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Itty-bitty acts of self-ownership

Y’all may know that I have a friend named Debra. Some of you know her. She used to be an officer in the Free State Project. She was a founding member of The Claire Files Forums (now the Mental Militia Forums). Today, instead, she has a life.

If you know Debra, you know that she’s definitely Debra. Or Deb. Never, ever Debbie.

But she told me a story the other day that surprised me. It’s a simple story about a name. But it speaks more volumes than the Encyclopedia Britannica (since Wikipedia, though much bigger, doesn’t have volumes). She gave me permission to share it.

As a kid, she was Debbie. And hated it. About the time she entered high school, the unsavory film “Debbie Does Dallas” hit theaters. As you can guess, she hated even more that she was a Debbie. I can only imagine the difficult time smart-ass peers must have given her for a while. But Debbie was what the world called her and Debbie was who she remained.

Then one day when she was college-aged, she was introduced to a Deborah.

When, reflexively, she called her new acquaintance Debbie (because of course, all Debras and Deborahs are immediately reduced to Debbies, just as all Charleses instantly become Charlies or Chucks and all Williams become Bill). The woman responded, “I prefer Deborah.”

And Debra — the soon-to-be-former Debbie — was struck dumb. She laughed as she told me this, but her astonishment at the time was real. “It was a bolt from the blue,” she said to me. “A revelation. The beginning of my liberation. You might think it’s ridiculous, but until that moment, it had never occurred to me, ever, that I had any say over what people called me. I just thought that if my family, friends, and the world wanted me to be Debbie, I was stuck being Debbie forever.”

That revelation led her to take more control over her own life. And each little act of self-ownership brought her more revelations about how much of her own life truly belonged to her and nobody else.

Years ago, I wrote an article titled “Whose Name is it, Anyway?” It’s one of my favorites (even though, as is usual with me, it does ramble on a bit) and one of the most informative articles I ever wrote. It’s about what I called the “tiny freedom” of being able to change one’s own name at will, without permission from government or anybody else. It’s also about the fascinating history of naming. And about having a name that means something to us and suits us at whatever stage of our lives we find ourselves.

Still, it never occurred to me that being able to assert control over one’s name or nickname would come as a revelation to anybody, or that such a revelation would set anyone on the path to greater freedoms.

But you never know. It’s amazing and wonderful how freedom can dawn. Sometimes, it just doesn’t take that much to start breaking free. Other times, small gifts are given to us when we’re already on freedom’s path — small gifts that end up making huge differences.

It’s so frustrating hearing people bitch that, “I can’t become more free because of X, Y, or Z.” (In one extreme case, a person whining about his plight online “couldn’t” become more free because his aging parents might not leave him $300,000, and without $300,000 he couldn’t take a single step — not one step! — toward any sort of preparedness or independence. That’s an extreme case, of course. But plenty of other excuses abound.)

Yet plenty of tiny, everyday miracles abound, too. Along with tiny, everyday acts that we take to free our minds & thereby begin freeing the rest of ourselves.

Do you have a story of one of those itty-bitty moments that turned into a life-changing revelation? How some small event or realization set you on an entirely new and more free course of life? Or how some small decision you made or act you took led to greater vistas of freedom? The comments section is all yours …


  1. Pat
    Pat June 23, 2010 6:06 am

    Three incidents stand out in my mind re when self-ownership started, the first of which wasn’t mine.

    I learned the name thing early on: my brother was named Billy — and he hated it. When he was 14 (I was 8), he went to court and had his name changed officially to William. That was the first time I was made aware that names could be changed at will. I also learned that good consequences come from an act of self-ownership: family members who had called him Billy for 14 years suddenly started calling him Bill, thus — he was happy, and they were brought into line.

    You wouldn’t expect mere stubbornness to mean self-ownership, but I thought it did. I’ve always been a tomboy, and when I was 13, I wanted a BB gun badly (couldn’t have a real one) for my birthday. Both my parents were adamantly set against it — I was “coming of age” and supposed to be thinking Feminine, we lived in the middle of town, guns gave off the wrong (criminal) vibes, etc. — but I refused to name anything else I wanted. On my birthday I *GOT* my BB gun, and practiced target shooting daily until I went away to nursing school. (The closest to criminal I ever got was a Freedom Outlaw.)

    We weren’t rich by any means, and though it didn’t cost much back then to go to a hospital nursing school, it was a burden of sorts on my parents. I was determined to pay my own way in, and started working every summer and whenever possible, saving it all for tuition. As a result, I WAS able to pay for my nurses’ training, and always felt 1) proud of my own ability to get it done, and 2) sure that if I ever decided to do something else, no one could say, “…and after all we did for you!”

  2. V
    V June 23, 2010 6:34 am

    “…just as all Charleses instantly become Charlies or Chucks…”


  3. Claire
    Claire June 23, 2010 7:27 am

    V — You know sadly well, I’m sure, how every Charles who wants to remain a Charles has to fend off legions of overly familiar souls who instantly dub him Chuck or Charlie.

    Ask me how I know you know this. 🙂

  4. Claire
    Claire June 23, 2010 7:30 am

    Pat — Great examples. Pretty good initiative on your brother’s part to get his own name change at such a young age. And even better initiative on yours, with nursing school.

  5. Jim B.
    Jim B. June 23, 2010 8:50 am

    For me it was Jimbo. Which I considered too close to Dumb-bo. This was way before Rambo. Which is another I wouldn’t want to be connected with. Fortunately, I was able to express my displeasure to that nickname at an early age.

  6. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal June 23, 2010 9:13 am

    For some reason I have always attracted nicknames. Maybe because “Kent” is odd. The name, I mean. Of course, my whole first name is actually “Kenton”. Ugh.

    So, back when I was geeky/nerdy, I got called “Clark Kent”, “Kevin”, “Mechanical” (due to the last name), “Mike” (huh?), “Brain” (I “looked smart”), “Chicken Little” (Because I would cluck like a chicken in school- don’t ask) and others that are even more bizarre. Since “adulthood” (yeah, right) it has been “Dull ‘Hawk” (from mountainman “rondyvoos”), “Wild Bill” (by strangers who just want to call me something), or “Bat-S**t Crazy (by people who disagree with me online).

    Nowdays, in real-life, I try to avoid introducing names into the equation as long as possible.

  7. Charlie
    Charlie June 23, 2010 9:20 am

    My given first name is “Charles”. “Charlie” is a good alternate, but not “Chuck”. Just won’t answer to it. People try, but they soon learn that I am serious. My son, only answers to “Charles”.

  8. Joe in NH
    Joe in NH June 23, 2010 10:18 am

    “Joseph” is formal and old. My coat of many colors is about as flashy as I care to get.

    “Joe” is good except for the “blue collar” aspect. “Joe the Plumber” and “Joe Six-pack” comes to mind. I’m most definitely am not blue collar. But I’m not management either.

    “Joey” is ok. But only if I can call you your nick-name as well. You gotta know me pretty dern well.

    “Jo-jo the dog faced boy” is what I got from my father. Originally a side show act at the carnival/midway, I was mortally offended. But he was my dad and could say what he wished. That one went away when I became of age – and size.

    “Josephina” was my wife’s attempt at being funny: and endearing. Too bad that name is now long gone in middle marriage adversarial contest. There’s too little endearment in the world methinks. And certainly too little love. That name I miss.


  9. AlanR -
    AlanR - June 23, 2010 12:56 pm

    Apparently, I set family and friends strait than my name was NOT Al when I was about 4. My wife and I deliberately gave our kids names that didn’t lend themselves to nicknames.

    To your question, it was the realization that I really didn’t have to work for someone else and I could still support a family. “I do the job; I get paid.” Cool.

    (Though technically, I suppose, I work for lots of people.)

  10. Mike R
    Mike R June 23, 2010 5:05 pm

    Back in the seventies in grade 9 I was an undemanding fellow, the pleasant sort who simply wanted to fit in. Then those damn “give it to Mikey, he hates everything” commercials went on TV. Well being in a tough school and not being a part of a gang this complicated my lift a little.

    The change in me came when I was being teased by a bully that was a little older and bigger than me. To get my point across that I didn’t like the Mikey tag and after repeatedly telling people that I didn’t like the tag, I snapped and went up close to him. As I spoke with him I emphasized my displeasure of the nickname by crashing my right heel down into the upper part of his left foot. The result was that I got a few detentions for my ending the torment but nobody teased me again and the offender wound up with a limp.

    BTW I think that nicknames can be used to hurt and I am not a fan of them. My name is Michael and the only nickname I will take is Mike. A little dull but that is the way I like it.

    Mike R

  11. jed
    jed June 23, 2010 5:51 pm

    Well, growing up in the 60’s wasn’t exactly great for me. Funny thing is, while a lot of folks wind up with their names getting shortened, some people tried to lengthen mine. Is it just an ingrained human trait to mess with people’s names? I wonder, since it happens so often.

    I can almost get “Mike” from the Mc in McManigal, though I don’t know why anyone would actually go there.

    What I don’t grok at all is “Kit” as short for Elizabeth, and “Peggy” as short for Margaret.

    I know a few Davids who absolutely don’t go by “Dave”, and certainly not by “Davey”.

  12. Ellendra
    Ellendra June 23, 2010 8:53 pm

    Ellendra is my newest name, I’m considering someday making it legal, but for now it works well for my online persona. With all the stories going around of people who got fired or worse because of something they posted online, I guard my real name carefully.

    Ellendra started out as a character in a live-action role-playing group. A confident, street-smart elven ranger. At the time I was so shy I stuttered uncontrollably, couldn’t look people in the eye, and if a guy said I was pretty I would have been terrified that he was a stalker (partly because I had just gotten rid of one). By playing Ellendra, I became Ellendra. I can’t really explain it, but the difference is noticable to anyone who knew me then. And yes, I identify myself as elven! I found it very freeing to take control of my “race” like that, and judging by the size of the otherkin communities online, I’m not the only one.

    I don’t remember the first itty-bitty step toward freedom I took, but I remember one from 3 years ago that shocked me. I’ve mentioned some of my health problems before. In 2007 I suffered an infection that spread to the muscles in my back, landing me in a wheelchair. The doctors had no idea what to do, and couldn’t even agree on what had happened. One doctor, who I had not seen for this problem, got hold of my temporary-disability application and filled it out claiming that I was fully recovered and had already returned to work. Meanwhile, I couldn’t walk, and even breathing hurt.

    Several months into this, when I was at my lowest, when I was wrestling with the idea that I might never walk again, a couple friends of mine were comparing bug-out checklists. They both had my name on their lists of “Things To Grab”. These two friends don’t even live in the same state, and hadn’t talked about it before then, but each had decided that I knew enough useful stuff to more than make up for the fact that I had to be carried.

    I was flabbergasted! I’d been studying survival and self-reliance and weird/odd/useful things since before I can remember, but I’d thought it was all useless if the body didn’t work. My friends taught me without meaning to, that I’m capable of anything as long as my mind is free.

  13. John Smith
    John Smith June 24, 2010 12:22 am

    Now what are ya supposed to do with a name like that? I am over 50 and still are constantly bombarded with snickers and ‘Yea, right!” when I tell people my name. I have to show people my ID everywhere I go, and when I order a pizza it never shows up.

    I’ve learned to embrace it though, in “A boy named Sue” kinda way. I think in some small way it’s made me a little bit stronger having to put up with that name. Enough so that I named my oldest son after me, just as my father gave me this name after him.

    And I learned to give a fake name when I order Pizza.

  14. Jeffrey Quick
    Jeffrey Quick June 24, 2010 7:59 am

    Quick-draw, Quickie Quiz, Nestles, and a few others I won’t repeat here.. It all stopped at a certain age, and I don’t remember doing anything to make it stop. Indeed, now I have to deal with “Dr. Quick” (no PhD, but it’s safer for others to presume, I suppose). I suspect we aLL to some degree or another have come down with Boy Named Sue Syndrome, and want to kill the SOB (or the social games setup) that named us Sue. Maybe that’s why we fight for liberty and dignity when so many others don’t.

  15. Winston
    Winston June 24, 2010 2:20 pm

    Thankfully I’ve never had any real name problems, my parents were at least nice enough to give me a normal name. (And an actual man’s name! People give their sons the wimpiest names these days)
    Winston isn’t my real name though, obviously. Contrary to the usual assumption that I picked it because of that Smith fellow that Orwell wrote about, which is a reasonable assumtion to make, I just pulled this title out of thin air as I’ve done with many others.

    As far as acts of self ownership go…I guess mine would be when I finally discovered the joys of true self-awareness and how to be honest with myself. Cheesy cliche though that sounds…I think a big part of our “programming” nowadays involes lying to ourselves about who we are, telling ourselves that we can’t do this or that and giving oursleves false reassurances like “just be yourself!” and “it’s ok, fighting back will only make it worse!”, smoothing over our own failures so we’ll FEEL free while taking all the crap that anyone else can dish out.

    Once I learned to disreagrd all that stuff I’ve been fed since day 1; setting MY goals and being hard on myself about them rather than relying on other people to do that for me; only then did I start to gain strength and feel free.

  16. Victor Milán
    Victor Milán June 25, 2010 9:59 am

    When I was a kid in the Sixties being different in any way was a guarantee of Kid Torture. Unlike just about every other kid I had no Dad on hand – these were different times, obviously. Plus I had a first name no one else did.

    That second thing didn’t only apply when I was a child. The first other actual human I ever met in person whose first name was Victor was Victor Koman. No foolin’.

    Oddly, the last name caused little grief in Oklahoma – without the accent mark it looks more whitebread than it is. It was only when we moved to Santa Fe, where the racial divide between Latino and Anglo was pretty raw in 1961, that being a really white-looking blond kid with a Spanish last name turned into double jeopardy.

    As for nicknames, occasionally and inexplicably a few people have tried to hang “Vickie” on me. Fortunately it always fell off: ick. I mostly prefer to go by Victor these days, but Vic suits me fine.

    As for the last name, the problem it mostly caused me was befuddling some people as to how to pronounce it. What really made me nuts was people saying it My-lan instead of Mill-an, or even, bafflingly, My-lam or My-lom. I consider pronouncing it to rhyme either with “can” or “lawn” correct. Most Spanish speakers hit about dead-center between.

    Early in my professional writing career I discovered using the accent mark over the “a” was how my family actually spelled the name. So I reclaimed it and have used it ever since.

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