On being Russell

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.

Photo by charlottel

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.

11 Comments

  1. I think we’ve talked about this before, but for me, writing under a pseudonym ended up being a choice that benefited readers, I think. I’m far more willing to be open about my personal experiences and opinions than I would be if I blogged under my real name. I’m not a famous person, so using a real name wouldn’t really be putting much skin in the game.

    Additionally, I think we ought to strive as writers to say things that can be verified on their own terms rather than relying on the reputation of the speaker as some sort of safeguard anyway.

      

  2. Working in an industry where I have to/get to change companies every 7-8 years, I’d rather that I be somewhat difficult to google.

    It’s not that I’m particularly ashamed of writing essays in which I discuss Pink Floyd and Batman and Nietzsche, but I’d rather they learn that sort of thing somewhat slowly rather than be thrown into the deep end of the pool.

      

    • This is sort of where I’m at with it.
      I have a nom-de-plume, and I also use my real name, but for very different material.
      The pen name is for most of the stuff; my real name is where I sign my name in blood.

      Although that last was meant as metaphor, it isn’t far from truth at times.
      I acted as a whistleblower twice, and it didn’t work out well on either occasion.
      I had sort of tucked this away into the corners of my mind where I could forget about it, but having written about it recently brought it to the front.

      There was a time I was waiting in a parking lot shortly after nightfall for five guys to come out of a building and whale the tar out of me. I refused to make false entries in my inspection records, and this was viewed as “holding up production.” The thought of running crossed my mind, but was discarded quickly– I would be presenting an exposed target if I did so. I felt the beating was inevitable, and just being weary of the situation, I waited for it. I was going to let them know that I had been there before I went down.
      I was actually more concerned about how behind I would be on my job duties when I was able to return to work.
      They came out and were heading toward me, when a couple of them broke away from the group, then called the rest over. They huddled up for a minute or two, then went their separate ways.
      I was talking to a co-worker about the incident afterwards. That conversation went like this:

      “They probably thought you had a gun or something. What kind of idiot would stand there and wait to get his ass kicked?”
      “Well, Larry, that’s pretty much exactly what I did.”
      “Yeah, but I mean other than you. Who would be dumb enough to do such a crazy thing?”
      “Yeah, I think I see your point there.”

      But I am under no illusions as to what happens next time.

        

  3. I’ve been kind of wrestling with this issue myself. I’m interested in spreading out to other places, but the pseudonym kind of gets in the way of that. I could with my own name with dirt kicked over the tracks, but then I can’t use it to publicize OT which would be a part of the point. None of which would be an issue if I at least had a glass closet.

    On the other hand, if I ever did come clean, I’d have to scrub *a lot* of old posts to protect the privacy of people I know (as well as my own). That would be kind of a bummer.

      

  4. Nice post. This is the best argument for the pseudonym I’ve heard, and one that will be relevant for me in a few years if it isn’t already. (I tend to stay further away from controversial topics though, or at least topics that haven’t been controversial for some centuries.) I can’t imagine what some angry Internet trolls could do to my healthgrades profile, and fighting the bureaucracy in the case of a complaint against my future medical license sounds like something I would never ever like to do.

      

    • I’m sure, of course, that a fraudulent complaint would be easily dealt with by the Board of Licensure, so I’m not worried about genuinely durable disruption of my career. But even a completely frivolous complaint (of which I have had one in my career) can be a persistent headache for years to come. Every time I apply for a license in a new state, for privileges at a new hospital, or (inexplicably this time around) even re-apply, I have to answer a damn “yes” on the lengthy, lengthy questionnaire about ever having a complaint against my license, then have to provide documentation as to the outcome. It’s a bit of difficulty I’d prefer to avoid when possible.

        

  5. I’ve thought about ending my pseudonymity because it would *feel* more honest. I don’t do it, however, for both bad, neutral, and good reasons.

    Bad. I’m embarrassed by some of the ways I’ve behaved and some of the things I’ve said online and believe I’ll behave the same way with or without a pseudonym. In other words, pseudonymity protects me more than it should.

    Neutral (i.e., self-interested). My job would probably be in danger. And I wouldn’t be surprised if going public would endanger the jobs or reputations others close to me.

    Good. Similar to what others noted above, pseudonymity enables me to be more honest about some things. Pseudonymity enables others to participate, too, who might not be able to.

    I do think pseudonymity, for whatever honesty it encourages, does come with it something like a credibility problem. It does enable people (e..g, me) to say things without having to take responsibility for them in the real world, and to me that goes to credibility. That non-responsibility, however, is counterbalanced by the persistence of online personalities. I’m sure some people claim to be numerous different people online, etc., (Disclosure: I write under another pseudonym at a different blog. I’ve linked to that blog before, with a nod to the fact that I may or may not have authored it, but in general, I keep that world separate from OT, etc.). But as a general rule, we tend to stay who we are. I trust that Kazzy is Kazzy, or Russell is Russell, etc. Of course, I’ve changed my pseudonym a while ago (I used to be Pierre Corneille), both to give myself something like a fresh start and because I identify more with Joyce’s fictional character Gabriel Conroy than the real person Pierre Corneille. The “fresh start” thing didn’t work, however, because I was the same me as before.

    Pseudonymity does or should come with certain ethical obligations. Writing under a pseudonym doesn’t mean one can’t criticize real life people, for example, but it should mean one should dot all one’s i’s and cross their t’s.

      

    • As I say in the post, I absolutely think it does destabilize my credibility as a writer that I use a pseudonym, and so I really do make an effort to make my writing as credible as possible otherwise. I am loath to toot my own horn too much, but I feel pretty confident that I hold myself to a higher standard than a lot of health and science writers do. I’ve made a personal commitment never to report about a study I can’t review in full, for example, and I frequently turn down possible assignments because the eye-catching finding is based on a really weak or limited bit of research. I once made a (sadly, very common) error in reporting the statistics of one particular study a while ago, and when a more stats-savvy reader called me on it on Twitter, I publicly acknowledged the error and resolved not to make it again. (Our very own Chris has since generously offered to help review stats for me, which I have taken him up on a time or two.) I refuse to degrade the already-shoddy state of science reporting by hyping mouse studies, and have written a few very pointed pieces criticizing publications that have.

        

      • I think that, because you consistently use the same pseudonym, have accountability (editors), and are available for communication, pseudonymity doesn’t destabalize your credibility much, if at all. It may have at the beginning, when you had yet to establish both that consistency and the accountability, but now that you have, I just don’t think it’s an issue.

        That said, every time I see “On Being Russell,” it makes me want to post this:

          

      • Unfortunately, unlike Chris, I can’t really help review statistics. However, if you ever find yourself called to write a column about how antitrust policy may or may not have affected coal dealers in Toronto and Chicago from 1880 to 1940, and you need someone to review your understanding of the history, then I’m your man 🙂

          

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