Identity, Names, and Stories

My relationship with my own name, or, more accurately names, is something of a saga. It mirrors the relationship between name, identity, and story as it has played out in my own life. It’s a story I’ve not told often. I hope it encourages you to reflect on story, change and continuity in your own life.

In the beginning (don’t all good stories start this way?), I was born Julia Kay Sheridan. Sheridan, of course, was my father’s name; in the 1940s, what else would it have been? The whole process of naming kids was pretty automatic. When I married (at the tender age of 19, but that’s another story), I never gave a thought to doing anything other than taking on my new husband’s name: Kinschner. In my mind, we women were still properly identified with our husbands, and adopting his name legally embodied that identification for all the world to see. It never occurred to me to do otherwise. It was the 1960s, but I was stuck in the 50s alongside June Cleaver.

Fast-forward through several years of marriage, one child, the rest of college and then seminary, and the (very) faint rumblings of greater consciousness. Oh, and graduate school. When my first husband and I divorced during my graduate school years, I kept his name, in part because it seemed easier if my daughter and I had the same last name. But then he remarried, a lovely woman who was the new Mrs. Kinschner. That felt odd to me, somehow not quite fair to her.

Thus began my quest for a new name. That search had begun a few years before, when I started grad school. I’d always been called by the nickname “Julie.” When I began grad school, I felt a need for a change, for something with what seemed to me to be of more substance, more weight, more maturity. I intentionally embraced my given name. To this day, I often introduce myself as “Julia with an a” to make that point clear, and I tend to correct those who call me Julie by pointing out that “it’s Julia with an a.” From my current vantage point, decades of experience later, I’m simply not Julie. Julie was the socially-awkward kid with thick glasses and crooked teeth, the kid who had been abused by her father and laughed at by her peers. Julia is the gritty survivor I had become.

But what about my last name? I still wasn’t comfortable remaining Julia Kinschner. I decided to change it legally. I had friends who had resumed using their maiden name following a divorce, but I couldn’t do that. At the time, I didn’t know why, just that it felt all wrong; I’d learn more about the why of it later. I could not go back to being Julia Sheridan. Yet I wanted to maintain some sort of family continuity. My solution was to take both my father’s and my mother’s middle names, and use both. The court document records my officially becoming Julia Benton Mitchell. That worked. I gave my daughter the option of keeping her dad’s name or using my new name. Something of a pragmatist even in junior high, she opted for Mitchell “because people can pronounce it and spell it.” She still uses that name. For her, that’s who she is, and marriage hasn’t changed that.

Then I met the man who would become my second husband. I chose to adopt his name. The difference was that, this time, it was a conscious, intentional decision. It also wasn’t motivated by my previous sense of women being identified with our husbands. It was, rather, a deep desire to bear witness to the very special thing that had come into being between us. I also kept Mitchell, often using both names. If memory serves, I’m Julia Mitchell Corbett in our membership book. I kept Mike’s last name following his untimely death in 2001. The name continued to witness to the deathlessness of the love we had shared, and remained a deep source of comfort for me. Being Mike’s wife had not been my whole identity, but it was a significant aspect of it. I had come into our marriage with deep psychological and spiritual wounds, and did a lot of healing work while we were married. My identity changed immensely during that time.

Mike’s death was another cataclysmic change for me, as was meeting and marrying Tom Hemeyer. This, too, felt like a giant step into a new and different life. I was the same person, but in a very new phase. I brought everything up to that point into our relationship. Yet I willingly embraced significant newness and difference. Not the least of which, certainly, was my retirement from university teaching, the only profession I’d ever followed, to pursue ministry. I chose to keep both names, sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not: Corbett-Hemeyer. Doing so was a way to honor Mike and what our marriage had meant and continues to mean to me.

Historically and cross-culturally, people have taken new names to reflect a fundamental change in their identity. People who convert to Islam often assume a Muslim name. In India, those who become wandering forest dwellers may take a different name, or even become nameless to signify the extent to which they have passed beyond their previous selves. Nuns may be given a saint’s name when they made their profession of vows. Buddhist nuns and monks are often given new names as well. Some African Americans take on an African name, or give their children one to reflect their birthright and to distinguish that heritage from the oppressive legacy of slavery. Children may be given family names or named after a person their parents admire.

Identity is both continuous and discontinuous. We do remain in many senses the same person throughout our lives. And yet we change, in ways small and large, in ways known only to us and in ways manifest to nearly everyone we know. This fluidity of identity is a central element that makes up the wondrous adventure we call life. It’s why we as Unitarian Universalists value change and growth in our religion and spirituality. May you be blessed as you change and grow and remain who you are.

~Rev. Julia (Kay Sheridan Kinschner Benton-Mitchell Mitchell-Corbett Corbett-Hemeyer)