Our names reflect who we are

One woman’s journey to change her name

names, changing, identity, identifier

Violet Snow originally wrote this essay for PurpleClover.com.  She explains her journey from being the daughter of an Italian immigrant to becoming and herbalist and journalist in Phoenicia, NY.

“What's in a name?” Juliet demands and then asserts, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But we all know that names carry weight and meaning, to the extent that some of us have changed our names and thereby nudged our identities in new directions.

In 1952, my father, the son of Italian immigrants, ditched his last name. He wanted to go into business, and the name Ciliotta was too hard to pronounce, spell, or remember. But I believe he also didn't want to be Italian anymore, given society's prejudice against immigrants. He was ambitious and wanted to join the American middle class, as represented by my mother's family. Drawn to her English Puritan ancestry, he became Bob Carter. His family was devastated.

However, I sympathize with the urge to renounce the parental standard. When I was 31 and beginning to publish poetry, I was in the midst of divorcing a man whose last name was Mudd. Ellen Mudd didn't strike me as an appealing name for a poet. I considered going back to my maiden name, but I never liked being a Carter, knowing it was a fake and not sharing my parents' fear of social prejudice, which I had never experienced. I was also in the midst of traveling around the world on a shoestring, and Ellen Carter did not sound like a bohemian and adventuress.      

I closed my eyes to see what name would drift into my thought. Violet surfaced—not only a woman's name but also a flower and my favorite color. I decided to pick another color to go with it. In my mind, the purple blossom appeared against a white background. I liked the contrast and the poetic image of a flower in the snow. When I told my then-boyfriend, Sparrow (more on his name later) that I was thinking to call myself Violet Snow, he said, “Sounds like a romance novelist.” I agreed and regretfully put the name aside. Now I can't believe I let someone named Sparrow talk me out of calling myself Violet Snow. But Violet was unstoppable.

A year later, when Sparrow and I were publishing a literary newsletter in Manhattan, he read the writings of early American revolutionaries who adopted pseudonyms in print. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers under the name Publius. Sparrow wanted us to publish under pseudonyms as well. He became RLS (the initials of Robert Louis Stevenson, one of his favorite authors), and I invoked Violet Snow. 

When I became an herbalist and wanted to start a tincture business, Violet Snow Herbs seemed like the perfect name. Then I moved upstate to spend more time with the plants and teach classes in herbalism, under the name Violet. I was pathologically shy, but as Violet I had the freedom to be a different person, bold and outspoken. I gradually grew into the name and became a freelance journalist, a job that would have been impossible for Ellen Carter.

Author Violet Snow with her husband Sparrow

In the 1970s, Michael, my future husband, was working in a health food store in Gainesville, Florida, when another Michael was hired. To avoid confusion, he sought a new name from his friend Jennifer, the Princess of Love. She said, “You be Sparrow. You look like a sparrow.” He readily acquiesced, although he had and still has long hair and a long beard and looks nothing like a sparrow.

Soon his hippie friends were taking on names like Rabbit and Coyote. In Florida, he wrote under his new name and published a whimsical volume of line drawings and poems entitled Sparrow's Poetry Coloring Book. When he returned to New York, he assumed his old name for a while, but discovered he could not write poems as Michael Gorelick. Just before I met him, he had returned to being Sparrow.

Violet explains the complexity of changing her name:
I never changed my name legally, and I don't force my family or old acquaintances or even my husband, who met me when I was Ellen, to call me Violet. Having two names is awkward, as I have to remember who I am to the person I'm talking to--a bank teller, for instance, or my editor. In a group of friends with my husband present, it's mixed company, namewise, and often confusing for both of us. On the other hand, although I'm ambivalent about my conventional upbringing, it provided a solidity I am grateful for and feel bound to acknowledge by not completely abandoning my birth name. Possessing two names, I keep a foot in both worlds.