I need to speak my truth, but I don’t want my abusers or my family to suffer as a result.
I made the decision to stop writing using my own name after I received an email in the wee hours one bitterly cold winter’s night while working on a paper I was presenting the following day.
What I read shocked me so badly, I slipped out of my chair and banged my cheek on my desk.
I reread the email through tears. The author used perfect grammar and spelling to describe in gruesome detail how he planned to rape and murder my daughter. He called her by name, something I had not done in my essay, and he listed our address.
My first reaction was a stupid one: I deleted the email and then emptied the trash folder. My rattled brain reasoned that if I couldn’t see it again, it couldn’t hurt me. I immediately realized I’d done the wrong thing. I should have saved it, just in case the unthinkable happened.
I began shaking, so I wrapped myself in a blanket and turned on the gas fireplace. I sat there for a long time trying to figure out what to do.
I decided to never write publicly again.
But swearing off writing left me in a difficult position. I am not a writer because I enjoy the process. I am a writer because I will use anything at my disposal in my advocacy work.
So I continue to write, but not under my real name. However, not all publications allow for pseudonymous writers.
I believe that this is perhaps one of the least woman-friendly and most fundamentally unjust rules of journalism that we can enforce. If a woman wants to prosecute her attacker, we allow her privacy even when we report on it. But if she wants to tell her own story of abuse, using her own words, we demand that she out herself.
But there are some major problems with that.
First, authors with a history like mine are very hesitant to write about their lives. Our biography does not make sense if you remove the abusive events. But it isn’t like we want our children’s friends to be able to Google us and read about the abuse we have endured. We especially do not want our abusers finding out and seeking retribution.
However, if we want to write about our lives or about women’s issues, at some point we will have to either tell our story and let the whole Internet dump its entire load of steaming hatred on our heads, or we have to accept severe constraints on authentic voices. I believe that many of our best writers likely have very important stories that could give us a lot of insight. But they keep silent to protect themselves or because they are afraid of what the in-laws will think.
The second problem is actually the flip-side of the first. Readers come to see rape and sexual abuse not as an integral part of a woman’s life and experiences, but as an isolated chapter that happens in the life of someone we don’t know well and never will. It depersonalizes rape and abuse, and makes it something that happens to other women. Because survivors have to fit all of the aftermath of an event into one article, the good days and the ways in which our functioning remained unaffected are generally left out of the picture. This creates the illusion that women who have been abused should come with a warning label that reads “Caution! Crazy Bomb! Anything could set it off!”
Survivors are both defined and not defined by what happened to us. One of the reasons that my stories of survival mean something to my readers is that they see me as a person who struggles to be kind to the people who make me crazy; who is comically clumsy; who loves gardening more than she is skilled at it; who did a decent but not great job of being a mom and now has well-adjusted kids with sharp wits and little fear; as someone constantly experimenting with new ways of doing my hair and who makes great food despite being incapable of following a recipe; and as a woman who is deeply loved by a funny and loyal husband. My experiences of abuse are there—right in the middle of all of that.
Allowing women who are survivors to begin writing under a pseudonym before and after they disclose their stories of abuse allows them to show us a more well-balanced picture of the lives of survivors.
The third problem is that it adds to the illusion that rape or sexual abuse is a once-in-a-lifetime event. We read these stories chopped up, and we forget that one bit of abuse frequently leads to another. Survivors are such incredibly easy prey to predators. Women made vulnerable by rape or sexual abuse are more likely to be raped or sexually harassed again.
The fourth problem is that we give “the enemy”—rape apologists and enthusiasts—comfort and assistance. I can best explain this by illustrating it:
The gift that I have been given by being allowed to write pseudonymously was driven home a few weeks ago when I wrote an article in which I revealed that my step-father had sexually abused me, and again when I wrote a survivor’s response to George Will’s claim that rape is an envied position.
In both cases, I was attacked. Rape apologists demanded to know my real name, and went so far as to claim that the feminist community and I had a “lot to answer for” because I write pseudonymously. (Little did they know that the feminist community has not offered unanimous support for the use of a pseudonym.)
What was so enlightening about it was that they made it clear why they wanted to know my real identity: They wanted to discredit my story, to tear me apart online with the same ferocity that defense attorneys used to take apart victims. They clearly stated that they wanted to be able to contact my abusers and give them a chance to discredit me. They wanted to look for anyone who would call me crazy or a liar. They wanted to be able to look for any dirt in my current life that they could use to shame me.
It does not matter that I have taken every pain to hide the identity of my abusers and any of the groups where I was either abused or witnessed it occurring. I have no axe to grind. Rather, I have a big problem with a system that allows, if not encourages, abuse. And every person of good conscience should too.
It does not matter if we are writing about abuse in sports, the Democratic Party, or an atheist organization. The attitude is the same: A person who points out abuse is giving every person on the planet with ill-intent the right to harass her, discredit her, stalk her, and heap even more abuse on her.
Here is the final reason why I believe we should encourage people to write under a pseudonym if they have histories of abuse: There is a very real danger that people in the writers’ lives can be hurt.
If my mother read my frank accounts of her and my step-father’s abuse, I am fairly sure she would kill herself. I would be exposing them in ways that are not conducive to anyone’s healing.
One of the better examples of the quandary faced by abuse survivors is Eminem. Early in his career he sang about how his mother had abused him and his brother. Writing about his abuse was what Eminem needed to do. He brought healing to other men who had been abused by their mothers and attention to the disorder of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
However, at the same time, his work subjected his mother to relentless public shame. Caught in the spotlight, she defended herself by viciously attacking him and suing him for around $10 million.
Recently, he wrote a song apologizing. But as Brandy Pettigrew notes, Eminem does not in any way recant his story, and he does not apologize. Instead, he apologizes for writing about her because he regrets what his mother suffered as the result.
Like Eminem and me, many survivors reach a point where we do not want to see our abusers suffer, especially not disproportionately to their crimes. But still we need to speak our truth. We need to offer what healing we can to other survivors and to help change the systems that continue to support abuse.
I find it offensive that we demand writers use their own names when they have a history of abuse. We are, in effect, silencing women who have been stalked or who do not want everyone on the planet to know that they were abused or raped. What that leaves us with are people who write from compassion, but not from experience.
Women deserve the right to simply be in their roles as writers without intense and horrendous daily harassment.
Publications that refuse to accept work by pseudonymous authors tend to believe that forcing writers to expose themselves to abuse by using their real names and personal information makes the publication more reputable. I think it makes them hostile toward victims and toward women in general.
If we want survivors to be able to tell their stories, if we want women to be able to speak an unpopular truth, we owe them the only armor we can give them at present: the ability to establish and write under a pseudonym.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.