WHEN I WAS A KID—six years old—I had a classmate named “Frederika.” A fine name, my six-year-old self thought, and, promptly, I renamed myself for her (although my parents never quite caught up). Then, at twelve, I first heard the name “Zoë.” That was it! A perfect name for me. But, again, my parents wouldn’t sign on, and the Zoë I could have been died an unremarked death.
When I was sixteen, I named myself “Star,” and faithfully penned a red-Bic star onto my forehead every day for a year. This was a slightly more successful renaming. (In fact, having now returned to the town where I endured teen-hood, occasionally, I run into someone who greets me with a “Hi, Star! It’s been a while!”)
At 19, after watching SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER for the 13th time, I adopted a new last name: “Mangano,” in honor of John Travolta’s social-climbing love interest, Stephanie Mangano. (And, okay, although I’m a little embarrassed to admit to it, I was known as MJM by my closest friends for a few years after, “Marvelous Jamie Mangano.” What can I say? I was young and the actual requirements of the world were still a mystery to me.)
In an earlier blog post, I talked about POEMCRAZY, in which author Susan Wooldridge discusses the act of renaming as a way to resuscitate some aspect of ourselves that may be starved for oxygen. “New names seem to change people,” she says.
In the POEMCRAZY chapter “Our Real Names,” Ronnie, a young man in juvenile hall renames himself, thusly:
Let’s talk about death.
Yesterday my name was James.
Today, it’s tossing helium dream.
Tomorrow, my name will be
Gerald Flying off the Cliff,
Inside my name is
and a lotta hope.
My parents named me for a racehorse, Jamie K., who gave Native Dancer a run for his money in the Preakness and the Belmont a few years before I was born. This naming, perhaps, explains my early interest in horses—in a family in which no one else has ever ridden or owned a horse. And while that’s a fun story, and “Jamie” is a perfectly acceptable name, I have always wondered…. If I had lived my life as a Frederika or a Zoë—or even as a Grace or a Claire—would I have experienced the world differently?
I guess I’ll never know. Because, ultimately—unlike actress Sigourney Weaver, who, born “Susan Alexandra Weaver,” renamed herself, at the age of 14, after a minor character (Sigourney Howard) in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel THE GREAT GATSBY—I let the name I was given harden around me. Until, now, it’s hard to tell where my name ends and I begin.
How about you? What secret names do you have hidden in the roll-call of your deepest self? Make a list of them! Next, write out a pivotal scene from your life as you remember living it. Finally, take one of your secret names and begin a third-person account of the same situation, starring someone who bears a strong resemblance to you, but who answers to the name you chose. Allow the scene to deviate from the one you remember—and allow your other-named self to experience a different outcome.