Should I use my real name to write about sex and Asperger's Syndrome?
February 1, 2015 10:27 AM   Subscribe

I've been writing for a year and a half. I'm proud of my work, which is pretty obscure so far but some people like it and I'd like to try to go somewhere with it. (I'm in my late twenties if that makes a difference.) I just got published in an erotic anthology that's kind of a big deal. I also write essays for a high-traffic website. I think I'd have a wider audience if I used my real name. But I'm worried about discrimination because it's pretty sensitive material.

I'm not open about having Asperger's. I used to think I could work through my problems (organizational difficulties, slow processing speed, social anxiety, inability to multitask) but in the five years since I graduated college it's gotten me fired from almost every job I've had. At this point I've accepted that I'm going to have to work my life around it, not get through it. I've made an appointment to get a more comprehensive diagnosis and whatever help they think I need.

So I'm not worried about appeasing some corporate overlord with a squeaky clean public record. But I would like to start writing for more traditional magazines too, like regional history magazines and food/book reviews.

I'm also in fashion school and I'm still hoping to get somewhere with that. My professors have led me to believe I do good work that people would pay for, but they also said I'd have a very hard time in the field because of my personality.

My backup plan is to do freelance copywriting and editing work. My family can and does help me out, because I've never been the most stable person around.

I'm also writing a novel about my college years. Most people I know have problems like I do and I want to give a voice to people who usually don't get one in the media. I can't make it a memoir because I'm also writing from my friends' perspectives. I also rearranged events, filled in gaps, and made up some sex scenes. I changed names and locations, although I kept it in the same region (Appalachia.)

I'm embarrassed to put my real name on the book because I'm writing about mental illness, sex addiction, and another thing that's even more stigmatizing. I feel like I have to keep that part though so the book stays emotionally honest. I'd probably be okay with being "outed" if my book becomes so successful that the public demands to know who I am.

I think it would be so freeing to just write openly. Plus I'm feeling a little dishonest about hiding my identity from people who enjoy my work. I know there's a huge demand to know all about the artist now. And it's a pain in the ass keeping two Twitters. I have a unique story and I'm hopeful about my future as a writer even though the odds are against every creative person. I enjoy finally having some promise at something.

I hope I didn't sound like a convoluted nutjob. Here's my questions:

1.) How much discrimination should I expect to face as someone who comes out about being mentally ill? And as an erotica writer?

2.) Can people win lawsuits against me for writing about them? It's salacious stuff and I made up a few things. I can put a disclaimer in the back of my book saying what parts didn't happen. I don't want to frame the whole thing as fiction though, because 95% of it is true.

3.) Any idea how to talk to my parents about my past? It's not much of a factor in my life anymore, but I'd have to tell them first if I want to write about it openly.

Thanks so much.
posted by tuberose to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
1) Well, Asperger's Syndrome is not a mental illness, it's a developmental disorder. Stop worrying about being misunderstood as a "convoluted nutjob" and just be yourself. There's a difference there that some people can see and more and more are understanding all the time. I think you'll get some discrimination from those who don't understand and you'll get more understanding and support from others.

2) Yes, they can if it's made up or if it's true and you can't prove it and it seems like you made it up. Case in point the Jesse Ventura lawsuit over "American Sniper". If some of what you wrote about other people is untrue then you need to change it so they can't be identified at all and never ever say who it was based on. If it's fictionalized, even based on a true story, then you should call it fiction.

3) It's your story. If they did something wrong and you're writing about it, then they should have thought twice before doing the wrong thing. Be straightforward and tell them only after the book has been accepted for publication. Don't pretend like you're asking for permission, but rather you're giving them a heads up.
posted by inturnaround at 10:42 AM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: My parents didn't do anything wrong. My dad has a lot of the same issues as I do though. I'm pretty sure that's where my Asperger's comes from.
posted by tuberose at 10:46 AM on February 1, 2015

It seems like there's an awful lot of potential downside to using your real name, and really not much beyond an extremely theoretical upside. I don't see why your actual, real legal name would sell any more than a pseudonym that's also a real name, ie, John/Jane Doe vs Pseudonymous Sexypants. You can also always go public later on if you really decide pseudonymity is not the right option for you, but you can't take it back after you've linked your RL name and your pseud. Keeping two Twitters probably is work, I'm sure, but that's what that kind of social media engagement crap is: work. It's going to be part of your job in both niches you're writing in. You can't ever expect it to be anything other than a professional obligation, and you might regret not being able to unmix the streams.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 10:53 AM on February 1, 2015 [14 favorites]

Most writers of erotica don't use their real names. I think it's absolutely OK to continue to write erotica under a pseudonym.

Regarding the book you describe at the bottom of your question, I'd just finish the book and go through the various steps of getting it published. You can decide later, with the help of experienced people like your agent, publisher, etc. whether to use your real name or not.

A lot is probably going to depend on whether it's a fictional novel or something written as true events that happened to you, the author. If the latter, I'd be more intent on protecting yourself with a pen name. If this is fiction, it's probably fine to use your real name unless the finished book ends up as erotica. In which case, as I said, pen names are customary.

In general, my advice to you is to make this a work of fiction, despite a lot of things in it being true. Framing it as a memoir is much more risky, in a lot of ways. Remember "A Million Little Pieces"?

Your closing questions:

1. This is another area where I think knowing what this work is (memoir vs. fiction, literary fiction vs. erotica, etc) will tell you the answer to that. If you write a work of fiction with a main character who has a mental illness, that doesn't say anything about you as the author. If you end up doing press, and you want to talk openly about your own struggles, you can. But you don't ever have to. You can reveal as much or as little about your private life as you want.

2. As long as you're fictionalizing everything, libel is not really a concern. I would be more aware of people in your life reading the book and recognizing themselves in it, even despite changing names and details. How ready are you for people who already know you to be pissed off about this book?

3. This is yet another reason to make this book a fictional novel rather than a memoir. That way, if you don't want to "come clean" to your parents, you don't have to. When they read the book, you can tell them the salacious stuff is all made up, if you want. Also, I'm pretty sure your parents are aware that other people who aren't their child write racy books all the time. Unless they're very conservative and sheltered people, your worry about what they'll think is probably overblown.
posted by Sara C. at 11:02 AM on February 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Based on what you wrote, it sounds to me like you're asking us permission to use your real name. You have my blessing! Yes, there are downsides but also lots of upsides, like finally getting credit for your work. Congrats for having your piece published in the anthology!

I can imagine it's very difficult living as a person with Aspergers in a world mostly made for and by neurotypicals; as one of the latter, I see Aspergers as a very important thing for society to come to terms with and I believe more people are coming around to accept the differences, slowly but surely and with some bumps in the road. (Of course, you know better and perhaps I'm way off.)

I'm sad to read that you've had such a difficult time accepting this important aspect of who you are (but I don't blame you for your hesitation at all either.) I truly believe that "coming out" about having Aspergers will actually bring you more personal happiness (or at least relief) and help others get to know the true you better.

So, if being open about your writing helps you feel more comfortable with yourself (and proud of your accomplishments), then I say go for it!!
posted by smorgasbord at 11:15 AM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I can't make it a memoir because I'm also writing from my friends' perspectives. I also rearranged events, filled in gaps, and made up some sex scenes.

If these are people that you want to keep as friends, be very careful about putting out writing where you put words in their heads and add sex scenes. Depending on how it's done, that can be downright creepy and insulting.
posted by Candleman at 12:45 PM on February 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

A number of authors use pseudonyms, not for purposes of anonymity, but to keep their writings in different genres distinct, and don't worry about the public knowing who's who. For example: Seanan McGuire (urban fantasy) writes her zombie/horror stuff as Mira Grant.

If you consider the pseudonym, it may help you feel more honest to think of it that way: "Jane Doe is my erotica-writing name, and Mary Roe is my nonfiction-writing name."
posted by telophase at 12:50 PM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I can't make it a memoir because I'm also writing from my friends' perspectives. I also rearranged events, filled in gaps, and made up some sex scenes. I changed names and locations, although I kept it in the same region (Appalachia.) ... It's salacious stuff and I made up a few things. I can put a disclaimer in the back of my book saying what parts didn't happen. I don't want to frame the whole thing as fiction though, because 95% of it is true.

If you've rearranged events, made up scenes, and changed locations, then it's fictionalized. I would either unfictionalize it (put the events in proper order, drop the made-up scenes, fix the locations), or change it up as much as I needed to make it a better (though true-to-life) novel. Or leave it as-is but still sell it as fiction. "95% non-fiction, but a bit out of order" is not really a category.
posted by jaguar at 1:00 PM on February 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

This sounds like a pretty bad idea. Either write a memoir, or make up new characters and write a fiction novel that is 100% true to your experience without being 100% true to the actual facts of what happened.

Yes, publishing something scandalous under your real name can be damaging to your writing career (though usually not if it's good enough). Even more so, being google-connected to erotica can be damaging to any non-writing career you may later find yourself pursuing (I also thought at one time that I was psychologically unfit to hold down a full-time job. I was wrong.)

Most importantly though, writing fictionalized stories about identifiable real people opens you up to legal dangers. You CAN be sued for defamation if you present an identifiable real person in your fiction engaging in a reputation-damaging act that did not in fact occur. Sex scenes can pretty much always be construed as reputation damaging. A pseudonym will not protect you from this.

This is without even going in to how much you might damage your relationships with your friends.
posted by 256 at 1:12 PM on February 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Where would I get legal advice?
posted by tuberose at 1:23 PM on February 1, 2015

You get legal advice by hiring a lawyer. You can call your local bar association and ask for a referral to an attorney who practices libel law. However, this is a pretty specialized area, so your best bet is probably to write the book, find a publisher, and then have the publisher and their lawyers help you figure out how to market it and what to name the characters and how much to change to lessen the chances of getting sued.
posted by decathecting at 1:57 PM on February 1, 2015

I would absolutely love to read the book you described, and it would be a novel. But you should still talk to a lawyer because it will be so heavily based in autobiography. You want to cover all the bases just in case someone recognizes themselves in a character you wrote and gets upset. I don't know the ramifications of that kind of writing either.

Here's an article that discusses libel in fiction (spoiler: it's rare).
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 2:17 PM on February 1, 2015

First of all, you mentioned "legal advice," but I can't give you any legal advice about anything. If you want legal advice, please contact a lawyer in your city/state/country, not me.


Penelope Trunk has written a lot of stuff on the internet about having sex and having Asperger's. (For instance, here's her post about "What it’s like to have sex with someone with Asperger’s.")

Penelope Trunk has also advised people to fearlessly write on the internet using their real name.

So ... you know who you might want to talk to? Penelope Trunk. You can message her on Twitter or LinkedIn or send an email.
posted by John Cohen at 3:02 PM on February 1, 2015

My professors have led me to believe I do good work that people would pay for, but they also said I'd have a very hard time in the field because of my personality.

Is the impetus behind the desire to come out as having Asperger's that you hope it will "explain" you in advance of an introduction to potential employers, if you like, and make life easier? It may or it may not, but I think it might be helpful to think of that as a separate issue from the decision to put your name to this book (or whether to fictionalize it).

I think talking to others with Aspergers about how they've managed disclosure in their professional lives might be a useful exercise. (Anecdata: I know of one person for whom coming out helped smooth his relationships with coworkers, but he did it after he'd gotten the job.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:06 PM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey, thanks guys. I'm thinking I'll just keep the fake name for now. Maybe I'll make my novel "based on a true story" like my writing teacher recommended. And get help with legal stuff when I've finished it.

Excusing myself to employers isn't a factor here. I've (almost) accepted that there are jobs I can do and jobs I can't. I'm getting help so I can figure out what kind of work is a realistic option for me, make a plan for my future, and move forward.
posted by tuberose at 8:00 PM on February 1, 2015

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