Never much of a talker, I’ve long been drawn to poetry because it can thrive in an intermediate state between omission and disclosure. That is, an essential component of many poems is what remains unacknowledged, unexplored. As I grow older, though, and become (marginally) more comfortable with expressing myself in everyday conversation, I increasingly find myself wanting to undertake more forthright projects, to incorporate into my writing frank discussions of sensitive subjects. There’s only one hang-up: I don’t want to use my name.
I’ve come to find there’s an inverse relationship between my capacity for directness in writing and the ease with which that writing can be traced back to me. So long as I can obfuscate and hide behind circuity and device, I feel free to write under my actual name. Likewise, so long I can be an anonymous author, I feel free to write rough truths and chronicle deeply personal experiences. Partially, this reticence to be open under my own name is simply a reaction to the long memory of Google. It’s impossible to read anything online without being made excruciatingly aware that what you put there, like a motherless duckling deposited at your doorstep, will latch on to you and follow wherever you go.
But it’s not just that. From somewhere else inside me, some odd cavern in me that neither knows about the internet nor cares, I have a deeper and more abstract hesitation to associate myself in any way with some of the darker subject matter I want to write about. This has led me to a growing obsessions with fake names, how they’re chosen, and why.
Start with the nearly endless list of Hollywood players who changed their names to hide their ethnic backgrounds. Anne Italiano became Anne Bancroft. Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas. And so on. Other pseudonyms are chosen, by contrast, to highlight someone’s ancestry and culture. (The comedian Carlos Mencia initially performed stand-up under his real first name, Ned, until he was informed that “Ned” was insufficiently Hispanic.) There are anagrams, apoconyms, the measuring of two fathoms.
And then, of course, there’s the classic John or Jane Doe. I have a particular fondness for the Doe formulation, which is commonly used in lawsuits where courts see fit to shield a person’s identity from public disclosure. (A variant of the name was used by probably the most famous American pseudonymous plaintiff, Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade.)
The original John Doe was a stock character in explanatory texts for legal practitioners, sort of the Dick and Jane of learning the law. Students could follow around this archetypical citizen as he made and broke contracts, got injured, and evened the score. Gradually, it became the custom to adopt this everyman persona when bringing a lawsuit anonymously—that is, when it’s possible to convince a court that, to protect one or both parties from violence or other serious harms, the need for anonymity outweighs the public interest in a fully open judicial process.
Children, particularly those in vulnerable situations, are often good candidates for anonymity, as in the 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, brought on behalf of undocumented children precluded from attending public schools. In the text of opinions in these cases, the group of anonymous minors will sometimes be referred to as “the Doe Children,” as though referencing a wild pack of half-human creatures: mystical, docile, astray. The Doe Children sound easy to slay and in need of protection, like the Anne Boleyn-as-deer figure in “Whoso List to Hunt,” who would certainly be cooked were it not for the writing on the band around her neck: Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am.
I like the idea of the Doe Children as a fellowship of those who go forward in shadow. The use of a Doe pseudonym, so nakedly fake, is a bold move in itself: the only thing I will tell you about myself is I am at risk. Risk is all I know about the the three does out my window, none of which has a noli me tangere collar. Here in Ohio, we’re so overrun with deer that even many animal lovers support the hunting season, which hangs over the woods like a fog in late fall. This year, I looked up other methods of keeping deer off the roads. I found that almost nothing works. Most studies show that DEER AHEAD signs do not reduce the likelihood of collision. Neither does something called a “deer whistle,” which I had hoped, like a dog whistle, would emit a sound only deer could hear, and, like a pen name, let me make a great noise without turning a single head in my direction.