What’s in a name?


This past weekend, I attended a family reunion held deep in the heart of Tennessee. It was my stepfather’s family, and most of them  are from the areas surrounding Tennessee and Kentucky originally. The main three family name branches are “Kennedy” (my stepdad’s last name), Dunn and Bowman. For the first evening and for a picture taking on Sunday, we each wore somewhat goofy t-shirts with the family clan name on it, as a way to identify who came from what group. I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of attending this family reunion in the first place, for a number of reasons. First, having been to one of these things 20 some years ago, I wasn’t relishing the idea of coming face to face with a large number of very politically and culturally conservative people. Following along these lines, I imagined how “other” me and my brothers and my mother would seem in the midst of all this, and I (Jewish like them, gay, and lefty almost to the point of communist) even more “other” and ill-fitting that the closest of my family members.

As it turned out, I was mostly wrong and had a decent time. While 3 or 4 people of a certain generation were indeed quite close-minded and vocal about it, their children — about my age and below, seemed for the most part to be delightful, thoughtful people with much to share and we all had a nice time together. And with a couple of exceptions, the entire group seemed to be on their best behavior, avoiding any rancor and putting their best foot forward to become acquainted or reacquainted with the entire family. And really when you looked into it, many of us had reasons of personal history to consider ourselves “other” if we wanted to. Some had lived in far away countries for most of their lives. Some had been married many times. Some were gay. Some were married with no children. Some were socially awkward. And so on. When you get down to it, a definition of outsider status is often and as much the perception and choice of the outsider as it is the judgment of the insider. And of course we also had plenty reasons to consider ourselves “part of” if we so chose. And so by the end of the first evening, lubricated by food and beer and card games and good cheer, I relaxed into the experience.

Upon returning to Indianapolis (from whence I would fly back to New York) I began to pack my things. I held up the shirt with the words “Kennedy Clan” on it, and made a joke to my mother and stepfather. “Well, I have the shirt. I should probably just change my last name to Kennedy.” My mother smiled mischievously and said in a low voice with a smile “It would probably really piss off your dad”. To which I responded that anyway, I felt much closer to Bob (my stepfather) that to my biological father. I mean, what defines a father? It is someone who takes care in raising you, teaching you about life. Someone who loves you and is proud of you and sets a good example for how a person should be in the world. A father is there for you, someone you can talk to, get advice from. A father is never beyond reach or reproach, but nevertheless is held in high regard for their part in raising you. In all these ways and so many many more, Bob is (and has been since I was 9 years old) my father. He is the one I call on father’s day, the one I refer to when speaking of my dad to friends. I almost never use the “step” except to clarify for someone. My mother and stepfather have been married for over 30 years, and I see no “step” in him (or my sisters and other immediate “step” family. We are all just family.)

And then I started to turn the idea of changing my last name into an intellectual exercise. What would be involved and what would be the potential benefits and drawbacks? There are a slew of things to consider:

Wiping the slate clean. One of the advantages (or disadvantages, depending on how you perceive it) would be that this would be a kind of breakpoint and make it harder for people to reconstruct my history. In internet and info searches I would be a kind of newborn, with a whole new history to build up. Of course it would be easy to join the past to the future if you did a little digging, but it would not be obvious at first.  It would also be harder for people to recognize my past accomplishments (what few there are).

Denying one’s heritage. Interesting point, but who really thinks of “Suess” as a Jewish last name (at least in this country. Apparently the Nazis thought it was.) In any event, it isn’t even a longstanding family name, having been changed by my great great grandfather from something like “Ledner” a few generations ago. And although I feel culturally quite Jewish in many ways, I am certainly not a believer in Jewish religious tenets.

Branding. My friend John (who I ran this idea by) thinks this is a bad idea. That he associates my last name with my “brand”, something that he likes and that I have built up over the years of knowing him. I don’t like thinking of myself as a brand (with good or bad associations) anyway, so this doesn’t hold much weight for me. Still, John associates good feelings and identification with my name and what it conjures for him.

Privacy/Anonymity. I have written at length in the past about our loss of privacy in the internet age. Obviously if I was more worried about it, I wouldn’t blog or have a professional website. Or I would at least blog under a pseudonym. But it is at least a slightly enticing idea that I would go from having a name that only about 3 people on Facebook currently share to one of 804. Someone trying to find out about you on Google before a job interview or date would have a much harder time of it. On the other hand, if you ever want to stand out it will be more difficult.

Spelling. I would never again have to spell my last name for people.

Unknowns. Would I stop receiving junk mail for a while? Would I have to build an entirely new credit score? If someone willed the old me a million dollars would I still be able to collect? Would I suddenly get recruited by the Irish for all manner of  parade and drinking game? Would people see me in a different light? Would meeting a brand new person result in a completely different flash judgement of who I am, depending on nothing other than a difference in last name? What happens to my passport, would I have to get a new one immediately in my new name? Would doing so trigger some FBI terrorist search? Would people think I was doing this to cash-in on the recent death of Edward Kennedy?

By the way, it is surprisingly easy in most places to actually change one’s name. I don’t think I will actually do it, but the reflection on it has been interesting. What do you think?