When I wrote and published my research on an unusual coincidence between two authors I expected a few people might find it interesting, but mostly I thought my readers would care to understand some of my reasons for not being too visible this past year. I would never have guessed that it would create a firestorm of emotion. You can read my earlier blog post HERE.
I’ve been asked why I didn’t include the alleged fact that Jenny Trout and JLA were born with nearly identical birth names, so I’d like to clarify this. I didn’t include it for two reasons:
- I could not verify that this was true.
- Explaining in detail why I couldn’t verify it was true would reveal far too personal information for either JLA or someone who shares her current legal name.
In addition to writing romance, I also do genealogy and help adoptees find their blood relations. When the investigations of others hit a wall, I’ve been able to piece things together and find people. Even when names have been changed, I’ve reunited families simply by methodically going through what information is publicly available. Beyond speaking to people involved and asking questions, I do not seek out any information that is not already publicly available or given directly to me.
I assumed it would be a simple task of verifying two births in 1980, one on June 11 in West Virginia and one on July 15 in Michigan. Using Jenny Trout’s public biography, I found her Michigan birth record, verified that it was her, and moved on in less than five minutes. West Virginia doesn’t have vital records that recent available online, but there are other ways of verifying someone’s birth name. Marriage indexes, national public records, obituaries of loved ones, student newspapers, graduations, etc. This is true even if your legal name has been changed at some point.
I did not want to do anything invasive. Authors are allowed to have pen names and protect their privacy. I do this myself. All I was looking to do was answer a single question before I included it in my article: Were two baby girls named Jennifer Lynne Armintrout and Jennifer Lynn Armentrout born in the summer of 1980, one in Michigan and one in West Virginia?
I could not verify this. No children, of any name or gender, were recorded as being born in the town JLA says she was born in on the date she says she was born. However, people often fudge on their DOB or “round up” their birthplace to somewhere near to the no-name town they were actually born. So I expanded my search accordingly. In the entire country, I could find only three Jennifers born on that exact date. None of them Armentrouts.
I was able to find a Jennifer L. Armentrout in the same rough geographical area, but this woman was so much older that I discounted her as a possibility. But a year or two age difference seemed reasonable, so I expanded the search. Another Jennifer L. Armentrout who was nearly the exact right age lived in another state and died several years ago. I discounted her for obvious reasons.
Finally, I found someone with the same legal name sources identify as JLA’s current one, who was born in the town she says she was born in, who would go by Armentrout in her personal life beginning sometime between 2011 and 2013, but this person was not born an Armentrout. Absent further information–pictures to compare, this Jennifer stating that she writes, etc–I could not verify these are the same person.
Out of respect for everyone’s privacy and safety, I will not release the records I found. Because I won’t release them, I imagine there will be people who will say I’m lying or hiding something, but I will take that risk rather than compromise my ethics. I have only looked at information publicly available, but looking at and compiling for distribution are two very different things.
I know that Jenny Trout was born on July 15, 1980, in Michigan, as Jennifer Lynne Armintrout. I do not have similar information on JLA. As such, I do not feel comfortable reporting that they were born with nearly identical names.
But additionally, I’m not sure how relevant it is from an ethical standpoint, except that it is the defense repeatedly brought up.
Author names and legal names are two different things. Whether we choose to write under a name we picked out of a hat or one we have on our driver’s license, we need to consider the impact of that name. Just as Katy Perry doesn’t perform under her legal name (Katherine Hudson) because of the confusion that would cause with the actress, authors need to be careful of the confusion they can cause when they use a distinctive name someone else is already using.
It is possible to do this accidentally–or think that the addition of a middle initial will be enough–but when it becomes clear that confusion is still causing a problem, there is a moral imperative to change. If you accidentally step on someone’s foot, you apologize and get off of their foot. If you keep standing on it, that’s no longer an accident.
Even the passion this has stirred in the hearts of fans of both authors is yet another reason why I backed away from releasing new books for most of 2018. I am hoping 2019 is a better year for those of us who write, and those who publish, but mostly for our readers.