Why Changing My Name Was and Wasn't the Worst Thing I Ever Did

You might recognize my name—my byline, as we writers say, seizing this shard of shoptalk as our consolation prize for earning far less than we ever dreamed we would.


You might not recognize my name. Which would be sad. But also great.

In either case, you might look at my name now and think: Eww. Its uncertain pronunciation, its behold-my-lederhosen final i. You might say it's pretty, then mispronounce it with the accent on the second syllable.

In Scandinavia and Switzerland, where it's common and to which I bear no connections, it's pronounced AH-nuh-lee. Accent on the first syllable: "ah" as in "hurrah."

But I pronounce it ANN-uh-lee: "ann" as in "pants." For no reason at all.

See, that's the trouble. At age 26, I chose this name to replace the one my parents had given me. I changed it legally. Someone as anxiety-driven as myself should make big choices only when required, and this was not required.

My parents named me Sharon. It was the sixteenth most popular baby-girl name that year. Sharon sounded to me, and still sounds, like someone gobbling cereal or trying to sound sober. (I loathed my middle name too.)

Mom always said her only other choice would have been Susan, but it was "too common." Also Susan's long u, plus the long u in our surname, would, she said, "sound singsong," like someone chirruping toot toot

In fourth grade I vowed to change my name legally someday—to Candy, Cookie, Cherry, Cinnamon or Eden. 

Fast-forward seventeen years. College and anorexia had sidelined my attention. Then the name-change urge returned. My genius boyfriend called my childhood faves "sex-worker names," particularly Cookie. He mocked my new list: Angel, Melody, Dixie.

Unwilling to stand my ground, I began searching, reading, meditating, asking everyone what I should call myself.

Thus began months of embracing great names, then chucking them for random reasons such as rhymes with kidney.

Renaming oneself is a fairy-tale quest: half-blessing, half-curse, too galling for all but masterminds. It's why parents exist: to name us, thus spare us this dire rite.

Renaming oneself when one has low self-esteem could fuel 20,000 comic shticks. (Ashley? No, that's a name for pretty girls!) I could create a stage show—if I had high self-esteem.

And the rite could go on forever, as the list of extant names plus all names as-yet-uncreated expands into space/time: epochal, magical, mathematical. And booby-trapped.

You know how tattoos broadcast whatever their wearers loved at a specific time and thought they always would? Hence all those Goth, SpongeBob and Lolcat tats? 

That's how it is with legally changed names. Wherever you are at that time, whatever and whomever matters to you at that moment, shapes your everlasting brand.  

Engaging in a might-be-temporary neo-pagan phase? Studying film? Believe yourself to be an elf, part-wolf and/or from Jupiter? Hello, Snotra Wormwood-LaDolceVita.

At 26, I was pretentious. That's tragic, because at other ages I've been other things: a beachcomber, a dishwasher, a student of Hawaiian dance, of Chinese, of the Wild West. 

To current-day me, pretense is as cringeworthy as having been in jail. At 26, I jubilantly dwelt in a smug, self-worshipping college town where few guffaw and toddlers are taught Sanskrit. I still live here, but not jubilantly.

Choosing a new name while liking this town means selecting something pompous, not in the good-day-milady sense but foreign, political, trance-induced and/or non-Judeo-Christianly spiritual. At 26, I knew two men who changed their names to (slightly altered, for privacy) Grandpa Holy Giovanni and Bréhhoueaeaeé Dakotahemingway.

That's simply how it was. 

One day, after nearly a year of searching, I saw in a library book the name Anneli. It looked fleetingly sleek to me. My late grandmother's name was Ann. We were not close. I thought selecting this name might outrage my parents less. 

So that's the answer. This is why I have this name: not because it was given to me. Not because I found religion, but because I was slightly crazy, tired of searching, and clamped this nomenclatural ball-and-chain around my own leg. 

My boyfriend didn't hate it. True, he warned that everyone, until the end of time, would mispronounce it uh-NEL-ee. That seemed impossible to me.

I hastened to the DMV—in those pre-9/11 days, this was the basic way to change one's name in California—and ordered a driver's license bearing the name Anneli S. Rufus. The S, as in Harry S Truman, stood for nothing at all.

The next day, I regretted it. My therapist asked: But isn't the name you chose a name you love?

Of course not, I blared. I should have picked Paige or Jocelyn! 

Within weeks, I hated my name. Not that it's hideous. It simply has nothing to do with me. I refused to pronounce it European-style, so instead said its first syllable flatly, as in bat. Already I could hardly bear either to hear or say it. My boyfriend said: You could call yourself Annie. This made me want to die. 

Within a year, this name appeared on my first published book—then, two years hence, the next, which sealed my fate as changing bylines is, for authors, career suicide. This name, its dancing-in-my-dirndl final i a cruel taunt, has crowned thousands of articles and every application, license, letter, credit card and other document through more than half my life. 

So if you knew me long ago and wondered why I changed my name—like, did I join a cult?—or if you knew me only after 26 and wondered whether I am Scandinavian or Swiss (I'm not) or why I have this name—forgive me, Father: This is why.

And, to this moment, whenever I write, hear, say or see my legal first name, I recoil, my error echoing down the decades. How ironic: Hate the name that replaces your former, also hated, name while having a career that mandates saying/writing/seeing your name constantly. Wanting millions to know it, yet squeezing your eyes shut when you say it just as others squeeze theirs shut while barfing in the street. 

I know, I know: Get over it. Millions bear unrulier names than mine. I knew a guy named Dong. Sure, it means "East" in Mandarin, but he was born in Omaha. My boyfriend-now-husband's name rhymes with that of a popular antihistamine. He doesn't care!

Ah, watch me jape. Japing is mainly all I've ever done, barking like a trained seal famished for your applause. I'm japing now about one of the dumbest things I've ever done, a choice I'm doomed forever to display, like horns. (Were I to drop dead, God forbid, first responders would find my ID cards.) I jape although I ache, thinking of Mom and Dad pronouncing carefully this name by which I mercilessly slew the ones they gave me. I jape knowing that my crisis is comparatively peewee: What's a name compared to war, divorce or amputation? Name change < < < gender change. 

But.

Identity issues are no joke. I'm afflicted with what I call the Uncertainty Curse, having grown up believing contradictions: e.g. God is good. And causes cancer! I'm clever and nice. But everybody hates me! Sweets are heavenly. Nothing is worse than gaining weight!

And no, I can't change my first name again. Do it once and be thought creative, crazy and/or criminal. Do it again and everybody tiptoes silently away. After I became Anneli, one friend laughingly called me Wah-Wah Pedal. Others called me Sharon.

So.

That inconclusive S was an escape hatch. Year on year, I told myself: Select a middle name starting with S. No one ever need know. It will be your private requital. 

How I tried! Those countless silently test-driven syllables and scribbled "signatures." 

I like names that are ordinary English nouns. Sage. Summer. But not those. Move on. Simone? So beautiful, but alien to me, mainly because it's beautiful. Sloane? Saadia? Serena? No, no, no. (Insert footage of pages flying off a calendar.)

Savannah? Sophia? Sabrina? Too fancy. Too female. Too adult. I've never not had identity issues. (More calendar pages.) Sonia? Serafina? Sylvaine? Yes. But no. Shana? No! People would rhyme it three ways: with Donna, banana and Macarena.

Late in life, Mom sometimes said: I should have named you Stephanie! I wish I'd known that name back then! As if she'd grown up in a cave, or Leichtenstein, or someplace lacking baby-name books. But by now I've known too many Stephanies. And Sarahs. Both names seem to me already occupied, like theater seats. Skye? Too self-confident. Desperation: Sofia. Saskia.

Nouns, again: Sable. Saxon. Sparrow. Dear God, has it come to this?

Then one day, literally shining, out of nowhere: Star. In the celestial, not Beyoncé sense. Say what you want about it. I don't care. I'm not your trained seal anymore. Then—hyphenated to it, because why the heck not, Josselin, a version of that too-late favorite prophesied in my therapist's office long ago. This version is phonetic. It's also the name of a French town. I'm not pretentious. I just have fond memories of France. 

See how desperate I sound? Still seeking your permission? No. No. I've been to the courthouse. I have legalized my hyphenated middle name. (Why am I telling you all this? Once, at a new job, I said It's my birthday and a coworker said, Should I care?)

But hey: I plan, sporadically, to change my byline. Career suicide? Name recognition <<< nausea each time I see the name I chose at 26. Fans, if I have them, might not realize my new works are mine. But hey. I no longer crave fame. My legal first name will still jeer at me teutonically from ID cards and checks and my entire portfolio. On the covers and spines of every book I've ever written—every copy, everywhere—it will always look like a hideous, blood-bloated leech: whose Latin phylum name, exquisitely, is Annelida.

I will—why the heck not?—sign some things "Joss." Because I can. In 18th-century Chinese Pidgin, derived from the Portuguese deus, it means "God." I'm. Not. Pretentious.

You who know me might ask what to call me. Well, why call me anything? In what contexts is saying names really required? How often must we shout to find our friends in crowds? Enunciating the names of those right in front of us sounds desperate—e.g. "That's an oryx, Nathan" or "Mitsuko, tell me more." 

Had I a different personality, I could say "Call me Star! It's short for Starfish!" which I kind of wish it was, or "as in Star Wars," which I never liked.

I could say "as in chewy Starburst candies!" or "It's short for Stardust," but stardust contains the same four consecutive letters found in bastard. I could say, "Star—as in Telstar, Lodestar and/or Polestar," but those last two suddenly sound pornographic. I could say, "like 'Hitch your wagon to a star.'" I would. But no. Don't call me Star. It's more than just a name to me. It's a sacred sigil. A talisman.

In any case, I'm not your creepy kindergarten classmate prancing through the sandbox shouting, Call me Ariel! then, one hour later, Call me Heidi-Pippi-Angelina-Katniss-Mononoke-Madeline! 

If I say anything, which I might not, I will say "Call me Joss! It rhymes with floss and moss and sauce and semigloss and Ross!"

Tragically, I will to some extent always be known as vowely, alien, how-do-you-say-it Anneli. This is my fault completely. This is one thing for which my parents cannot be blamed. OK, they can. They could have named me Stephanie.

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