The Story of an Old Name

by Edward Francisco Burney, oil on canvas, circa 1784-1785

I’m weirdly freaking out about having changed my name, esp. for publication. I think maybe it’s because my Burney essay is about politics and marriage plots. –text message to my husband

Frances Burney’s second novel, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782), features a young woman poised to receive a large inheritance when she comes of age, on the condition that if she marries, her husband take her surname of Beverley. In the end, she relinquishes both her name and fortune in order to take the name of her beloved, Mortimer Delvile. The novel concludes that Cecilia had achieved “all the happiness human life seems capable of receiving”—

yet . . . she knew that, at times, the whole family must murmur at her loss of fortune, and at times she murmured herself to be thus portionless, tho’ an HEIRESS. Rationally, however, she surveyed the world at large, and finding that of the few who had any happiness, there were none without some misery, she checked the rising sigh of repining mortality, and, grateful with general felicity, bore partial evil with chearfullest resignation.

This is perhaps the bleakest happy ending I’ve ever read. It is uncompromising in its conclusions about what the marriage plot offers to women. Burney devotes three volumes to entertaining the possibility that a woman might own her inheritance and keep the surname she was born with, only to show that Cecilia is unable to imagine even this tiny revolution, or any happiness beyond “chearfullest resignation.”

When I married my husband in 2008, I had published one article as “Eugenia Zuroski.” I decided without much thought—the ease of this decision is something I can’t fathom now, given how much fretting it has since inspired—that I would be known henceforth, in print and in public, as “Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins.” With an “invisible hyphen,” as I found myself explaining to people ad nauseam. I have since published several more articles and a book under the extended name.

moebiusaniAround the time of our wedding, I remember explaining the conceit of just adding “Jenkins” to my existing name using Lacan’s “n+1” model of subjectivity. We may think of our self as the “n,” Lacan says, the original thing to which experience adheres, but in fact the “n” is an effect of the “+1”—there is no subject until it repeats itself in the form of other things it takes as and for itself. It made sense to me. Adding to my name would be a gesture not of deference but against rigidity; it would announce, on the order of our public vows, that I who was always already changing was making a particularly noteworthy change, one that warranted public self-revision. Of all “the ones,” this is “the one” who shall be named, my new name would say. My wedding gift to my husband was engraved “Zuroski+Jenkins.”

The debate over the gender politics of changing one’s name continues to sputter on. In some ways, it might have been easier for me if I felt that changing or not changing one’s name had a clear political end or meaning. But the ease with which I adopted a new name upon marriage came from my conviction that there’s no way to manipulate your way out of the politics of male surnames: all names are patriarchal. Exchange them, combine them, take or leave them, hyphenate visibly or invisibly. Each way is as fine an approach as the others; none of them rattles the patriarchal machinery in the least.

It turns out that I’m less interested in the politics of names than I am in the stories they tell–not about the individual but about the individual in full relation with her world and history. Reading Burney, getting married, mourning my father’s death: all of these moments have underscored how inadequate it is to link one’s name to a politics of autonomy.

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Several months after our wedding we moved to Canada for my job. The vagaries of intersecting bureaucracies made it impossible for me to change my name legally before we applied to immigrate. As a result, I have always remained “Eugenia Zuroski” on all official documents except my own publications. But I went by “Zuroski Jenkins”—I introduced myself by that name, I gave the invisible hyphen spiel, I submitted to the inevitable convolutions of people getting my name wrong, and bore the brunt of society’s disapproval of people who make routine things difficult.

I recently decided, and gleefully announced on Facebook, that I had decided to hyphenate my name after all. It had become bureaucratically unwieldy. But I also realized that—naturally, an “invisible hyphen” not really being a thing in the North American idiom—I was becoming known in my ever-widening circle of colleagues by the name “Jenkins.” There were ways of addressing this issue, of course—I could correct people; I could embrace the change—but this was precisely the problem: that managing my name had become a significant part of my job. What had started out as an experiment in expanding the possibilities of the self and its relations had turned into a particularly feminine burden—the exact marriage plot I’d thought I’d released myself from.

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Then my father, from whom I had received the name that I was so quick to change, died. Since then, the life I’ve led under it feels more than ever like a gift from him that I never fully appreciated. The unmistakable singularity of “Zuroski” held together a kid, and later an adult, who was happy to be a Eugenia or a Gena, whichever you prefer, and spell it how you like; who never suffered from, in fact rather enjoyed, the ambivalence of being mixed-race; who (to my parents’ chagrin) threw myself with joyful promiscuity into social and sexual relationships perhaps not becoming the heroine of a novel. It compelled me to cultivate, in fits and starts, the confidence of someone with an unusual name that people hesitate to pronounce but rarely forget. The happiness of the girl named Zuroski underwrites my ability to give myself over freely: the name was always the enabling fiction and gift of personal coherence.

As Mimi Thi Nguyen writes in The Gift of Freedom, “the gift is a great and terrible thing.” This is certainly true of the name, or names, that a patriarchal society gifts to its women. Nguyen quotes Derrida: “one may say as readily ‘to give a gift’ as ‘to give a blow,’ ‘to give a life’ as ‘to give a death.’” Like the gift of freedom Nguyen finds extending from nations that imagine themselves “empires of liberty” to the people they render most in need of benevolence, the names our society traditionally gives women are inscriptions into economies of interminable debt and compromised hope, what Burney calls checking misery with gratitude while bearing evil with cheerful resignation, and what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism.”

Our different names lend us to different stories. The key to feeling attached to my own name was seeing it not as a “gift of freedom” conferring autonomy, but as a gift of the opposite: the Lacanian “n” to which anything and everything, anyone and everyone, might become meaningfully attached, one way or another, and which reflects these attachments as itself. So the gift of a name, any name—the placeholder n—may best be honored by leaving it alone to host not a string of scripted plus-ones but an unrepresentable universe of potential kith and kin.

If the bleak ending of Burney’s Cecilia taught me how hard it often is for women to find other plots than the marriage plot, writing an essay about Burney’s Evelina brought my anxiety over my name to a breaking point. Evelina—on the surface a committed heterosocial marriage plot—is so anxious about the pressures of community on a young woman just trying to get married that it inadvertently imagines a host of alternative social bonds for its heroine, potential relationships with what George Haggerty calls “friends, fops, and feminists.” Suddenly I saw very clearly that the significance of a name is not in how it names an individual, or a marital relationship, but in how it calls into being new worlds and communities.

This insight made me feel very committed, in a great and terrible way, to the unwieldy and uneven story, a story certainly more picaresque than bildungsroman, told by the name “Zuroski.” I have, as have we all, been an outrageous variety of people in my ongoing encounters with others in the odd world that hosts us. This name is about the only thing all these variations have in common. It ties my present self directly to my myriad past selves—with all their joys and humiliations, their uncertainties and mostly unfulfilled promises, the different optimisms they’ve flirted with, some cruel, some less so—without sublimating them by a grand gesture of Adult Transition, like announcing one’s retirement from childish exposure into the sanctuary of someone else’s name.

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The romance of the marriage plot is that there is indeed only one other who makes you matter in the world, and it promotes this maxim in the form of a mandate to outgrow childish attachments in order to ready oneself for matrimony. But we are fortunate to inhabit a world where one may fall in love and partner up with someone without subscribing to this cruelly optimistic, antisocial farce. We may have spouses as well as communities, just as we may have love, and sex, and community, without spouses.

Names may be fictions, but they underwrite real relationships, allowing us to become mired in each other even over great distances of time and space. Much is precluded when we’re launched into the world under a particular name, but much may gather into us as well. The name “Zuroski” is a story, and a mouthful, on its own. At this point, it also tells the story of “Zuroski Jenkins”—as I texted to my husband on the second day of these deliberations: “I kind of feel like I’ve gone from n+1 to having fully absorbed the Jenkins supplement.” I had to call myself Jenkins to throw myself into the project of our shared life. Now I take this life for granted; I feel a part of it, and it feels like part of me.

Some of the most self-possessed women I know took “married names.” This includes my mother and my grandmothers, who helped gift me with the name I have. Many women I know, love, and admire have kept their names, whether they ever imagined changing them or not. I have a daughter now and I hope to create for her the possibility of doing any number of things with herself and with the names we’ve given her as she makes herself a part of the world. I want her to be able to feel at home being attached to others, in any number of ways, both changing and permanent. I want her to experience Burney’s impossible fantasy as a simple reality: a version of herself capacious enough to identify with worlds both past and future, but representable enough to share in the present. It’s not just about the name but in this instance I’m focusing the problem on my name, because it can bear this weight—the question of who we want to be with others.

Eugenia Zuroski: No heroine