“what’s in a name?”: attributions and identifications

In Juliet’s famous ‘balcony’ speech she laments the name of her beloved, Romeo Montague:Romeo-Juliet-about-to-kiss-on-Balcony-1968-romeo-and-juliet-by-franco-zeffirelli-32614017-640-480

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

Juliet tries to convince herself that Romeo is not his name, because their names, Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague indicate their difference, and in this play their difference is dangerous. Of course the play proves her wrong, and we are humans, not roses, and humans come from families and families have histories and create a particular context that we cannot avoid. Juliet does actually know this, because her desperate cry is “O, be some other name.”

Perhaps the first attribute we are given is our name. Why were you given your name? Do you know the reason your parents chose your name? Were they ‘communicating’ with you and wondering what you would want to be called, or did they name you to remind them of someone else? Did they give you your name while functioning from their survival instincts, as a means to compensate, honour, avoid, distract, control or indicate some other unconscious desire? Were you perhaps named out of revenge, hate, ambivalence or bitterness? Have you ever thought about it?

My story

I was my father’s daughter. From very young I seemed to have had a very strong and entangled alignment with him. He dominated my life until I started to understand it better, and until he died. My ‘superego’ had my father’s voice, not my mother’s. I failed him miserably by not fulfilling his aspirations and ambitions for me, and my guilt was a constant discomfort. My sister, born seven years before me at the beginning of world war II, did not see my father much during the war. She was cosseted I think uncomfortably by my mother and my mother’s mother, and she and my father never found a way to relate. I think she was dyslexic and dyspraxic and of course these difficulties weren’t known about then. She was labelled ‘mentally deficient’ and ‘backward’. That was the language used then. And in her actions she shocked my father, and he felt betrayed by her.

When I was born, seven years later, the war was over, and I was supposed to be a boy. I wasn’t of course, but that disappointment was expressed frequently, and ‘lovingly’, by my father saying that I was “the next best thing”. He thought he loved me.

Through my personal explorations about a year ago I suddenly came up with the notion that my father had kidnapped me from my mother at birth. He used to say that he fell in love with me as soon as he saw me, but he wasn’t there when I was born. This idea that my father ‘kidnapped’ me fitted with my experience. As a child it was as if he owned me, and he exacerbated the divide between me and my mother as I grew up by indicating to me that she was really only a child, and couldn’t make good decisions for herself. He and I were the intelligent and clever ones. He co-opted me for his own purposes… I was to be the reflection of him and his worth by what I would become. But in that I failed him miserably… I tend to think of that as my secret ‘rebellion’.

When I was born my mother was on her own – my father was away on business – and she named me Vivian. She told me later that she named me Vivian because my father was very keen on the actress, Vivien Leigh. It seems that she was the one who named me, and she named me after an actress that my father admired. I’m not sure that my father really had anything to do with it. Weird really.

Another weird thing was that throughout my childhood, and all her life, she wrote my name as Vivian, with an ‘a’, whereas my father always wrote it as Vivien, which was actually how Vivien Leigh’s name was spelt.

I always used ‘Vivien’ until one day, when I was in my thirties, for some reason I decided to adopt the name Vivian; a few months after that I had cause to refer to my birth certificate, and I noticed on the certificate that my name was actually spelt with an ‘a’, not an ‘e’… my mother’s revenge towards my father? I don’t know.

My father was very disconcerted by my changing my name, as well he might be. I was making a statement about myself, challenging an attribution, challenging his ownership, but I didn’t fully realise it at the time.

Not so long ago I realised something else: it wasn’t so much that my father ‘kidnapped’ me as that my mother ‘gave’ me to him. By naming me for an actress my father admired I believe that unconsciously she gave me to him. She was saying “here, you have this one as compensation for your failed relationship with our older daughter”… or maybe “After all the pain with our other daughter I can’t have this one… you take her.” This was a very painful realisation for me… that she should have felt that way…

I don’t really know of course, but it explains many things for me.ed7fdc6f12af5c3d0e470b577424bd23

So there is a lot in a name. For all we know roses might not smell as sweet if their beginnings haven’t been so good, but for sure we humans are influenced massively by how our parents perceive us, and our naming is likely to reflect many things that our mother and father feel about having us, who we are, and what they expect from us, both consciously and unconsciously.

Attribution: the action of regarding a quality or feature as characteristic of or possessed by a person or thing. (online dictionary)

It is impossible for us to come into the world without attributions and expectations from our parents. The person, if there is one, who does not carry a ‘trauma of love’, may actually have been named for who they really are… perhaps the mother waiting for a while to see what name the child seemed to want… if this exists it is rare. The traumatised mother, and father, we know from Ruppert’s Identity-oriented Psychotrauma Theory (IoPT), do not see clearly, and construct reality as a means to control and avoid their own uncomfortable trauma feelings. Much of this process is unconscious. In doing this they see only their constructed reality, the perception of their survival self, and the attributions put on us are likely to have such intricate unconscious purposes for them.

After this the attributions and requirements to ‘identify with’ are piled on. I am precocious, silly, bad/good, childish (what a ridiculous thing to expect a child not to be childish!), “like my mother/father/grandmother/grandfather”, intelligent/stupid, kind/selfish, easy/difficult and so on. And as we grow up this continues. Of course, some of these things may be true… I may resemble my mother or father, I may be precocious… but often they are merely judgements made by our parents, and are the many ways in which they ‘own’ us and control us… ways in which they objectify us and do not see us for who we really are.

What are the real attributes of me… the truth of me? That we have to find out for ourselves… not just take what others tell us. Autonomy means being the ‘author’ of myself; it means being truly who I am, not getting lost in who others think I am, in their attributions and requirements to identification.

The process of identification is similar: I identify with my father, with my family, with my school, with my local football team, with my profession, with my husband, with my children, with my country, with my language, with my race… Of course there are things here that are true… I am a psychotherapist, that is my job, but it isn’t who I actually am. I am English, I speak English, but I do not identify with everything that ‘Englishness’ may cover.

Identifications, like attributes, are often true… the question is do my identifications control me, do they function as a survival strategy, something that I can hide behind, complain about, fight against? Or are they attributes that are real, true, recognised by me when I answer the question Who am I? with clarity… from my ‘healthy self’?


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