Perhaps tired of hearing me complain about my name, my mom suggested I change it more publicly when I went to college. It would be a fresh start, with new people, in an entirely different part of the country. She even bought me pink stationery with “Phoebe” in green lettering at the top, and on the day my parents helped me move into my dorm, my first order of business was ripping down from the door the piece of paper that read Tricia Reilly. I introduced myself to my suitemate and her parents as Phoebe, and for the next few hours, my father tried in vain to avoid using direct address while unloading boxes of clothes and school supplies. I think I glared at him once or twice for his error before giving up and explaining that my first name was actually Tricia, but I went by my middle name, Phoebe. This was a lie I maintained for several years—it seemed less extreme, and I didn’t want people thinking I was weird-in-a-bad-way for doing what I did. (I’m very controlling, and any weirdness needed to be broadcast by me, not whispered about behind my back.)
But none of us can really control anything, especially not how other people see us, and the energy I spent trying to do so was more exhausting than I’d anticipated. I was anxious every time a teacher did the first roll call of the semester, lest a fellow classmate shoot a querying glance in my direction when I answered to Tricia. People would ask, and I would trot out the middle-name story, or they would occasionally flatter me by saying how much they loved the name Phoebe until I eventually felt compelled to tell the truth—Holden, AOL, etc. I’ve still never officially told one of my best friends, whom I met during the first week of orientation, that Phoebe was a full-on fabrication. I assume she put it together over the years, and fortunately for me she has such a terrible memory that she may not even remember the lie to begin with. I also realize that nobody cares about this as much as me. People will call you what you tell them to call you, and they won’t think very much about it.
Still, my adopted name on other people’s lips sometimes strikes me as peculiar and conspiratorial, like I’ve drafted them into a fiction, and this is especially true if I’m being chastised for something—like when a friend tries to emphasize their frustration by saying, “But Phoebe, you could’ve called to cancel plans sooner!” I have to fight the urge to laugh, an uncomfortable at-a-funeral giggle, because their concerns are real, but I am absurd. Who are you talking to exactly? I think. I feel like a fraud for having needed to do something so bold, but also so superficial. This rebirth that was designed to be liberating, to free me from the boring life Tricia was destined to live, ended up doing the opposite. It constantly threatened to expose me as one of Holden Caulfield’s loathed phonies, someone overly preoccupied with how they are perceived, which made me even more self-conscious. Calling myself Phoebe was like getting a tattoo—it was a dramatic and defiant and fairly permanent way of saying, “This is who I am now,” except I didn’t know who that was. (And I am definitely the type of person who would have regretted a tattoo.)
But Phoebe was more than just an accoutrement. When I was writing this, I was reminded of something Joan Didion wrote in her essay “On Self-Respect”: “Self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself…. Character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” I wonder if changing my name was a way of refusing to take responsibility for my own life. Nobody is destined for popularity or fame or success based on a name. I have, for instance, imagined at length an Oscar acceptance speech for best actress (or supporting), but I never actually tried to pursue an acting career, even though I loved being on stage for the small parts I played in high school musicals. I didn’t think I had the face or the confidence for it. Changing my name just seemed like an easier way to fulfill the fantasy of being someone more exciting than I was.
Instead I became a writer, a seemingly more attainable goal. When I met with what I considered my biggest professional success a couple of years ago, it was the first time I saw how the consequences of being Phoebe affected other people, meaning my parents. I wrote a story about Courtney Love (née Harrison) for Spin, and my byline appeared on the magazine’s cover. On one hand, this was the crystallization of a teenage dream: I started going by Phoebe online around the same time I discovered Hole; there was one day when I refused to go to a dentist appointment because I was so sure I was talking to Courtney on AIM—in the late ’90s, she trolled the internet with screen names like lilacs00 and clove1234—but I was most certainly chatting with a similarly well-informed fan/impostor—another teenager, probably, who was also using this newish medium to pose as someone more confident, cooler, and seemingly more worthy of attention. (Courtney tends to share too rapidly to spell-check, and this person’s typing was impeccable.)
On the other hand, no one is entirely self-made, or at least I wasn’t. I owed a lot of my success to my parents, who drove me to Hole concerts, who paid for my education (and the eyebrow ring). When the magazine came out, they were proud of me, even though they couldn’t have cared less about the article’s subject. My mom relayed an anecdote about a co-worker of hers who had asked if it bothered her that the byline didn’t say Tricia. Of course not, she told me she’d responded, but the fact that she felt the need to tell me about the incident in the first place left me with the notion that maybe it did bother her, just a little. Even though the name change was her idea, I suspect she didn’t anticipate the life my new name would acquire, or that it would be more than a phase—and it made me worry that going by Phoebe professionally is something of a betrayal to her, the person most important to me, the woman who named me.
So why don’t I just change my name back? Undo it? I’ve thought about it. For starters, I think it would be confusing to people, and it would require me to make more explanations than I already have. Many people who know me from before tell me, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t call you Phoebe,” just like the people who know me from afterwards will say, “You’re so not a Tricia.” This is encouraging, because it proves that, on the surface at least, you are whoever you say you are.
I still don’t really like the name Tricia. Ironically, it’s probably less popular than Phoebe at this point, but that’s not even important anymore. Tricia is my “real” name. Distancing myself from it didn’t allow me to shake the things about myself I found disappointing. Those feelings of inadequacy and insecurity never went away. Phoebe was supposed to be someone who just didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought of her, but I do, I give a fuck. I always did. ♦