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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On pseudonymity

M. LeBlanc is trying to decide whether to shed her pseudonymity. (I’m not linking because 1. Y’all already read Bitch Ph.D., and 2. This is a post about me, not a conversation with relevance to whether M. LeBlanc should or should not continue with a pseudonym.) I’ve done most (though not all) of my writing on teh internets under this pseudonym, and it has mostly been a fine thing. Not because it has protected my privacy (when your in-laws and most of your friends know your pseudonym, qu'est-ce que c'est “privacy?”), but because it created a public space where I could play around onstage. I don’t expect to get taken seriously when I write under a silly pseudonym. And that, as it turns out, is the fun of it.

But that wasn’t the original reason why I chose to write under a pseudonym. I chose a pseudonym out of fear, though I knew then (not as well as I know now) that the pseudonym would never offer me fail-safe protection. A pseudonym is the condom of casual writing — it will protect you in most cases, but it’s got a high failure rate. It’s a house made of straw. If someone blows hard enough, they’ll get in, huffing and puffing and terribly pleased with their own efforts. Hey, if that’s what gets them through the tedium of their days, who am I to protest? Everyone needs a point of interest to get them out of bed in the mornings. Unmasking bloggers may be a sort of creepy and stalkerish hobby, but whatever. There are worse hobbies. It ain’t heroin. When it comes to someone like me, though, I’m just surprised that anyone would think it worth the effort. I’m nothing, no one. I’m a housewife in the suburbs, with two kids and an elaborate education I don’t do much with. There are a million of us, but the world already has more than enough volunteers to form the small regiment needed to conduct the Mommy Wars™ that seem to be our most prolific cultural production (and the New York Times’ most reliable revenue stream). Who on earth cares about the name of yet another member of the unproductive articulate chattering classes?

I’d feel differently, of course, if my goal was to become more important or pursue professional ambitions. But I’m not planning to run for public office, nor to seek my fame and fortune. And there’s not much I’ve written that would disqualify me from getting any ordinary old job of the kind that pays the bills so that you can dream your impossible dreams in the absence of physical privation. I’ve worked in a bookstore; I’ve been other people’s administrative assistants. I could do that again, and no one on the hiring team would give a rat’s ass about anything I’ve written here, even if it were under my real name. I might cringe a little to hear me quoted back to myself by coworkers and acquaintances — any collection of words must contain things the author wishes she could erase and make as though they’d never been. But most of my real-life friends have known about the blog for a good long time, and I find in the end it doesn’t much matter if I say something I’m a little ashamed of afterwards. As I keep telling BB as she struggles with the (comparatively) vast stage of kindergarten, we all embarrass ourselves. It’s just part of life, and something that doesn’t register to anyone else half as strongly as it registers to you. I tell her it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t — unless someone you fear is paying attention.

I have always known that people I feared might be paying attention. I have an awful lot of privilege in my life, but there is one small privilege I have never had. I have never not been afraid. Fear was my birthright, and the names and faces of the people I fear have always been known to me. It was the faces of my family I pictured when I chose a pseudonym and hit enter. The thought of them peering into the contents of my head, even a public performance of the contents of my head, filled me with fear. They have never paid attention to me except in order to find more effective tools to shame and control me. I used a pseudonym in order to keep from getting flattened with weapons drawn from my own mind.

I bought myself a lot of time with that pseudonym. It’s been more than four and a half years — almost an eternity in internet time, and long enough to bury most of what I’ve said in the avalanche of verbiage that Google so meticulously tracks. (Oh, sure, you can still find everything I’ve ever had to say, but who has the patience to page through that many search results?) I bought myself so much time that having a blog is now as unremarkable as having a telephone. Everyone and their grandmother has a blog lying around here somewhere, gasping for updates. Hell, my dad talks about the people he’s met through blogging. I bought myself so much time that, really, having a blog turns out to be no big deal.

But I couldn’t buy myself forever. A few weeks ago, the wind blew through the place where the straw walls were weakest — Facebook, that mishmash of childhood friends, family, Lexulous buddies, PTA moms, bloggers. One of the people I have been protecting myself from noticed that I know someone she does, someone she works with. How is it, she demanded of the department secretary, that my SISTER knows that person? There was a chain of communication from the department secretary onward, like a junior high drama, culminating in a phone call. It’s just so FUNNY, she said to me, that you would know someone who’s an academic. (Only after I hung up the phone did I think of telling her that there’s now an equivalency exam one can take, such that, if one passes, one is certified to become friends with people in the hallowed halls of academia, even if one has not achieved such rarefied heights oneself.) We debated the merits of her method of trying to ferret out how I knew this person. That is to say, we yelled at each other for 20 minutes, while MB cheered me on in the background. After we hung up (or were hung up on), I shook for 40 minutes straight. But I was proud of myself. It turns out I really can feel the fear and do it anyway. I did it. I said my piece. I didn’t back down.

I don’t know for certain that she’s gone on to uncover my pseudonym, but I know there is a clear trail from the person she’s identified to this blog, if she digs enough to pursue it. The only reasonable course of action is to assume that I have already been discovered. I’ve come a long way, baby, from my most fearful early years, because I never considered pulling the whole blog down. (I did consider locking it, but only briefly.) I was relieved, though, that it’s been such a long time since I’ve used this space regularly, or for any personal ruminations.

But I have been thinking about it, and I have come to a decision: to hell with that. It’s a fine thing to not be blogging because I have nothing to say. It’s perfectly valid to set aside personal stories because I think the time for them in blogland has more or less passed. But to refrain from speaking because I’m afraid to be heard? Fuck that. This is still my space, whatever name I choose to call myself by. Audience matters, of course it does, but it isn’t everything. If I have something I need to say (which doesn’t happen often, these days, but I suppose remains possible), I’m still going to say it. Even if someone I used to fear is reading. Because, really, who gives a shit? I don’t. I’m nearly 40 years old. I’m done fearing my past. It’s time to move on.

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