Published on June 9, 2016 at Rebelle Society.
I recently changed my name online back to my real name, Jere. I’ve gone by Drucilla online for about eight years, and in that time, she took over my identity.
Drucilla became my preferred name for many reasons. I was named after my father, as was my brother. My first therapist thought that was significant. I never liked my name.
I remember being told as a young girl by a little boy named Maurice, “Jere is a boy’s name.” And in our childhood world, that was clearly a bad thing.
Even though I had gone through periods of wanting to be a boy, sitting there on the swingset with Maurice, not swinging, my face went red and I wondered what cruel trick my parents had played on me.
It was one of those early experiences when I first started to feel self-conscious, like something was wrong with me. I don’t know how old I was, but I recall looking at myself from the outside, perhaps in a way different from how I had before.
Sure, I changed my last name when I got married, divorced, and married again. I really wasn’t sure why I did that at the time, because I was a staunch feminist. But I realize now that it was a way of playing with identity. I wanted to try on different names for size (and husbands too).
Somewhere in between names, I decided that the whole idea of the self was made up of many different influences, images, and relationships.
I had a wonderful professor, Allaine, who once said, “They called me Al when I was a child, and now I’m Allaine. When I get older, I think I’ll be Maurice.” The connection to young curly-haired Maurice didn’t hit me until now.
Her point was that there is no single, unified identity, no necessary connection of names to people any more than words to objects. The self is constructed, and it’s best if we are aware of it.
I’ve lived with this idea of a patchwork self ever since. It’s not as comfortable as believing there is an essential, authentic self, if only I could find her, but it rang true for me and felt liberating.
I’ve become fascinated with the writings of the Eastern philosopher Krishnamurti, whom I fondly refer to as K. He challenges us to free ourselves from what we know, or think we know.
K says that we are made up of what we have learned from others — authorities and gurus we’ve accepted, and ideologies we’ve adopted, and therefore we are second-hand people.
I had never thought of the construction of identity as negative, but simply unavoidable and a space for creativity. But K inspired me to dig beneath the layers of my conditioning to see what I might find. My name seems like a good place to begin.
After a workplace scandal, my Google name was mud. I was applying for jobs, and what had been written about me online was painful. I had moved to an isolated rural area, and so I lived most of my social life online. I started blogging, and didn’t want to be linked to a history written by others.
Drucilla Pettibone popped into my consciousness wholecloth, like Mary Poppins floating down with her umbrella. Drucilla came from a similar time period, but she was windswept from the moors. No doubt she was an amalgam of heroines from Jane Austen to William Faulkner, but she felt rather fully-formed.
She adopted British spellings and phrasing quite naturally as part of her online identity.
Drucilla may have been my fifth name and fifth-hand identity, but she felt more like the me of that time. Could it be that Drucilla Pettibone was more channeled than constructed?
Drucilla even had a nickname, Dru. She allowed me to live free of baggage, bad memories, and old labels. I became an artist and shepherdess, and lived quite happily for a number of years.
As I moved in new directions from my former life, the moniker of Drucilla Pettibone shifted from a sort of alter ego to my artist’s name to a magickal name. She became more me than me. By that time, I was going by Drucilla in my real life too, not just online.
The reactions I got from old friends and family was odd. They ranged from delighted to confused to confrontational. One old friend refused to call me Drucilla. There was a sense among some that I was living inauthentically.
When I added the lovely extra letters to words like neighbour and favourite, or went to hospital or back to University, it did not feel fraudulent, but like a gleeful, mischievous sort of conceit.
I remembered Allaine’s words, and held fast to the belief that I was standing against the notion of a flattened, unitary identity. I was also creating the self I wanted to become: my own version of Tyler Durden. Or was Drucilla a vehicle for escape, a way to avoid introspection?
Until recently, I did not reflect overmuch on my identity because I resisted all those labels we tend to use to define ourselves. I have been conditioned to be gendered and heteronormative by my family of origin, individualistic and entitled by American culture, and analytical and critical by my education.
I experience all these identities as cages to be rattled. I’ve also found that I can live with them, rather than in them, by reaching out through the bars of my conditioning and touching other ideas, people and cultures. But the idea of a deep inward gaze of reflection is much scarier.
My legal name is a combination of my father’s and my husband’s. I am not kidding myself that it signifies some originary or true self. Yet there is some empowerment in returning to her (me). It feels a bit like coming out of one closet or another. My father has crossed over, and I’m proud to carry his name.
Having just one name will lessen my dissonance, peel away some layers of images. I’m curious about what I’ll learn as I get to know my old self again.
Now that many people construct online personas that are brighter, shinier versions of ourselves, we should be more conscious than ever that identity is not static. It says much about secondhand selves that changing my name online is enough to make it official; I’m now Jere again, for better or worse.
Immediately after I changed my name on Facebook, I got an email from a dear friend with the subject line: “Who is Jere Alexander?” Then shortly after, various old friends wished me a happy birthday, and new friends asked how to pronounce it and if they could still call me Dru. One woman said she would miss Drucilla Pettibone.
I replied that I would still keep her (me) around.