Saturday, May 08, 2010


I have a lot of names, some of which I use just for internal identity management and some of which are for public uses. My “maiden” name was Strachan, a Scots place name that immigrated with my grandfather. In the feminist mode I’d be Lucydotter. When I married I became Mary Strachan Scriver which I like to use because there are so many respected Strachans in publishing and because Scriver echoes scrivener, though I’m told the actual root was shriver, which refers to a maker of mantels. (Being shriven of one’s sins means being taken under the cloak of forgiveness.) I’ve been on and off the Blackfeet Reservation for fifty years and my ceremonial name (given in the Sixties) is Meek-Skim-Yah-Kee, which means Iron Woman. (You may know that Native Americans change their names if they feel they are “new” or at a new stage.)

In the NA context, the wife who is primary is called the “Sits Beside,” because she sits in the lodge alongside her husband while the other wives (they were polygamist) are assigned space farther towards the door. The Least Wife, who is sort of parallel to the tailor’s son in European fairy tales, is called Sits by the Door because she’s the one who has to go out to get more wood or see what the dogs are fighting about or check for enemies. One of the leading language people here in the tribe once joked that the even lower women might have been called “Sits in the Brush,” clear outside. I adopted that as a writing name, since it’s a good way to find out what’s going on: sitting out there in the brush watching who comes and goes. But another writing name is “Scribble,” who is the identity I use when I’m addressing the quality of my writing, esp. when I’m writing too quickly and not watching how my antecedents come and go.

I use two names on my two checking accounts: Mary Helen Scriver (Helen is my middle name, which came from my mother’s sister who was killed at age 14.) and Mary Strachan Scriver, but checks come to me in the name of Mary H. Scriver and Mary S. Scriver. My mother used to call me “The Duchess,” and her youngest sister called me “Mary Mary.” The IRS calls me by my Social Security number which they promised they would never, never, no never, use for anything else but which others constantly insist on knowing, calling it my “Sosh.”

I went to the pseudonym of “Prairie Mary” when I joined an online group meant only for enrolled Indians which I am not. I had a great time there and have ever since kept some of the friends I made. Half a dozen people recognized me at once but kept the secret. When my conscience bothered me enough to want to leave, some people were sad about it and urged me to stay! I thought of Prairie Mary partly because I didn’t want to trade on Bob Scriver’s name anymore. (It DOES come in handy sometimes because for a while at least and still -- in some circles -- he’s famous.) One of my ministerial colleagues was named Peter Raible and when he remarried, his first wife changed her name to DeeDee Rainbow. I liked that. So . . . Mary Scriver becomes Prairie Mary.

When I was a minister, I was properly addressed as The Reverend Ms. Mary Scriver but most people left out the Ms. and just put “Rev. Scriver” in writing and called me “Mary” in person. In the midwest people referred to me as Pastor, but in the Unitarian context we are more used to Minister. Once when I crossed the Canadian border (I’ve served churches on both sides) the border official asked me my line of work. “Minister,” I said, and she suddenly snapped to attention, becoming very formal. Up there, “minister” means the same as senator.

In the Sixties I had a weekly newspaper column on the rez that I called “The Merry Scribbler.” One old street drunk fell in love with that and would holler from way down the street, “HEY!! Merry Scribbler! Can I borrow a quarter?” I was teaching high school English and was cautioned by the principal that if any student ever called me “Nahpi-Yahqi”, they should be sent straight to the office. It just means “white woman” but with the proper tone of voice is sort of like being called a “mother.” I named my little self-publishing press the “Nahpi-Yahqi Press.” It makes Blackfeet speakers laugh.

As a minister one of my personal problem issues was protecting identities. Bob Scriver was a Justice of the Peace and City Magistrate and because I often was the informal bailiff, I knew many things I should not spread around. Innocent until proven guilty does not apply to gossip. Most of the thinking about writers who use pseudonyms are relevant only to large anonymous urban contexts where one needs a professional detective to find out what one’s own spouse is doing. In this village you need only ask the postmaster, though the best ones won’t tell you. Since writers write from the stories they know, and small towns assume these stories are real, one can get into major trouble. Some journalists feed on finding out who the prototypes for fiction characters might be, let alone examining the truth claims of writers.

The genre writers I know don’t just have different names for different genres, but also, if they are very prolific, have several names so it won’t seem as though they are writing machines, even though they are. Anyway, Ernest Haycox’s private life was nothing like his public image and neither was Zane Grey’s, any more than movie stars are what we project onto them, though changing their names to John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe is often the first move into the limelight. Several had porn names and images.

Tim notes that a brief post of mine stirred up hornets. It was about the literary shift in attention from the actual content of a book to the writer. Instead of analyzing the quality of the writing, the author’s life is examined. There are probably a number of reasons for this, like backlash against the excessively analytical “high French” philosophical interpretations of the post-modernists, which was a reaction against the internal psychologies of the modernists. Now and then someone notes that if a best-selling and much praised book is presented as a manuscript to a contemporary publisher, they are likely to reject it. It’s a pinball game.

Now my attention goes to some of the people I love most: my female cousins, who are devotees of the Cult of the Author Saved by Publishing. You know: Jo March and Anne Shirley, the lone and valiant scribbler in the attic who finally makes it big with tales of her family and town and is able to support her family from then on. I believed in it, too. It drove decades of buying Writer’s Digest and an ill-advised investment in the mail-order course of Famous Writers’ lessons.

One main motive for “knowing the identity” -- meaning the label -- is for purposes of shelving, marketing categories, creating a platform. But there is another deeper motive. People want to know whether this person is stigmatized, so they will know to avoid danger. Stigmatized people are attacked to keep them outside and possibly to destroy them. This is genetically based. We know because there are children born without the ingroup/outgroup gene -- there is actually a GENE -- who trust everyone unconditionally. They can’t be taught the idea of “outsider.” They are in danger, because they cannot judge others well enough to be legitimately cautious. Those with the gene will dislike and fear anyone not like themselves, beginning with people who appear different, speak differently, or have different customs and ending with those who think differently. They do not know that some philosophers cannot be trusted and some whores CAN be trusted. We could safely learn these things from books if we couldn’t be stigmatized by what we read. Unfortunately, people believe that if you read a book by James Joyce or Linda Lovelace, you might act like them.

This in/out dynamic paradoxically helps to shape human institutions such as nations and religions but also helps to break them down. Jesus’s preaching was meant to destroy the fossilized ingrown self-protection of Judaism as well as the Roman Empire oppression that reinforced it. But the in/out emotional genetic dynamic constantly works to say, “They are not like you. Kill them!” Or confine them to a ghetto. Or remove their access to citizenship or health care. Thoughtful people must constantly fight against “survival of those most like me” and reinforce “protection of those not like me.” But American-style competitive sports teach us that winning means being the last man standing, no matter the cost or the damage to that last man. Or boy.

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