This story, about my own experience with “Naming Ourselves,” the theme of the Autumn 1997 issue of Sagewoman in which it appeared as a column, discusses both names I have “taken” on from the outside, and one name I gave a part of myself on the inside, this latter by far, the most significant.
Naming Ourselves: A Personal Story
by Ann Kreilkamp
When I was young I had the obvious nicknames, “Annie Capanie,” “Annie Bananie.” As a bashful teenager I received another one, “Cheyenne.” My mother, however, has always called me “Anna.” I’ve always loved it when she called me this, and once even considered changing my name to “Anna.” But then I realized, it is not so much the name, it is the way that she pronounces the name. She calls softly, “Anna?”
In 1963 I got married. And underwent my first initiation as a married woman. I disappeared into his name. As I disappeared into his life. He wanted a secretary and a maid, not a wife. Six years later I asked him to leave. My doctoral dissertation carried the name “Kreilkamp-Cudmore,” though this awkward hyphenation didn’t last beyond that document. In the autumn of 1972 I flew to California and my first real job, as a teacher in a new experimental college. Once again, I was known as “Ann Kreilkamp,” my father’s name; I chafed under it, being really angry with him, though I didn’t know why.
One year later, I was fired from that job as “too experimental,” and moved to a Mendocino commune. Changing my name to “Annie Ordinary,” I started a part-time business of cleaning sidewalks in front of local stores. The contradiction in this new name mirrored my own. On the one hand, I was doing penance (and cleaning streets) for my arrogance at New College of California. On the other hand, that name stuck out like a sore thumb, was definitely not ordinary! I was still smarting from the humiliation of being fired, and my name-change was more drama than true humility.
Within another six months I had returned to my old home town, and married my high school sweetheart. I told him I wanted to keep my maiden name, even though his, “High,” would have been short and sweet. This fact, that the editor of the local paper’s new wife didn’t take his name, became grist for the local rumor mill.
I had kept my own name, to announce to all my separate identity. I thought it would free me up, despite being married. It did not. The way people looked at me, what they expected of me, the little slot they put me in as “his wife” . . . I was not mature enough in my early 30s to play with others’ expectations, to clearly distinguish internally between the real me and my social role. The real me kept disappearing.
When we bought a house, the real estate agency wouldn’t allow me my real name, and instead typed in “Ann High, aka Ann Kreilkamp” — as if my real name were a police alias! And when we lovingly divorced, after three years, the judge refused to look at the document which said “High v. Kreilkamp,” insisting that it had to be “High v. High.” We refused to make the change and sent it back to him. He threw it out again. But we were adamant.
When our hour came in court, the first thing the judge did was deliver a lecture about how, because of me, he had researched the subject in British Common Law, and discovered that I was correct, I could keep my maiden name as a married woman. As he pronounced this he proudly beamed down upon me, as if I were a precocious child, getting a high grade for an obscure legal point.
I married again, a few years later, and this time whether or not I would keep my name didn’t even come up for discussion. This marriage was hell; I had hooked up, it would turn out, with an alcoholic sociopath, whose name, in contrast to “High,” was “Lowman”!
By the time I broke the spell of that nightmare I was 41 years old, in midlife crisis, and disgusted with the mess I had made with my life. I was facing my own addictions, knowing that sooner or later I would have to stop reaching for a cigarette, a joint, a cookie, another cup of coffee, a new lover — and actually feel the awfulness which filled that yawning hole inside.
But first I had to fall in love again. And this man was the perfect one, because he initiated me into the next phase of my life. Within a day of our meeting, he introduced me to Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child, a book that empathically details the inner experience of children who are reared by the tyrannical authoritarian methods of German parents. Miller calls such children emotionally abandoned, because they are not loved for themselves, but for how “good” their behavior.
I was dumbstruck in reading this book. Miller was talking about me, my childhood, my German father. For the first time, I was dipping into the feelings of my own early life, and right then and there I decided to name the little girl who still lived within me, “Orphan Annie.”
Then the man with whom I had fallen in love left me. Ouch! Perfect! I was abandoned. Just like when I was a child. Now the feelings of the present could be used to access feelings from the past. Now I did stop reaching for the substances I was abusing, somehow mustering the courage to just sit there, allowing in all the icky yucky awfulness, feeling my solar plexus fill with a black tarry ooze that pulled me down into hell — my own hell this time. I couldn’t pretend it was caused by another.
And I discovered, not with my mind, but with my belly: I wasOrphan Annie, that rejected child. That child who did not know love.
Over the months — and, ultimately, years — as I dialogued with Orphan Annie in my journal, as I sat there, rocking my body back and forth, my arms crossed, her little ghostly being inside them, I crooned to her, talked to her, soothed her pain, allowed her to beat her fists against my thighs, to kick my shins in rage. In re-parenting her, I grew myself up again. The now beloved child had her needs filled. She was no longer desperate and could move more gracefully into adolescence, young womanhood, her adult self.
Now, with one foot into my crone years, I still remember that near-decade long healing process with “Orphan Annie,” and the name itself calls up associations of sweet tenderness, of a kind of wistful secret specialness, which the two of us shared. Which no one else was privy to, which gave me back to myself.
In fact, the way I hear my mother’s soft “Anna?” reminds me of the feelings that come up when I remember the years with Orphan Annie. My own mother has mothered me, in that small way; I had to mother myself in a much more profound way to overcome the unconsciously pernicious influence of the tyrannical German father.
In 1990, I met Jeff Joel, the man who was to become my partner and 4thhusband. I’ll never forget the day he moved here to be with me and we walked into a restaurant I had frequented for years, and to which I held a discount card. The owner presented Jeff with his own plastic card, the name, “Jeff Kreilkamp,” emblazed on it in bold gold embossed letters. What a wonderful mistake the restaurant had made! I loved seeing Jeff’s face turn red as he looked at the name on the card. The tables were turned. At least one man had the privilege of feeling the loss of identity that goes with the loss of one’s own name.
During these proto-crone years, as I move to the center of my Self, to rest in that still point in our turning world, questions of identity no longer loom so large. Though I do keep my maiden (father’s) name, I’m no longer angry with him, and the whole question of names has also lost its charge. I exist in the center of my universe, as do you in yours. We meet as two pebbles thrown into a lake, their rings spreading out, crossing.
You can call me anything you like and I’ll probably respond. We might even end up playing! But when the Self calls, I turn and head on home.