• September 2, 2014

What’s in a Name?

Coming to terms with one’s identity is a lifelong struggle

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I was in my office going over the usual laundry list of institutional concerns—a forthcoming accreditation visit, faculty searches, tenure recommendations—when my editor called to tell me there was a problem with the cover of my soon-to-be released book about Mark Twain.

"Your name doesn’t work," she said. "Particularly the Skandera part. Too long, too many a’s."

I wondered if I was being punked. I calmly told her that my name had always worked reasonably well; I had been a college president for eight years and had four other books published using that name with all those unfortunate a’s. She was unmoved: "Your name is too long, so I am just going to use Trombley."

I played what I thought was my trump card: "My parents are still alive. They will want to see my name." She batted that argument away as though it were a soft, slow pitch. Her job was to make the book successful, she said, and two long names on the book jacket would be distracting.

I didn’t so much cave in as shut down, and she took my silence for agreement.

"Solzhenitsyn would be screwed," I thought.

A short time later, the dummy copy of the book jacket arrived with my new name, "Laura Trombley." Nice and tight, with only a few vowels and lots of room for cover art. I propped it up on the kitchen counter and tried to convince myself that this was OK, but it didn’t settle well with me. I dropped my son off at his middle school and phoned my agent from the car. I tried to explain the situation, using my best rational tone of voice. But she said she agreed with my editor: My name was too long, too hard to pronounce, and really, this was for the best. I tried to respond and to my horror, began to weep uncontrollably.

The words burst from me: "Look, I’m adopted. Skandera comes from my parents. Trombley is my married name. None of these names were chosen by me, but they’re the only ones I’ve got. Furthermore, my husband is in the middle of divorcing me, and I don’t want my ex-husband’s name to be the only one on a book that took me 16 years to write."

By this point, I was so distraught I had to pull over.

Shocked that I had revealed something so personal to a professional acquaintance when I had held it close for so long, I tried to figure out why I had violated my self-imposed omertà. Perhaps it was the strain of the divorce, or the imperial way in which the name decision had been made, as though, if I were really business-savvy or a true sophisticate, I would understand. Or maybe I had just finally grown weary of carrying the hidden weight of my past all these years.

Ultimately, my intimidating agent called my formidable editor, and my tripartite name was reinstated. I have kept both copies of the jacket—one with my full name, one without. The immediate issue of my name seemed to be resolved, but not the issue of my identity. I learned a hard lesson: For the adopted, coming to terms with one’s identity is a lifelong struggle.

"Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives," Jeanette Winterson wrote so eloquently in her memoir. "A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb."

As a result, we wrestle with existential blanks: What were the circumstances of my birth? Why was I given away? Why do I feel and look so different from my adopted family? All this inevitably leads us to the dangerous ur-question that dangles swordlike above us: Why wasn’t I enough?

And there are more-practical concerns: Every medical form serves as a reminder that my past is a tabula rasa when I write "unknown" over questions about my family’s medical history.

For the past 30 years, I’ve contemplated those questions within an academic culture animated by discussions and battles over identity politics. It may seem at times to those outside academe that we on the inside have spliced ourselves into fragments: gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual and gender orientation. One possible conclusion might be that being the sum of your parts is no longer a desirable state; that instead, there’s a fascination with reductionism—perhaps in this post-postmodernist world, it is a fantasy to believe in an identifiable and cohesive self.

But this mash-up of genealogy, race, ethnicity, and historical circumstance constitutes the me I have constructed, and I weigh those elements against my professional identity as a scholar and college president—where I am always conscious that female presidents constitute just 26 percent of the total, and that divorced presidents who are single mothers constitute such a statistically small number that we have been rendered nearly invisible.

My academic training has enabled me, in my professional life, to question assumptions about what constitutes areas worthy of scholarly investigation and thought, and who is represented within academe, along with the power structures that support and withhold advancement. In more personal terms, my interest in biography, women’s studies, and feminist theory has taught me to see myself through the filters of race, ethnicity, class, and gender and to examine how they interact with one another—and to peel back and finally strip the layers of so-called normalcy.

So identity and ethnicity are subjects I have long contemplated. But they have seized even more of my attention over the past two years, since Pitzer was informed by legal counsel that our current faculty-search policies had to be changed because the institution had achieved gender parity and a racial diversity of 40 percent. We were told that the college could no longer demonstrate "redress" for the purposes of affirmative action, and that therefore new practices had to be enacted.

This has led to extensive dialogue about the legal definition of affirmative action; and the historical constructions of race, gender, and ethnicity. In a faculty email exchange in 2012, a professor wondered if I understood that I had been endorsed by the faculty for my initial hire only "due to gender (and white racial) ‘preference.’ "

Against this backdrop, I have been thinking about my personal history. For most of my life, I have felt as though I am a historical blank, wandering in an epistemological wilderness, since many distinguishing aspects of my past and origin were unknown. That blankness has been reinforced over the years by assumptions made on the basis of my physical appearance.

Early on, guided by my father’s values, I decided that what held the greatest meaning for me, what most helped me give order to my identity chaos, was work. Marlow in Heart of Darkness was speaking to me: "I like what is in work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others."

I’ve spent most of my life finding succor in teaching, scholarship, and administration, a welcome distraction from facing personal questions that pose huge emotional risks and for which there are no easy answers. I was born during a cruel time for the adopted; the 1960s was an era when such transactions were considered "closed," and basic information was routinely and legally withheld. And yet I cannot escape or pretend to ignore my past. It walks with me every day.

Living in the intellectual realm encouraged me to reject an artificial wholeness that had never felt comfortable or right to me. My scholarly work from the start has been all about deconstructing biographical portrayals of the carefully collected and presented "self." Take Mark Twain. For years I have been hell-bent on dismantling the white, Hal Holbrookian, freedom-fighter, secular-saint image that scholars and the public have embraced for so long, and instead have tried to reveal Samuel Clemens as he lived, breathed, hated, drank, and loved—all of the warring, churning, disparate parts of him that constituted his genius.

I was always acutely aware that "Twain" would have hated my work—he knew that there was safety in carefully painted portraits. He created an idealized self that he knew people would cheer: "I am not an American. I am the American," he crowed, quoting his friend Frank Fuller. For years Twain wore hand-tailored, perfectly fitted white suits, encouraging photographs wherever he went. Never was a spot allowed to stain the snowy cashmere. Twain had made himself picture-perfect.

In retrospect, I realize that my scholarly work was reflecting my own struggles with identity. As I stripped Clemens down to the person he was behind his self-created image, I would use the bits and pieces I was able to discover about myself to shred the tableaux vivants forced upon me and to figure out who I was.

My adoptive parents told me I was a "chosen child," and my father always felt that we had a special bond because he, too, was an orphan. As I went through my 20s, I became increasingly curious about the details of my birth and genealogy. Pushing aside dusty boxes in my parents’ garage, I found a legal file and contacted the adoption agency, still in business, to ask a basic question: "What was the name of the hospital where I was born?" I received a brief reply politely informing me that they would not tell me. Shaking with fury, I refused to accept a casual denial of what I deemed to be a basic human right.

As I grew up, my adoptive parents’ pasts were pressed upon me as my own. My father was Czech-American, and my mother was Irish-American. While everyone confronts issues of identity to varying degrees, adopted people face a kind of "double consciousness" created when you have no knowledge of your origins and are surrounded by family members who resemble one another but not you. (Helpful strangers constantly pointed out that I was a pale, tall, skinny redhead in a family of petite, tanned, plump brunettes.)

When I was very young, probably around 5 or 6, I became agoraphobic as a result of people repeatedly asking me where I got "my pretty red hair." Intensely shy as I was, my standard response was "I’m adopted." After one such exchange—in the basement of the Sears store in Inglewood, Calif., where my elderly female questioner was obviously startled by my response and apologized—my adoptive mother pulled me aside and suggested that in the future I tell people that I had a red-haired aunt who lived in New York.

It took a long time before I understood that, for some, telling people the circumstances of my birth was the equivalent of pinning on my chest the red label of illegitimacy—a word my father forbade me ever to use. And so my tall-tale telling began in earnest. That exercise became increasingly wearing over the years, although at times I enjoyed elaborating on my story of a red-haired, hot-dog-truck-owning aunt who fearlessly combed the streets of lower Manhattan looking for customers for her kosher wieners.

I decided to approach finding out about my roots in the same manner that I do my scholarly work—by performing meticulous research. I discovered a cottage industry of individuals willing to assist me, some because they felt that adopted people had the right to know who they were and some who wanted remuneration. For $2,500, a dealer could obtain from the adoption agency a copy of my confidential file, with all the identifying information, in 24 hours. But as a self-supporting graduate student with student loans, I couldn’t write that check. I also found the prospect of buying information ethically and morally bankrupt. In fact, it made me physically ill.

After years of sleuthing, I located my birth record, which revealed the name of the Salvation Army unwed-mothers’ home where my 19-year-old birth mother had been sent to live by her parents when she was three months pregnant. I also unearthed the names of my birth mother, grandparents, and great-grandparents, and where they all attended college.

I was less successful finding details about my birth father; nevertheless, I discovered the initials for his first name and last names, that he had red hair, was 26 at the time of my birth, and had served in the military. My background on my birth mother’s side was German, English, Irish, French, and Scottish—no particular surprises there—and on my birth father’s side Dutch, Scottish, and Irish. His mother, unexpectedly, was Spanish. In my adoption papers, I found a brief mention of my birth grandmother described as "dark in complexion." Strikingly, hers is the only instance in all of my adoption materials where the shade of skin color is noted.

My greatest desire was always to find my first name, the one I was born with, and that was the hardest to uncover.

My greatest desire was to find my first name, the one I was born with, and that was the hardest to uncover. But find it I did: Sharmen. Sharmen L. Wheeler Gallegos. I love the name Sharmen. It doesn’t sound like a girl’s name, or even a first name. A name like that only invites more questions, and what the initial "L" stands for remains a secret.

Like Chambers in Pudd’nhead Wilson, after a lifetime of being identified and identifying as white, I now know that I am also of Hispanic origin. Yet, unlike Twain’s story, my narrative ends on a positive note.

Like my father, like Conrad, I still believe that work matters, and so would Twain. But equally important is knowing about the person who does the work, whether it be a fatherless boy growing up poor in Hannibal, Mo., in the early half of the 19th century, or a little redheaded girl in Los Angeles in the 20th century. And knowing it’s safe and OK to talk about that—value is found in our parts, not just the sum total.

All the pieces of me are doing pretty well these days. My book, published under the name with all those vowels, has sold well. My aunt is what she always was—a fiction, just like Mark Twain. I claim all my names now and sometimes toy with the idea of naming myself. To live in the 21st century means that it is increasingly possible to celebrate all your different pieces instead of hiding them from judgmental eyes.

Laura Skandera Trombley, a literary scholar, is president of Pitzer College. Her most recent book is Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years (Knopf, 2010).

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