She Who Must Be Named
“Vanessa?” said the bartender, reading my name off the card that I had given her. “Anything else for you today?”
I briefly wonder if it’s worth it to correct her. I haven’t gone by Vanessa in about 20 years. It almost doesn’t seem like my name anymore. But, my banks, HR managers, and apparently bartenders know me as Vanessa, not knowing to call me by my much more pronounceable middle name.
I smile at her. “No, thanks,” I say.
My parents named me for actor Vanessa Redgrave and her mother Rachel Kempson. They were and still are big fans of the arts, and I certainly took well to being named after actors, working in theatre and film throughout my career. When I started school in Pennsylvania, some peers and teachers struggled to pronounce the first name and insisted on misspelling the middle name, but no one made a big deal about it. Then we moved south.
There, I, a weird Yankee girl among a bunch of Southern darlings, was ruthlessly picked on at school. It didn’t help that I, in a small Georgia town deeply afflicted with racism and de facto segregation, had a name that, in the area, was primarily used by people of color. While my white classmates mocked me for my “ethnic” name and called me things like “Banessa” (???), my POC classmates seemed to think I was appropriating it. In addition, people regularly butchered it, and some of my teachers refused to ever correct their mispronunciation.
After a few years of this, I decided that I needed a makeover. I’d been slowly eaten away by daily harassment and hiding under baggy T-shirts and bike shorts (which used to be acceptable attire for schoolgirls, believe it or not). I had bad hair and glasses, and unfortunately braces to boot. So I got flared pants, form-fitting blouses, and contacts. I found a new hairdresser. And I decided I needed a new name. Thankfully, I already had an alternative: my middle name, Rachel.
The transition was difficult. I quickly got used to telling all my new teachers what to call me, then having to remind them with each roll call. I got a lot of raised eyebrows. While it was quite common in Georgia for boys to go by their middle name, typically because their first name was their father’s name, it was highly unusual for girls to do so. Some teachers simply refused to do it. Meanwhile, my classmates thought it was hilarious. They’d tauntingly call me “Vanessa” (oddly, now they could pronounce it) to try to get my attention. I practiced not responding and only responding when they said, “Rachel.” They thought it was even funnier that I only turned my head when I heard my new name. Joke’s on them: that was exactly what I was trying to train them for.
Through the years, I got as used to being called Rachel as I did to having to go through the whole song-and-dance with each new teacher, professor, and employer. Cue endless eyerolls as they wrote my preferred name onto their roll call list or shift schedule, as though learning the name of someone they’d just met was such a massive inconvenience. Countless employers printed me nametags that read “Vanessa.” One big-box store did this, despite my having clearly told them what to call me, and then begrudgingly reprinted it as “Rachael.” I corrected them again, but was told to “just wear it.”
I started to really appreciate how much our names represent our identity. We think of ourselves as amalgamations of many attributes, yet the name ties them all together. The name is a unique identifier, a kind of password — even a misspelling means that it isn’t my name. I refused to wear the “Rachael” tag until they printed me a new one.
Thankfully, times changed, and especially with the rise of transgender rights activism, people started to better accommodate the fact that many people use names that aren’t their “legal” first name. Whether it’s a nickname, shortened name, middle name, or chosen name, people have started to accept and stop grumbling. Even HR forms increasingly have fields for “Preferred Name.”
Finally, I started to feel like the world accepted me as “Rachel.”
Then, I decided to throw a wrench into all my progress. I’d suffered a smear campaign by some jealous friends, I’d escaped an abusive relationship (actually, two or three), and I felt like “Rachel” no longer represented me, after having it screamed at me or shared in hurtful gossip. I considered going back to Vanessa, but that name seemed so alien to me. I wanted a fresh new name that would accompany my new social circle. I settled on Elle, the last syllable of “Rachel” made into a palindrome. It perfectly captured that a part of me had died after years of abuse, as well as my love of all things circular.
Most of the friends I’d kept adapted well to the new name, and every one new that I met, met me as “Elle.” I kept “Rachel” as my work name, and with that started to forge two identities: the professional, educated writer Rachel, and the quirky, extroverted performer Elle. At times, it’s been hard to shift between the two, especially when meeting old acquaintances or when one of my artist friends meets one of my work friends. And yet it’s empowering to be able to choose, to be able to shape my own existence in the world through the all-powerful symbol that is my name.
Names are how we address each other, how we define our place, how we acknowledge our family and personal history. Names are the markers of our identity, something that we turn to when we need direction in our lives, a reminder of who we are. Despite being only words, they’re important.
So, spell them right.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.