How can we protect the identities of people we write about but still tell the “truth”? I just faced that problem (again) in writing about the death of a very dear friend. (See Blog, 80 + Candles, Jan’s Death). I originally wrote the story using correct names lest I confuse myself with pseudonyms. After re-reading it, I realized that my writing might hurt some of the family members and some scenes might reflect poorly on the hospice in which my friend died.
But, because I want to accurately report the sociological factors, in the rewriting I retained the identity elements while altering their specificity. Through naming, I retained that my friend was a woman who had a wife and that they had an African-American daughter; I retained that my friend died in a hospice but changed the hospice’s name to Heartland Hospice to both conceal the actual one but to place the death in the Midwest.
These changes, I hope, will not only protect the privacy of those individuals and institutions, it will protect me from unintended loss.
Many years ago, I wrote an academic article about child abuse. I changed everyone’s name and used an old abandoned name for the place, a name not used for over fifty years. But when that place was celebrating its Centennial, a computer savvy historian found the article through his searching savvy. He downloaded it and shared it with all my kin, real and fictive.
My first cousin phoned me, yelled and swore at me. She thought I had revealed a secret from her nuclear family, although that was an imputation of her part.
“You are my cousin,” she said, “but I will never speak to you again.”
And she hasn’t.
Nor have any of my relatives on my father’s side.
My loss is my loss.