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Original Essays | June 20, 2014 1 comment
It's a wild and thundery night. Inside a ramshackle old manor house, a beautiful young girl lies asleep in bed. At the window, a figure watches... Continue »
In His Sightsby Kate Brennan
I've taken to wearing a particular necklace when I'm meant to be Kate Brennan. I finger the smooth oxidized silver of the links and the cool rounded glass of the locket, as if this simple action will transport me. Actually it grounds me, which may sound foolish, but writing under a pseudonym, and living under another name, doesn't become second nature when your first nature is to be authentic. It's difficult to keep from automatically and absentmindedly offering your real name when you introduce yourself. And you'd be amazed at how easy it is to make a slip about where you live in a casual exchange about the weather.
"Kate Brennan, Kate Brennan, Kate Brennan," I repeat as I tap the number my publicist gave me earlier in the week. Ready, set, go: "Hi, this is Kate Brennan," I say to the producer. This is the drill. When someone requests an interview, my publicist arranges for me to make the call. That way I can either use a public phone or my cell phone, which has the number blocked as a "private caller."
Driving back to the library, I feel myself relax, as if my shoulder and back muscles know that for the rest of the day they won't have to steel themselves to guard my pseudonymous life. It's an unpleasant reminder of the past. These days, I live under my own name and write under another, but back when the stalking was at its worst, I was forced to adopt different identities to protect myself. It's what the police advised: at one point, I signed a lease for a town house under one name, while using another for the cable and electrical companies. I traveled under yet another name, backed up by a credit card and a letter from local Sex Crimes detectives detailing the situation.
You'd think all this identity swapping would have prepared me for writing under a pen name, but it didn't. Proud of how open I've been in this memoir, it feels almost dishonest to hide behind yet another name. Perhaps it's because I don't like to lie. And I'm not good at it. When I had to create a backstory for the "me" who lived in the town house, I never got used to deceiving my neighbors. Even though it was necessary, leading a double life never felt good. Not to mention how exhausting it was to remember or make up stories every time I met someone new.
So then, why write under a pseudonym? Writers have many reasons for not using their own names. For centuries, it was the only way women could have their work taken seriously. Think of Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell (Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë), George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), George Sand (Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin). Even now, sometimes initials mask an identity J(oanne) K(athleen) Rowling and S(usan) E(loise) Hinton, for instance. I think Charlotte Brontë captured it best: "I am neither a man nor a woman but an author."
Today, some writers use a pen name as a means of switching genre rather than gender (Benjamin Black/John Banville) or put another way, of unleashing different parts of themselves (Rosamond Smith/Joyce Carol Oates and Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell). Some writers use a pen name for privacy. It's a way to separate your everyday life from your literary life. (I'd feel like a spoiler if I gave contemporary examples.)
While the result of my pseudonym may be privacy (a relative state since I feel as if I've spilled my guts on the page), its roots are more fundamental. The goal of my subterfuge is safety. My stalker is still at large; writing under a pseudonym seemed the only way to tell my story as fully as I wanted without exposing myself to possible repercussions. I wanted my story to be as true to the terror of being stalked as possible. I worked hard to capture every detail, every memory, as precisely as I could. And then, I not only changed my name, I changed his name and every name in the book (even the dog's).
Other than that, the only details I altered were the ones that would clearly identify my stalker. Even so, I expect "Paul" to eventually recognize himself on the page. I'm hoping he registers that identifying himself would simply implicate him further. Yet, for all I know, it will enrage him and put me at greater risk. In other words, I have to be prepared for anything.
This, of course, begs the question: why write a memoir at all? Aside from being tired of keeping my life and my work so far under the radar that I dropped off the screen, I wrote because I could. I realized that I had the ability to give voice to not only my story but to those of millions of other women who were afraid or embarrassed to reveal the reality of living at the whim of a maniac. Fictionalizing my story under my own name would have diminished, even denied, that reality. (Besides, as a writer friend reminded me: "You couldn't make this stuff up.")
Keeping silent about experiences such as mine helps keep alive the myth that being stalked (or raped or abused in any way) is something shameful, that it's somehow the victim's fault. My hope is that telling my story will free millions of other voices, and that the cumulative affect will help shatter that myth.
While the act of writing this book has in many ways freed me, the irony is that its publication makes me both safer, broadening the field of people who know and can help protect me, and more vulnerable, as I must rely on so many more people to keep my identity hidden. When nearly every cell phone has a camera, potential exposure lies right outside your front door and inside every room you enter. And then of course, too many people today are eager to reveal everyone else's secrets and post them for the entire world to see. It's frightening to think someone might make a game of trying to find out who I am. (I try not to dwell on this.) Because it's so much more than a matter of convenience or privacy, I depend on all my readers friends and strangers alike to be good-hearted and decent. (I'm not naïve, just optimistic.)
Still, after years of writing under my own name, I feel a bit cheated to have to hide behind yet another one. Faced with selecting my pseudonym, I thought back to a day, at the age of 12, when I was eager (or so I thought) to trade in my name. I admonished my mother for giving me such a plain name. When she asked me what I would prefer, "something exotic" was all I could manage. "When you're of age, be my guest, but in the meantime, we'll call you by your own, which is a beautiful name," and she sent the simple but lyrical syllables of my first and middle names into the kitchen air.
When it came time to actually choose a pen name, I was driven by a need to have it feel connected to me. I amazed myself with how complicated I made the process. I rearranged the letters of my first, middle and last names. The results all sounded like strippers. Next I combined my initials with those of my parents'. Those names all sounded like they belonged to 18th-century poets. Then I tried variations with my confirmation name, but since I didn't like that one even when I chose it, the results held no appeal.
Finally, running out of time, I opted for a name that was not obviously linked to me, yet one that felt familiar. I settled on Kate Brennan, a name as clean and simple as my own.
Now that I'm attached to it, I can only ask that no one rob me of the protection it affords.
÷ ÷ ÷
Kate Brennan is an alias used to protect the author's real identity. She has been a freelance writer (under her real name) for more than 30 years, with a focus on women's issues. She has also taught English and women's studies at a number of colleges. Her stalker remains at large.