There's the AutoAdmit case where two Yale law students are suing various pseudonymous individuals -- presumably law students -- who wrote outrageous things about them on an unmoderated website. The plaintiffs -- who are themselves using pseudonyms to hide their identity -- seek money damages from the pseudonymous writers, but they can also punish them -- even without prevailing on their claims -- simply by unmasking their true identity, which could make it difficult for them to pursue their legal careers.
Many bloggers use pseudonyms. There was that doctor who was defending himself in a malpractice suit and blogging about it on the side, calling himself "Flea." Are you Flea? Dr. Robert P. Lindeman was asked on cross-examination. He had to say yes, and, at that point, he had to settle the case. The jury would have hated him if they'd heard all the cocky things he thought the pseudonym freed him to write.
I've always blogged under my own name, though I sometimes ponder the question whether the "Ann Althouse" of the blog is the Ann Althouse of my real life. (We could digress into the subject of when life on the blog becomes one's real life and life in the physical world becomes the act. There is the mask one wears to live in Madison, Wisconsin and to function in the role of a law professor. The blog persona is different -- and I have even argued that my "front page" blog persona is different from my comments page persona! -- and it may be more genuine.)
I've written about my colleague who writes under a pseudonym:
Oscar wants to be free to use naughty words and otherwise break out of the professorial mode. But my experience is that even though students know who I am and can and do read this blog, they seem to accept this as a separate mode of mine and don't use it as a basis for talking to me in a newly confidential way. In the law school, the student-professor relationship is very well established. It really doesn't break down, even when students read your personal journal.Or so I like to think! Maybe not. I'm sure some of my commenters -- writing under a pseudonym, of course -- will tell me that students do not keep this separate. How many of my pseudonymous commenters are, in fact, my students? Yesterday, I had a problem with a commenter who came here to speak insultingly to me -- "You look ugly, stop embarrassing us already!" -- and then asserted that he was a student at my law school. That crossed a line:
A law student might find it interesting to participate here and get outside of the conventional environment. But as soon as you identify yourself as a law student, that can't happen. And I'm not willing to assume my lawprof mentor style with someone who wants the freedom to talk to me in a way that he could not do if he were identified. I'm not going to have a conversation like that. If you want to talk to me as a law student or alumnus, do that, and act like one. But don't come here and insult me and leave me feeling like I have to respond in a tolerant, supportive way.Remember the old problem of authors adopting a pseudonym so they could lard their book's Amazon page with fulsome praise? And, of course, there's the journalist or blogger who adopts a pseudonym to participate in his comments section as if he were a fan of himself.
I used to think it would be an artistic thing to do to be various personas writing within one's own comments section or writing and linking on various other blogs. The model I had in mind was Plato's dialogues. Why not design a set of fictional characters and write in dialogue form? Though I've written about doing that before, I've never done it. Years ago, it seemed purely creative to me. Today, it's so obviously against the culture that has grown up within blogging that it would require a very different sort of decision to go that route. One could do something like that by clearly revealing that the pseudonyms are your fictional characters. That would be like a novelist writing in the first person. No one thinks that is a fraud.
By contrast, there are these writers who purport to be memoirists who make things up. But they don't have a problem with pseudonymity. They have a problem blurring the line between truth and fiction. A fascinating pseudonym problem occurs when a writer uses a false identity to make a work of fiction more interesting and saleable.
There was a trial this week in a civil suit for fraud against Laura Albert, who made up the name "JT LeRoy" to write a novel -- "Sarah" -- about West Virginia lowlifes:
Ms. Albert, 41, was found by the jury in Federal District Court to have strayed beyond the normal limits of pseudonymous invention, in part by signing a movie contract using her nom de plume...Hmmm... the whole trial worked as a publicity stunt. It subtly transformed Albert into a sympathetic victim.
Long before this somewhat narrow legal matter reached the courts, the broader story of JT LeRoy, with its agitprop allure and celebrity aroma, played out on the larger and much more garish canvas of the press. After “Sarah” thrust the writer into stardom in 2000, JT LeRoy became the damaged darling of the art house set, a street waif and supposed son of a truck stop prostitute who, usually by way of telephone or e-mail (he was “famously reclusive”), befriended the likes of Courtney Love and Winona Ryder — at least until his startling existence as a fiction was revealed.
All the while, of course, it was Ms. Albert, a mother and otherwise obscure novelist from Brooklyn Heights, who was spinning gritty fantasies of drug addiction and Appalachian misery for the rich and famous names at the other end of the keyboard or the line. She gave interviews in a twangy accent to Terry Gross on NPR and sometimes paid her former boyfriend’s half-sister to appear in disguise as JT LeRoy in the rarefied air of literary readings or the international film festival at Cannes.
It was deceptions like these that Antidote’s lawyers said constituted her fraud. Yet even though the company’s lawyers assailed her in court as a trickster and wily master of self-promotion, they — and their client, Mr. Levy-Hinte — admitted a grudging admiration for her writing talents, and for her performance.
They also evinced a quiet sympathy for Ms. Albert, for it was soon apparent that the eight-day trial would include testimony about her rather gruesome history — a litany of adolescent trauma that included sexual abuse, institutionalization and 13 years of telephone therapy in which she spoke to her psychiatrist in the adopted persona of a teenage boy. That boy, whom she took to calling Jeremy or Jeremiah, was a sort of early incarnation of the full-blown alter ego that would eventually evolve into JT LeRoy.
Among the various battles waged at the trial — art versus commerce, truth versus fiction, reality versus the imagination — it was perhaps the battle over JT LeRoy’s purpose in the world that was most in dispute. Before his identity (or, rather, nonidentity) was revealed last year in a series of newspaper articles, the production team at Antidote considered him that rare commodity in today’s biography-obsessed entertainment world: a gifted writer with a titillating past that only enhanced the value of the work. After the revelation, the company took the position that Ms. Albert had used the JT LeRoy “brand” — the same that had attracted them — as a celebrity magnet to draw attention to her books.So she has to pay back the option money, but the trial works to nullify the problem of the fake identity and to allow Albert to step into the spotlight as a writer who can openly take credit for her book. Presumably, it's a good book. Now, by the ordeal of trial, she has become a saleable character. She can now seek absolution in the Church of Oprah. Tell us all about how you needed JT LeRoy as respirator.
Ms. Albert herself, in testimony from the stand, suggested that JT LeRoy was far more than a pseudonym in the classic Mark Twain-Samuel Clemens mold. She offered the idea that JT LeRoy was a sort of “respirator” for her inner life: an imaginary, though necessary, survival apparatus that permitted her to breathe.
I half-suspect the lawsuit was a collusive enterprise, designed to advance the movie project and accomplish the disclosure of the author's identity with panache. You start off as an author with a boring background, so you make up a fictional identity, and then the process of owning up to your deception makes you interesting in your own right. If you'd just issued a press release, we'd have had contempt for you. But this ordeal of trial makes us care.
Where is the real fraud?