Making sure to get it wrong

I thought I’d write this week about how important it is during this project to protect the anonymity of the women who trust me with the stories of their sexual histories and deepest desires.

It’s on my mind because the issue came up several times as I worked on the 50s chapter, which by the way I’ve just completed. (Insert roar of crowd here.)

During interviews, I ask each woman to choose an alias for herself — just a first name. If she’s married or talks extensively about a partner, I will often ask her to come up with a fake name for that person as well. Force of habit is strong, so as they talk about these people, the women often use real names. This can get confusing when I start writing the chapter a couple weeks later, because while taking notes, I might accidentally type the name the woman says, rather than the agreed-upon fake name.

Which is why, at some point in my notes, I usually type something like “husband’s name is Sam but we’ll call him Mike.” That way, if I type in the wrong name at any point, I can double check for accuracy when I’m compiling the chapter. (My method has been to conduct all the interviews for a chapter and then write that decade’s chapter before moving on to the next.)

As I wrote about Alexa and her lover Tony, I looked in vain for my cheat note to myself as to his real name. I couldn’t find it, and suddenly worried that we had not chosen one — and I was perhaps using his real name. So I called Alexa back and she reminded me of his real name, reassuring me that I had it wrong.

Whew. That’s the goal!

Certain identifying factors about people are too distinct, so occasionally I will change a woman’s school, profession or perhaps country of origin. I stay true to physical appearance, family details and sexual history of course, but even so, many of the women are unrecognizable. I know this because Dr. Mo, who has of course met all these patients, usually can’t recognize them as she reads the chapters upon completion.

Compounding her challenge to figure out who’s who is the fact that Dr. Mo rarely knows who is interviewed. She and I narrow down prospects to maybe 15 or 20 women, she retrieves their phone numbers from her medical files (which I don’t have access to) and then I set about the business of arranging interviews. Availability is key, so by the time the chapter is finished, it’s very difficult for her to sort everyone out.

Nevertheless, her patients out themselves from time to time. They come in for a check-up and proudly proclaim that they are going to be in the book. “Anne interviewed me!” they tell her. “It was so fun. It was like therapy!” (Tell me I don’t love to hear that; it’s my goal for these brave, candid women to feel at ease and comfortable no matter how intimate the topics are.)

All of this makes me confident that my ladies’ anonymity is being protected, but I had a special case in this 50s chapter (my FINAL decade chapter, by the way!). Christina confided to me that she had emotional and sexual relationships with women in her 20s, but returned to a heterosexual lifestyle at age 31. She then asked me to exclude that fact from the book.

I made the case to her that such an omission invalidated the integrity of her story, and that other readers, if only a few, would surely identify with her life experience. She was still reluctant, so I offered her veto power over the chapter once it was written — something I’ve never done before. But I was positive that once she saw her experience in the context of nine other 50-somethings, she would realize how comfortably it fit in among the tapestry of stories.

I finished the chapter, Dr. Mo gave it her stamp of approval, and then I called Christina and made an appointment to take her a copy. (I wasn’t comfortable with an email version of the chapter floating around in the ethernet, as paranoid as I’m sure that sounds.) She had no problem with any of the identifying factors I used about her, but felt some of her quotes, while accurate, didn’t quite reflect her thoughts. So we sat down and worked them all out together, until she was satisfied she’d been as clear as possible.

So her anonymity was protected, her quotes were sharp and the chapter included her invaluable and interesting input. A win-win.

Honestly, I protect these women so completely that by the time a chapter is finished, when I think of an interviewee, only her pseudo name comes to mind. This week, when I spoke to Christina and Alexa, I automatically called each of them by these assumed names.

I guess if I run into them at book signings, I’ll have to pretend I don’t know them because I may only recall their book names — and using those would give them away!

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2 Responses to “Making sure to get it wrong”

  1. Ken Steinhoff Says:

    Oh, what a tangled web we weave….

  2. Ruthanne Says:

    I bet you’ve done it all very well and that some of the women do not even recognize their own stories immediately. Well done!

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