I decided to be Russell Saunders on the cusp of two jobs.
Around the time I was leaving my previous practice for the one I’m part of now, the main blog that hosts this one (still known then as The League of Ordinary Gentlemen) was launching its own new venture, a series of sub-blogs. I had a wee little blog of my own, written under my real name, and had written a relatively well-received guest post for LoOG before. (That early blog of mine now looks so amateurish to me that I cannot bring myself to read it; let us never speak of it again.) I was also a fan of Ordinary Times’ now-Editor-in-Chief Burt Likko‘s blog Not a Potted Plant, and when it migrated to become one of the new sub-blogs, it got me thinking.
Burt’s had a legal theme. Might there be one with a medical bent?
I pitched the idea to Erik Kain, who was still running the joint at the time, and he agreed it was a decent idea. (I will always be grateful to Erik for giving what writing career I have its start.) Thence was born Blinded Trials (version 1).
But what to call myself? Starting a new job in the real world, I had no real notion of how my new employer would take to my spouting off random nonsense on the Internet. While my old penny-ante blog had a very limited readership, LoOG commanded a bit more respect in the blogging world, and there was at least a middling chance that something I’d write would get a fair bit of attention. I didn’t want to end up dooced.
So I decided to go with a pen name. I chose Russell Saunders, a very specific shout-out that you’d need to be both from my home town and the right age to get. And I started writing.
Over time I developed both a loyal readership and more confidence as a writer. (If you are reading this, chances are good that you are part of that readership. Please know that I am very grateful for you, as well.) I saw that several previous LoOG contributors had gone on to write for larger, paying outlets, and I eventually scraped up the gumption to try myself.
I wrote a piece about why the practice I joined does not accept patients whose parents won’t vaccinate them. I pitched it to Salon. It was rejected.
After sucking my thumb for a bit, I took former LoOG contributor Conor Williams up on his offer to help me pitch at The Daily Beast, where he’d had some stuff run. (Conor is yet another person without whom I do not know if I’d have a paid writing career, and to whom I remain deeply grateful.) They liked it, and ran it.
It went viral, and ended up being one of the Beast’s most-read features that year. Watching the social media share count climb was one of the most exhilarating and vertiginous experiences of my life. Seeing it pop up on the Facebook pages of old friends from medical school, it took all my feeble self-control not to gleefully declare that it was me who wrote it.
But I didn’t. When they offered me a chance to be a regular contributor at the Beast, I was overjoyed. (If you happen to be reading this over at DB HQ, I’m rounding out the gratitude chorus with you. It delights me to this day whenever you run my stuff.) Yet I opted to keep the pseudonym.
I did not make that choice to protect my job any longer. I did it for the reverse.
Since I joined my current practice, I’ve been made partner. Even if the other partners were upset by my writing, it would be costly and difficult to fire me now. However, they all know I write, and have voiced support for my dropping the pen name and using my own.
But I suspect none of them have ever heard of Justine Sacco.
Sacco, for those of you who may also not know who she is, was a corporate communications director at IAC in 2013. (IAC is the parent company that owns The Daily Beast, for what it’s worth.) Right before leaving on a trip to Africa, she tweeted a joke about not being afraid of catching AIDS there, because she is white. It was meant to be taken as an ironic comment on white cluelessness by her very small number of Twitter followers, a statement so outrageous as to be obviously in wry jest. But on its face, it was a staggeringly racist thing to say, and that’s how people took it when it exploded on social media. Though she didn’t know it, she’d been fired before her plane even landed. Hers is one of the most famous cases of public shaming you’ll find.
Now, I bring up Sacco not because I’m afraid I’ll say something thoughtless that will blow up my career in the same way. (*pauses to knock the shit out of some wood*) But I know all too well how social media can magnify the reaction to something people don’t like, and how difficult that can be to manage.
Every so often, I write something over at the Daily Beast that makes some people very, very angry. Because I’d just as soon not deal with the flying monkeys of the Internet today, I’ll just say that one such topic rhymes with “sonic Thyme disease.” I’ve written about it twice for the Beast at this point, and the second time in particular my Twitter mentions were a nightmare for the better part of a week. From what I gather, angry sonic Thyme partisans flooded DB with calls for me to be fired. Despite the great care I took to write about her with kindness and respect, the subject of the second piece, a reality star of some fame, called me an asshole on national television. (As a writer for the Internet, I call that “living the dream.”)
None of that bothers me in the least. But I use the pseudonym to keep the fire directed at me, the writer, and away from my practice.
It would take a very small number of angry but dedicated people little effort to seriously disrupt my office’s ability to function. We have a limited number of phone lines, easy enough to jam with harassing calls. People could flood the numerous doctor-rating websites with scathing, erroneous reviews of me. They could, if motivated, file false complaints against my license, which would take time to resolve. Etc.
Were writing my only vocation, I would use my real name. But I owe it to my partners, my employees, and my practice to protect them so far as I can. (I will note that every time I’ve discussed this with writer friends of mine, they encourage me to keep the fake name for as long as possible, for precisely this reason.)
One might argue that if I’m not willing to take that risk, I shouldn’t presume to be a professional writer. I believe that is a fair criticism. But I happen to think my decision is sound.
It is also not a decision free of cost.
The first and most obvious one is to my credibility. Those inclined to take issue with what I write can point to my pen name as a reason to discredit what I have to say. Most recently, a doctor well-known within the pediatric community for carrying water for the anti-vaccine movement noted on Twitter that I am accountable neither to readers nor patients.
Now, I would counter by saying that my pen name allows me to write with more candor, to express more of my true self than if I had to worry about it annoying people who come to see me in the office. And I am obviously accountable to the editorial staff of the Daily Beast, to whom I have an obligation to provide factual content. Further, I think my writing stands on its own merits; I don’t argue directly from my authority as a physician, but include reasoning that provides its own justification, interview experts when the subject is outside of my wheelhouse, and use supporting links pretty liberally.
But your mileage, as they say, may vary. I certainly cannot dismiss this criticism out of hand.
On that note, using a pen name limits me a bit as a member of the media, if it’s not ridiculous to style myself that way. While the cable networks aren’t pounding down my door to weigh in on the day’s news all that often, I’ve had to turn down a few TV requests because I needed to protect the pseudonym’s integrity. And many outlets have policies against allowing their writers to use pen names unless there is a reason more grave than my own. One editor who had expressed interest in my writing then had, with kind regret, to tell me she couldn’t consider work from me once she realized Russell isn’t my actual name.
Recently, however, I finally broke the glass around using my real name. It was a topic I cared a lot about, and which got a pass from The Daily Beast. Another publication expressed interest when I pitched it, and it happens to be one where I’d always dreamed of having a byline. I was thrilled when they took it. (For obvious reasons, I’m not going to include a link, nor will I respond if people are inclined to make guesses in the comments.) As a courtesy to my partners, I confirmed that they were still OK with my writing under my real name, and crossed my fingers.
The topic was one with the potential for controversy and an angry reaction from a large, vocal group of people. But I heard not a peep. And I finally got to share something I’d written on Facebook, which was nice.
I’ve talked with my husband about blowing up the pseudonym. If I end up getting doxxed, it won’t be the end of the world. And plenty of people know who I really am. But I like being Russell, and for now that’s who I plan to remain.
Update: Since writing this, I have received a very gracious email from Dr. Jay Gordon, the pediatrician I reference above who questioned my accountability as a writer. He offered me an apology for having done so, and was quite conciliatory in his tone. While I must strongly disagree with his views about vaccination and some things he has said about doctors’ motivations for administering them (as I do) on the standard, recommended schedule, it was very decent of him to reach out, and I appreciate his having done so very sincerely.