I’ve always loved the idea of being able to start over. This fascination perpetuated my love for travel, moving place to place, the possibility that I could reinvent, transform, start over, let go of any pain, memories, negativity that held me back. Of course, I learned over time that moving doesn’t equate with being someone else.
As the saying goes, “Wherever you go there you are.” A lesson, I’ve definitely learned the hard way.
Change and reinvention always invoked a sense of possibility. For the same reasons, I always loved the idea of getting a new name. My last name, “Clark,” always sounded so boring, plain, and underwhelming. I wanted to be fabulous and the name “Katie Clark” could not have sounded more average. My mom told me that she wanted to name me Laine instead of Katherine, but my dad thought it was a bit too, “out there” and preferred very steady, versatile (you can shorten it!) name so they went with Katherine (Katie, Kate). I thought about this other name a lot: “Laine.” Laine was like the me of an alternate universe. I wondered what life I would have lived out if only they had gone with "Laine" instead of "Katherine." She sounded so extraordinary.
Since, I had basically been waiting for a name change my whole life, I never had a problem taking my husband’s last name when we got married. In Europe, I had a new marriage, a new life and a new last name: Leismer. It already sounded more exciting than “Clark.” My husband's grandmother was a first-generation immigrant to the U.S., which is how he first learned his first few words of German. The German pronunciation is “Lies-mer” pronounced softly, like “Lice-mehr.” The American pronunciation was a bit rough: “Liz-mer.” I liked to give it more of a French-flair: “Lis-MEHR,” and pronounced the “R” with a little roll. The funny thing was, after 7 years, I still don’t know how to pronounce it and each version felt a little off for me.
Ultimately, it never was my name, and I felt that.
When my husband and I decided to separate last fall, I immediately felt even stranger having this foreign last name. I knew it was never mine, and even more so, now that there is a very tangible separation and divorce on the horizon. For a divorced lady, the choice is often- keep the husband’s name or go back to a maiden name, but for me, neither choice feels right.
Regarding my maiden name, there is the boring factor, but actually it’s more than that. The name Clark came from my paternal grandfather who died alone from alcoholism. I barely knew him, but what I did know was that he was abusive and I’ve heard many stories about him throughout my life. My grandmother (Marlene) left him and had to raise 5 children on her own. He never quit drinking and emotionally abused my father until he was an adult. After I got sober, I started to associate my own alcoholism and history with him, and also, this name.
Clark was also the name that I had before I got sober. It was part my past, and something I wanted to let go of. I have mugshots with the last name “Clark.” “Katie Clark” wasn’t just a boring name, it was also the name that reminded me of a former self I wanted to transform away from. Not just the genetics and the dysfunction, but even the ways this genetic lineage played out in my own life.
I decided not only to change my last name, but, to make it up. It’s the only power I feel like I have over my name at the moment, and in this time of uncertainty and shifting identities, it feels important. When I told my friend Sam I was making up my own last name, he said to me: “I don’t know, people who make up their own names always give off the impression that they are having an identity crisis.”
Then he added, “But you don’t seem to care about that.”
I laughed, “I AM having an identity crisis!” I mean, you can’t get divorced and NOT have some kind of identity or existential crisis, but he was also right about the second part. It wouldn't be the first time. And, actually I know this is all okay, and part of the process, and again there is some part of me that is intrigued by the transformative process of starting over, superficially, by name, and actually.
The act of making up my own last name feels strange, like I am breaking rules: “Am I allowed to do this?” I made a long list of all of the last names I really thought were fun or fitting: Leone (means lion in Italian), Holly (so fun!), Day (literary), Vega (cool). The possibilities were endless, and yet, most of them had some historical or cultural significance and so from any list of practical or actual last names, I felt like I was appropriating.
In his retirement, my father has become obsessed with Ancestry.com and is constantly working on our family tree, having done research on our ancestors going back centuries. It’s remarkable to see his work, but also the fruits of his labor in exploring genealogy and connecting DNA: surprise, uncle ___ had no idea!
And, now I have a new cousin.
After I decided to change my last name, I wrote my Dad and asked if he had seen any interesting last names in our family tree, particularly maternal lineages that had gotten lost or forgotten. Taking up a maternal name wouldn’t feel so much as stealing, as reviving a lost name from a maternal line.
I scrolled through the tree and many of them were interesting and gave them some consideration: Pauley, Harris, Cato, McCabe, Wise, others impossible: VanBuskirk, Coakly, Hauger. But, in my quest to restore some feminine power and ancestry, look no further the tree itself and, of course, these are just paternal names tied to an earlier generation. So, there was no way of breaking away from patriarchy on this, but I still wanted to feel like I have some power, or that my identity is not some choice between aligning with my husband or my father.
I still needed a last name and started to think more creatively, considering the women in my family tree whom I admire. Hence, my great grandmother Elah (an orphan, once thought to run with Al Capone) my grandmother Marlene, my father’s mother (left an alcoholic husband and raised 5 children on her own, also a bright and creative woman who taught me to sew). I have always enjoyed the German pronunciation of this name (Marlene Deitrich), but also for Americans, that would translate into simply, “Marlena.”
So, this name, “Kate Marlena” is my attempt at restoring a maternal line, through my grandmother’s first name. It will also replace my middle name, and at some point, my last name. In Germany, I can’t legally change my name until after the divorce is finalized. So, while the passports and legal documents might have to stay the same for a while, I’m removing the last name on my social accounts, as well as where I can, as a writer, and professionally.
At this point, I have to have a name. In some ways, the power of a name comes from the fact that we don’t get to choose them, that they are given to us, indicating some kind of belonging. In narrative therapy, we talk about the power of naming. You get to choose how you describe a problem or conflict. The act of naming something gives you some agency and control over it. It is not an accident that my decision to rename is also tied to the two most significant and important decisions of my life- the decision to get sober, and the decision to leave my marriage. Wanting to restore a sense of control, power and agency over my name seems natural, but also necessary. Self-naming is an act of emancipation. It’s also an act of agency and empowerment, at a time when I could feel powerless. As far as myself, my identity, and own story, at this point in my life, I know enough to know, that I would like to have power over that.
AN UPDATE: After trying out Kate Marlena I've felt naked without a last name, and so I've added the surname "Leone" which means "fierce or brave warrior" from the Italian word for "lion" which I feel is an apt name for how I've been feeling and how I'd like to be going forward. So, after six months, this is where I have landed: Kate Marlena Leone.
And, that is how you make up your own name.