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Marissa Lingen

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Real true names. [Oct. 9th, 2012|01:09 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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For workout fodder, I have been watching Leverage S4. It's not very good, although it has compensating factors for me (the compensating factors are named Hardison, Eliot, and Parker), and one of the things I like least is the stuff they consider running gag or arc plot. The one I'm thinking of at the moment is a question that falls flat for me in most of its incarnations, and that is: what is Sophie's real name?

I can tell you. Sophie's real name is Sophie.

See, I don't care what it says on her birth certificate. I don't care what it says on the most legal of her legal documents. The four people she works with most, the four people she appears to care about most, call her Sophie. And therefore her name is Sophie. She may also have another real name. But Sophie is her real name.

I have a friend named Ctein, and from conversations with him I understand he has gone through the legal process to make sure that all documents reflect this. That is his name. But guess what? If the US government thought his name was John Smith or Susan Goldstein or Bobatundae Chen, his real name would still be Ctein. Because when I see him, I say, "Hey, Ctein!", and he says, "Hi!" and gives me a hug. If instead he sighed and said, "I told you not to call me that. Please call me Larry," and he wasn't joking, then his real name would be Larry. But it's not, it's Ctein.

One of my friends posted a list on Facebook about being polite to transgendered people, and as far as I could tell, the rule of thumb was, "Assume transgendered people are people; proceed." Because I could not think of any other circumstance in which someone would say, "Hello, my name is Jennifer," and it would be polite to respond with, "But what is it REALLY? What is your REAL name?" If someone says, "Hello, my name is Jennifer," the polite response is, "Pleased to meet you, Jennifer." Or possibly, "Duck, Jennifer, there are ninjas coming at your head!" But mostly the former. The latter circumstance rarely arises but is still more commonly polite than quizzing Jennifer on her REAL name.

The stories where finding out who somebody used to be turns out to be the most important thing--I can connect to those sometimes. I can connect to those when who that person used to be was forcibly taken from them. So, like, slave narratives. Or some Native American/First Nations stories. Times when someone had to hide. Times when they've forgotten who they used to be, although those are iffy for me because they're so often done badly. But when someone has had a good degree of free choice, I feel pretty strongly about respecting that free choice. If they've left a parent of origin who was pretty crappy, sometimes they have kept the name that parent gave them, and sometimes they've picked a new one, and I don't feel that insisting that the real true them is not the interesting person they've built, but rather the childhood they left, is a good idea. I feel that that's disrespectful of the person they've built and the choices they've made. And even when it's not a matter of crappy parenting--yes, the past is important. It contains our roots. But I think we can get way too caught up in that. In the case of "what is Sophie's real name?", it's a very superficial rooting. We have no ongoing character Sophie could turn out to secretly be, no history that could turn out to suddenly be hers. We already met her family of origin. We could just now discover that they originally named her Madeleine or Mehitabel or Claudia or Claire. Which...would not make her not-Sophie in any way that I can see.

So I tend to bounce off of secret name magic in fantasy, and I'm bouncing off it even more in Leverage, where it has no built-up use. The kennings and cognomens that we have--they are knowable. They are reachable. The way we have them is by being ourselves. You cannot keep them secret, because you walk through the world making a hole that is shaped like Sophie, or like Ctein, or like Mrissahainen mighty-sinewed chemist's daughter, or like you. And the parts of yourself that are secret to you can only stay really completely secret for so long before they reach out and shape bits of glass into tiny worlds--and even when they do, the people who have been around you will nod and say, well, that's the sort of thing, you know. I didn't know it would be that world in specific. But I suspected she might. There will be someone who is not in the least surprised, because you have been going around being you, and even when it's an unpredictable kind of you, there will at the very least be people who are smart enough not to try to predict, after awhile.

Maybe that's just in my life. Maybe this Sophie's-name thing is working for people because they have lives full of people who persist in trying to predict in detail and being surprised when it comes out funny. Or maybe there are some of you for whom the secret name thing works better, and you'll be able to tell me why in comments.

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From: swan_tower
2012-10-09 06:31 pm (UTC)
The secret name thing works for me in two respects that I think you haven't brought up here:

1) If Sophie's parents named her Madeleine or Mehitabel or Claudia or Claire, indeed, that does not make her not-Sophie -- but it does make her a Sophie for whom being Madeleine or Mehitabel or Claudia or Claire is part of her past, and part of what shaped her into being who she is today. That old name is relevant because she chose to leave it behind, and the choosing is an interesting decision. Did she just hate the sound of the name? Was she named for a person she doesn't want that connection to? Did she not mind the name, but wanted to be Sophie because it was important to her to be named for wisdom? Etc. The old name isn't who she is today, but it's a part of who she was, and that's interesting to me -- without in any way negating the significance and primacy of the name she chose.

2) Specific to fantasy, secret names can be relevant in another way, which is that Something Else knows the name: a god, the cosmos in an impersonal sense, etc. Which is why I can accept the notion of a secret name having true power in the way a name of daily use and more mundane significance doesn't. Naming is often a ritual, and I can see that giving power to Madeleine or Mehitabel or Claudia or Claire, if Sophie didn't do another ritual to leave that name behind and replace it with her chosen one. (This being not an option Leverage has, yeah, that gag strikes me as not very interesting.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-09 08:09 pm (UTC)
See, I feel like "I used to go by Ed but now I go by Nathan" (I have a friend like that) is a fine but pretty trivial part of someone's identity. It's not something to spend huge amounts of time/attention/energy on mostly. A couple of the people reading this have names like that. It's fine, it's mildly interesting that they've chosen to share, it's just...not a huge deal, not something I would spend arc plot on when I don't have that much time on their backstory.

And it would be interesting to have your relationship with your deity expressed by how they reacted to a name change--whether they were stubborn, whether they were accepting, respectful, forgetful, whatever--but I haven't seen people use it that way. It's just Secret Name Powerful The End.
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[User Picture]From: columbina
2012-10-09 06:51 pm (UTC)
Eh, I can see the value of the secret name as a sort of admission password for an inner circle with some commonality; but I also think the speakeasy is overrated.

The fact that most of these transgender-awareness rants (just like most of the race-awareness rants, cultural-appropriation awareness rants, antisexism rants, et alia) ultimately distill down to "Assume people want to be treated as human; proceed accordingly" is about 90% of why the antics of the Tumblr Outrage Brigade have worn me out so much recently that I can't even read half the reposts of two people I consider friends. CALL PEOPLE BY THE NAME THEY WANT TO BE CALLED. Call people by the gender they want to be called. The end.

What worries me is the possibility that there are some people for whom the "proceed accordingly" direction is insufficient because they have never treated ANY humans decently.

How does one pronounce "Ctein"?
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[User Picture]From: reveritas
2012-10-09 07:10 pm (UTC)
Oh good, someone else who doesn't know. :D
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[User Picture]From: rachelmanija
2012-10-09 07:09 pm (UTC)
The secret name, in the Ursula Le Guin sense, works for me because it represents the part of one's identity which is private and known only to oneself, or to the few people whom one most trusts and loves.

It's not literally about a name, it's about the idea that we have a public self, a self known to intimates, and a self known only to us. These can overlap to some extent, but most, if not all, people do have some elements of themselves which they see as being private and intimate, not to be revealed to the world. That is the secret name.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-09 08:04 pm (UTC)
I think if it's really private and intimate, though, going around going, "Oooooh, what is it, ooooh, can you guess?" is...pretty tacky.
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[User Picture]From: reveritas
2012-10-09 07:09 pm (UTC)
I want to know how you say Ctein but I think I asked that before and you told me.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-09 07:59 pm (UTC)
True, that's why Ctein gets to be the one to say, "Call me Ctein," rather than, "Call me Larry."

But Sophie is going around saying, "Call me Sophie."
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[User Picture]From: cakmpls
2012-10-09 08:20 pm (UTC)
Regarding the "Assume transgendered people are people; proceed": as someone else mentions, that is often the case with such lists. I recently saw such a list regarding adults with autism; as I said the the person who passed it along, most of it would be helpful to various members of my family, none of whom have autism.

I generally agree with your viewpoint about real names, but I have a different take on the Leverage Sophie example: to me it has seemed that people are saying that she seems to be different people in different times and places, and they are wondering which of those--symbolized by the name used--is the real one. That might not be any more pleasing to you--because isn't she always real?--but I think it's a bit deeper.
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[User Picture]From: judith_dascoyne
2012-10-09 08:37 pm (UTC)
My take on the season 4 Leverage "Sophie's name" arc has more to do with inclusion of the rest of the team and punishing Nate for not remembering any number important (or what ever Sophie is considering important this episode) events.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2012-10-10 12:29 am (UTC)
Agreed. Also because Nate's assuming he has the right to it, isn't he? I haven't watched the show in a while, but ISTR he has Nice Guy moments.
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[User Picture]From: ckd
2012-10-09 08:54 pm (UTC)
The one place where True Name-ism worked for me was Vernor Vinge's "True Names".

Of course, that's because the situation was that a True Name was relevant in the world where the government could come find you and the name they knew you by was a form of power that affected you directly.

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[User Picture]From: thanate
2012-10-09 09:40 pm (UTC)
The obsession with what someone's legal name used to be seems fairly silly in the context as you describe it-- I can see it being a Plot Thing in a clues to a shady past sort of way, but that's not necessarily a plot I'd be vastly interested in, either.

But the secret/true name thing always made sense to me, in that it's related to the way there are actually a great many variants on you. (the hypothetical you, not Mriss in particular) There's the you that you think of inside your head. There are the yous that your friends & family members see in their heads which (one hopes, with the right sort of friends) are quite similar but never completely congruent because they're not *there* for everything. (And conversely, sometimes they're a little more true that your self-image, because they have better perspective on some things.) And there are the yous that the people you know a little bit or the ones you pass in the street once who happen to like your coat come up with, which won't encompass most of the "real" you, if indeed they've got any at all.

Anyway, my concept of the "true name" thing is that it's the way of describing the theoretical truth at the heart of one's identity, and therefore possibly sympathetic magicking someone without having a very clear or close notion of what that identity is. Or how the god who can see through all of it thinks of you, or whatever.

I think this can (presupposing the right magical framework) coexist perfectly well in the same world in which someone can have as many "real" names as they want. (I've got four, only three of which are presently on my driver's license, plus at least two more I'll answer to if you pronounce them right, plus at least three others that I'd probably look up for except that they're out of my weird childhood mythology and nobody else knows them but me.)
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[User Picture]From: rose_lemberg
2012-10-09 10:45 pm (UTC)
It's not easy for everyone to change their name and have the change accepted. For example, I have been misnamed at birth because my parents were trying to protect me from antisemitism. I was named after my great-grandmother, who - also for reasons of antisemitism and societal pressure during the time of the Russian Revolution and later, has changed her name three times. Even though I was named after her, but the name they gave me was completely different from her names(but with an understanding that I was named after her).

I hated my legal name, and from very early age, name-play became a part of my identity. My parents were well aware of my name issues (in fact, it has been extensively discussed between them without my knowledge). When my family immigrated to Israel, nobody wanted to call me by my birth name - there was a sense that immigrants *must* change their names to a Hebrew variant in order to fit in. I have not changed my name then, because the names people insisted I should adopt all annoyed me and the variants of my great-grandmother's name I had in mind were not acceptable somehow. My mother even dragged me to a rabbi for consultation (why?!).

I finally legally changed my name in 1997, and my family did not accept the change. My father still calls me by my birth name, while my mother does not call me by any name. My genre name (Rose) is yet another of my great-grandmother's names. IRL I answer to both my current legal name and Rose, and in my mind both are associated with my great-grandmother. My birth name has no relation to me whatsoever.

That said, because I come from a different country, I get constantly asked "How come you have a name like this? What was/is your real name? What is your Russian name?" To which I have learned to answer "It's a long story." It's really upsetting, but it happens to me very often.

In addition, I have been given a new name for almost every new language I learned, most of them variants of my legal name and Rose.

Because my name issues are fairly complicated, very early on I became fascinated with names - both in the sense of onomastics, and names-as-magic. I enjoyed Ursula Le Guin's true names in the Earthsea series, but when I think about my own situation, I cannot imagine having a True Name; in fact, I am lately often feeling like I have no "true name" at all - it is malleable.

I have naming magic in my worlds. Deepnames are not true names; they are neurological entities that can be manifested through language, and not everybody has them. They are more akin to tools or extra limbs, but they do affect identity.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-10 12:51 am (UTC)
I think it's important to me to not pry into previous names because it's not always been easy to have the change accepted. I never want to be the person telling you that who you are is up to me. I'm sorry that all of those factors have made it hard for you and that people have been difficult and insensitive to those things coming into play.
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[User Picture]From: moiread
2012-10-09 11:44 pm (UTC)
Not relevant but related: Last night I caught myself introducing myself as "Michelle" to someone I really dislike. I don't know when I started using the blech throwaway not-me version of my name as a kind of psychological barrier between me and icky people (or even just people I'm not sure about) but apparently now that's a thing that I do. It makes total sense, emotionally, but I still think it's funny as hell. It made everyone at Rae's do a double-take.

Edited at 2012-10-09 11:46 pm (UTC)
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From: diatryma
2012-10-09 11:59 pm (UTC)
I do the same thing with Catherine. Catherine is both professional me and me when I don't care enough about you to correct you. Not at the same time, though.
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[User Picture]From: dlandon
2012-10-10 02:24 am (UTC)

Unless it has a purpose in the plot...

No, I hate that whole 'hidden name' thing. Ditto for secret identities, hidden bastard son of the king, blah, blah, blah.

Also, related, I had a professor in college who refused to call me Dena. There was another Dina in the class, and I'd registered under Margaret. Even still, she said that it was too confusing and ignored my requests to be called Dena. For obvious reasons, I couldn't stand her. And I found it very disrespectful - and to this day remember how it chafed - to be called a name I didn't wish to be called.

- D
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From: dsgood
2012-10-10 02:42 am (UTC)
I have two living relatives, and one deceased, with the "Jewish name" Aaron. English names: Aaron, Richard, Arthur.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-10 12:11 pm (UTC)
I like that sort of thing, where usage varies with character. One of my favorite moments on Babylon 5 (which I, for one, watched because I started with Season 3 with college friends--if I'd had to start with S1 I'd have been sunk, although I've since gone back and watched all of it) was when the news reporter called Susan Ivanova, "Miss EYE-vah-NOH-vah." As someone who has had what I consider a trivially simple name misspelled and mispronounced more times than I can tell you, I went, "YES, that is EXACTLY what that character would do to her name!", and Ivanova's expression of quiet resigned disgust was perfect.
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[User Picture]From: rysmiel
2012-10-10 12:51 pm (UTC)
There are levels at which I really feel my True Name is about three billion characters long; but as they are all A, C, G, or T, correct pronunciation's a bit too much to expect of people who've just met me.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-10 12:52 pm (UTC)
Especially with the comparative dearth of vowels, I should think.
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