What’s in a Name?

I was inspired recently by a thought-provoking piece published in the latest Adoptee Voices e-zine by fellow Adoptee Voices writer, Logan Juliano, entitled “The Protagonist.” In it, she playfully deconstructs the intersubjective triangle we invoke whenever we identify ourselves as adoptees:

Each role requires the other in a powerful, intersubjective way, creating a dynamic performance of family. The birth family could not exist without the adoptee and adoptive household. By definition, the adoptee would not exist without the two family structures. Each part of the triangle depends on the other, just as a hostage cannot exist without a hostage-taker.

I am an adoptee. In so identifying myself, I affirm that I am constituted by the triangle of relationships that binds me to my adopters and biological family along the axis of the event of my adoption. But do I want to identify myself within this matrix? Do I have a choice?

The question of choice is an especially delicate one. I did not choose to be adopted. I certainly did not choose to be relinquished and adopted twice! Furthermore, the arc of my adoption story weaves through several names, imposed on me, then discarded. In fact, by the age of nine, I had already had three different names.

Logan is right: a hostage cannot exist without a hostage-taker, or in my case, hostage-takers. And just who is the hostage who has been taken hostage twice, by two different sets of actors? When I identify  myself as an adoptee, which set of adopters am I invoking as intrinsic to my identity? The fact that the state of New York assigned three birth certificates to me over the years, each listing a different name and a different set of parents, highlights the crazymaking absurdities behind such a question. Who am I? Who gave me birth? Who is mother? Who is father? Like a perverse high stakes shell game, I never quite know under which names I will find myself because, apparently, such things can be altered at other people’s whim.

In my early thirties, partly inspired by the desire to reclaim my identity, I changed my name. Before taking temporary vows as a monk, I received the name Julian during a communal ceremony that marked the beginning of my monastic training as a novice. I chose this name after the 14th century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, who would have faded into complete obscurity if she hadn’t penned some of the most eloquent words in the history of Christian spirituality. No one is even sure whether Julian is her actual name, but I’ll take it anyway, thank you.

Receiving a name that I myself chose, in a ritual celebration that involved the participation of a community of which I was a part, was one of the most significant events of my life. Ritual is a far richer language than words alone, engaging all the senses, embodied in movement and gesture, steeped in history and tradition. As a distinctly religious ritual, the gestures, movements, sights and sounds, history and traditions present in my re-naming converged upon a common center—our shared relationship to God. All of this was, and remains, deeply affirming and dignifying to me, giving me a new, empowering identity, especially in contrast to the namings and erasures of identity forced on me throughout my childhood, which converged on the transient needs and desires of those who adopted me.

I am an adoptee. Part of the power of identifying myself in this way is that I finally get to take charge of a story, my story, that had previously been narrated to me by others. I now enter the triangle of adoptee-adopters-birth family as protagonist, with creative agency, with a life to liberate. Identifying myself as an adoptee also links me to a community of people joined together by bonds of shared experience, in which I find support, mirroring, and friendship.

But I can’t stop there. My liberation is incomplete as long as I continue to tie my identity to the relational matrix surrounding my adoption.

I am not an adoptee. Adoption doesn’t define me. The adoption triangle cannot tell me who I am.

I am Julian. The axis of my identity runs through the life and writings of a woman who lived through the horror of several devastating waves of the bubonic plague in Norwich, England, during the 14th and 15th centuries, and still managed to compose a work of profound spiritual optimism and creativity. I am bound to the community in which I received her name, and the centuries old spiritual tradition of which it is a part. I am bound to the woman I married seven years ago, Lisa, whose surname I joined to my own. And I am bound to the sacred mystery that enfolds us all, the mystery of mercy and grace to which Julian of Norwich’s life, my life, my marriage, and the life of the monastic community point.


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