During a certain period of my life, the realizations that I could not marry this person came at me so often that I took to ignoring them. Among them was the time my fiancé seemed shocked that I wouldn’t be taking his name upon wedding him the following fall. Why on earth, I asked him, would I do anything of the sort? I had been a professional writer for about ten years at that point. I had amassed hundreds of bylines as “Jennifer Armstrong.” Not that I was some massively famous writer — most of those bylines were in local newspapers like The Daily Pilot and The Daily Southtown, or in the home décor trade magazines I’d spent a particularly odd year editing, Residential Lighting and Accessory Merchandising.
But by this point I was also an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly, a national magazine, and I had written several feature stories there. I had no intention of disappearing into his identity and starting anew as a journalist so that no one who had ever known me in my previous 30 years on earth would think, upon encountering my byline on an article about Jessica Simpson, “Hmm, I wonder if that’s the Jennifer Armstrong I knew in college …” or whatever. I wanted that moment, even if I’d never know about it. Plus Facebook was happening, so it was only a matter of time before I more often than not did know about it.
And so it was that “changing my name” went on our list of unresolved issues along with “having babies soon” and “moving farther into New Jersey” and, for that matter, “committing to each other for life.” Those issues were eventually resolved by the cancellation of our wedding and my move to a studio apartment in New York’s East Village.
But my attachment to my name went beyond my lack of desire to commit to this one man, or to any man, at that time. I had, perhaps, put more thought into my name than I had into my mate, in a way. I’d gone along with my college sweetheart onto the marriage track with no resistance, figuring this was just what people did. I followed him to Southern California after college with nary a shrug.
I did, however, take the time to agonize over my name: As I began my journalism career, I made a commitment. I would no longer be Jenny Armstrong, as I was in childhood. I would not be Jen Armstrong, as I was in college. I would be Jennifer Armstrong. This was my best shot at retaining my identity but becoming a new, grownup version of the Jenny we once knew.
Clearly I hadn’t paid as much attention to my relationship, even though I stayed in it for another eight years past graduation. Once I left my engagement, I finally grew into the Jennifer Armstrong I’d hoped to be: independent, dating, making like-minded literary friends, concentrating on my career.
I swore, for entirely different reasons now, that I would never, ever change my name. It was a good name! A strong name. My name. The name with which I earned enough money to pay for my own apartment and furnish it alone. I completely agreed with all the reasons Jill Filipovic gave for sticking with her (admittedly difficult) given name in a recent Guardian piece that reignited the age-old debate. In fact, I still do agree, to a certain extent: There’s still nothing feminist about 90 percent of married women taking their husbands’ names. But I’ve recently stumbled upon the joy of being able to change the identity you present to the public, a “joy” that patriarchy all but forces on married women and denies all men.
Why would I ever want to change my strong, simple, Anglo name?
Well, there was one reason. Or, more accurately, a half a dozen or so reasons. They had been lurking around the peripheries of my life since college, when I routinely got phone calls requesting bagpipe, fiddle, or banjo lessons. See, Jennifer Armstrong, the musical storyteller and teacher, lived in Evanston, Illinois, and so did I when I went to Northwestern University. Because it was a time when people still used phone books, I often got calls meant for her.
When the Internet took over, though, I found there were so many more of us. Forget ever getting any form of my name in straightforward fashion for a Yahoo or Gmail address. No, just tortured combinations of parts of my name and initials would get me out of using long strings of numbers to distinguish myself from the Jennifer Armstrongs who’d gotten there first. Googling me just as “Jennifer Armstrong,” without qualifiers like “Entertainment Weekly”? Impossible, which could be good for some people, I suppose, but not for writers, who both crave attention and actually want to be found sometimes, by readers or potential employers.
The final insult came when it was time for me to get my own website when I wrote my first book: Guess who had snagged JenniferArmstrong.com! Yes, the bagpipe lady. Meanwhile, if you clicked on my name on my Amazon page, you’d find that I’d written dozens of children’s books as well as historical fiction. (You would be wrong. Those were two other Jennifer Armstrongs.) A Google alert on my name uncovered a few more of us — a doctor who occasionally made news, a very prolific local newspaper reporter.
They all seem lovely and quite talented, and I’m glad none of them are mass murderers or anything, but being lost in a sea of Jennifers Armstrong was not what I dreamed of when I pictured my life as an author. And it was, in some ways, irritating — I am constantly disavowing the wonderful historical fiction “I” write — and in others, bad for business in a business dependent on branding.
I was not thinking about any of this when I decided to “take jukai,” as Zen Buddhists call a special ceremony in which we swear to uphold the precepts, or guidelines for moral living. I knew I’d get what’s called a Dharma name — a symbolic moniker granted by our head priest (whom we call “Roshi”) and used by fellow Buddhists. But I didn’t connect it to my name issue. The names are a highly anticipated part of the ceremony: What will Roshi call me? Will I hate it? What will her choice say about what she thinks of me? But it never occurred to me that I’d use my Dharma name outside the Zendo, even though my boyfriend uses his as part of his official name: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.
It hit me, however, when she announced my name in the ceremony: Keishin (pronounced like the last two syllables of “vacation”). First of all, I was relieved that I got a pretty name. Then she explained that it meant “truth warrior,” and that she’d chosen it because of my profession. Truth, she said, was the highest ideal for a journalist, and she knew I strove for that ideal. I loved the idea of reminding myself to make every piece of my work a reflection of my Zen practice — mindful, truthful, worthy. Seeing my Dharma name in my byline would make me stop and think: Does this live up to those standards?
Still, I fretted: Was I really going to change my professional name after 16 years of Jennifer Armstrong bylines? Would it ruin my career, confuse my “fans,” wreck the sleek, easy-to-spell line of my super-Anglo name? Well, the fact is, my “fans,” presuming I have them, all follow me on Facebook or Twitter, so they knew exactly where to find me and would see the name change in action if I went through with it. My first book was … let’s call it a cult favorite. Not so huge that I had gained wide name recognition. And people searching for my name online or in a book database or wherever would still be able to find me by typing in “Jennifer Armstrong.” They would just, as before, come up with the historical fiction writer and the children’s book author as well. No harm done.
No one I asked for advice could give me a straight answer; it was, after all, my name. It wasn’t like workshopping a book title or a blog idea to your friends. It was my very identity.
I was forced by two upcoming books (including Sexy Feminism), both of which are out this spring, to make the decision quickly. If I didn’t change my name within about a month, my books would come out with “Jennifer Armstrong” on the cover, thus sealing my name fate to an extent. The same was true if I added “Keishin.” Books are physical things, printed in large quantities, and, hopefully, kept on some bookshelves for a while. This was the moment of truth, and I dove in: I would be, and am now, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.
I think I’m happy with the decision. It’s easy to slip into mourning your “former” identity. But I’m also happy to have moved past her. She did a lot of things current me isn’t thrilled about, and she’s learned a lot since then. I’m a different person, and I like that my name reflects that. In the end, I’m okay with the fact that some people who knew me as “Jennifer Armstrong” might see my name and think, “Is that the same person?” No, my name says, it isn’t. It’s the girl who used to be Jennifer Armstrong, with some changes for the better. She knows what she wants from life. She knows how to get it without hurting other people. She knows what she’s good at, and what she isn’t. She’s cool with that.
One of the ways I’ve changed is that I get it now. I understand why some women want to change their names when they get married: to show the world that something important has happened to them, that something is fundamentally different in their lives, that they’ve grown up. That understanding doesn’t necessarily trump the patriarchal roots of a tradition that historically marked women as their husbands’ property. But it does make me feel a little sorry for men, who can’t as easily take the option of changing their name upon marriage. A few clever couples I know have both hyphenated their name together (Beyonce and Jay-Z included!), or have elided their original last names to make a new family name. (Taylor plus Jones is TayJo, for instance.) But on the whole, society isn’t yet set up for men to ever celebrate a new phase of identity with a new name.
I wish that everyone could have that chance, whether they wanted to mark their marriage or their spiritual growth or something else entirely. Actually, the fact is, everyone can. Just ask Prince. Now if only we could all do it without people staring at us like we’re crazy. We’re not, we swear, or at least I’m not. I’m just Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Maybe someday I’ll be someone else.