fear fight a gladiator battle in my mind.

“You’ve known about this since November. Why is this coming up now?”

It’s true. I told the group I was writing about them one month after I started. At our  therapist’s insistence, I sent them the first 14,000 words. The opening chapters have been sitting in his in box for 90 days.

The first draft is done now.  My beautiful, bloated, crammed-up first draft. They’re in there. They all are, because they’re part of the story. Right now they appear with their given names, their actual hair color. I’m told (by the therapist and the writing people) I’ll have to make them composites: change their genders, move them from the city to far western suburbs, change their struggles from fidelity to chronic debt.

That’s all coming. But right  now it’s my story and I need to tell it unencumbered by pseudonyms and scrambled voices.

“Do you want a say in the name I give you in the book?”  I’m not kidding, not exactly. He doesn’t laugh.

“As if that will work,” he says.

I resent him for making me fight for the story. I should be free to wallow in a single pool of fear about whether I’ll ever see a book through to publication. I don’t wait to divide my time between who am I hurting? and will I ever?

He sulks; I fume. The therapist says this is a great reenactment. A corrective experience on a silver platter. “For all the times you were in trouble for telling.”  He’s right.  The biggest crime I ever committed before I started swiping Jacksons from other people’s wallets was telling what happened, saying what I saw.

The next time I open the document I edit scenes and make changes my writing coach suggests. I stare at the names.  It would take 20 seconds to do a find-and-replace for each. I try it on his name.  I christen him Brad.  I don’t save the changes

A week later, I give the therapist a pseudonym. I hate how it looks. It feels coy and cutesy. I change it to initials and hate it more. I leave it as it was originally.

In her memoir Negroland, Margo Jefferson wrote that it was her policy to “use initials when I recall the mishaps or misdeeds of my peers.  Their words and acts belong to me; their names belong to them.”  The names that Jefferson whittled down to single letters belonged to people guilty of racism.  My angry group mate has done nothing more than ask for privacy when it comes to his mental health treatment.

The next time I open the document I give him a new name, not one chosen out of revenge (like Brad).  It feels awkward but not wrong. Like writing with my left hand instead of my right. I think long and hard about a name that protects him and honors the story.

I save the changes.  He can have his name.  I keep the story for myself.





23 thoughts on “Change the Names to Protect the Innocent

  1. Oh, hi. Sup. (I’m addicted to renaming people. I have a list in my phone, usually of street names that I intend for last names. Am weird. Don’t care.)

  2. I liked the advice you quoted: “Their words and acts belong to me; their names belong to them.” It seems fair to change the names. How exciting to have a draft!

  3. I hope they come to see it your way too! It’s hard isn’t it? Writing from real life, pouring everything you have into those words, wanting to express yourself but stopped by the fear of hurting/outing others. I hope you manage to find the right balance. Lovely piece.

    • My latest is that I am giving them endearing nicknames. I think it’s a transitional phase. Like I call an old boyfriend The Sweet Scholar b/c I can’t bear to change his name to a real name. Good luck to you! This is challenging.

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