In this age of transparency and authenticity it seems absurd to not tell you my real name. My real name is not Penelope Trunk. Well, in fact, it is Penelope Trunk. Sort of. At any rate, my name is definitely a lesson in personal branding.
My name started out Adrienne Roston. It’s fun to write that because if you Google that name, you will find only professional beach volleyball statistics. But running this post means that finally all my unrequited high school crushes, who surely are desperate to contact me, can find my email via Google.
So, anyway, I was Adrienne Roston, and then I started reading Adrienne Rich’s poetry in college. This lead me to believe that the key to undermining the patriarchy was through words, and I didn’t want my last name to be a definition of the men I was associated with.
So I went to court to change my name to Adrienne Greenheart. As a foreshadow of my complicated relationship with feminism, I was careful to pick a last name that my current boyfriend would take as well, should we get married (we didn’t). So in fact I have a name he picked. (My first choice was Breedlove. Thank god he voted that down.)
It was in the heart of the start of the Internet: GeoCities, EarthLink, CompuServe. So I spelled my name GreenHeart. I policed my family assiduously — they could barely remember to stop using Roston, let alone add a capital H in the middle of GreenHeart.
In court, the judge asked me why I was changing my name (they have to look out for felons, you know?) I said, “I’m changing my name because I don’t want to be associated with patriarchal naming conventions.”
She said, “That’s a great reason,” and banged her gavel.
Changing my name was amazingly easy. I had just quit playing volleyball and I moved to Boston for graduate school. I got there and introduced myself as Adrienne GreenHeart. Done. I couldn’t believe how well it worked.
Of course, there is a thousand-year history of women doing this – changing their last name overnight. So the world is set up for it, in a way.
When I got my first major job, at a software company, I dropped the capital in the middle and kept my name origins to myself. Then, lo and behold, my master’s thesis won a big award in the software industry. I found out because my boss told me. He shook my hand. He said he’s honored to have me on staff.
Then he called me into his office where and said, “Did you write this?” he pointed to the screen where my thesis was unfolding. He said he thought it was pornography.
I didn’t say to him, “you are an ignoramus and Philip Roth won a National Book Award and he wrote about a boy who masturbates with meat.” I did not say that because my boss had been very supportive of my career.
And this time was no different. He said, “You will go very far in corporate America, but not with your name tied to this. If you had your name on this when our board investigated you we probably wouldn’t have hired you.”
So I made up a new name and slapped it on my master’s thesis. I sent news of my award to my mom. I told her to go read my stories online. And she said, “Oh my god, did you change your name again?”
Then, I got my first columnist job from Time Warner. I approached the contract like any other business contract, and I started negotiating. I said, “Do I really need a new pen name? I already have a pen name.”
My editor said, “Time, Inc. does not negotiate with a no-name like you.” So I didn’t say anything when the magazine assigned me the name Penelope Trunk.
The day my column launched, I had my mom go to the magazine site, and she couldn’t find my column, because of course, she did not know my name.
For a long time, I wrote the column in cognito. I actually had no idea how widely read my column was until I wrote about my company’s office party at the beach. I was too specific about details, and I blew my cover. I nearly got fired, but instead agreed to delete from the online archive a small group of columns including the one about diagnosing my CEO with manic depression.
Soon after that, I became a full-time writer, I thought of writing under Adrienne Greenheart, but I already had too much invested in Penelope Trunk. That’s who people had been reading for three years. It was too late to change. So I posted my photo by my column and I became the name officially.
I used to change my email settings when I had to send something from Penelope. But I ended up having so much email for Penelope that I created two, separate email addresses. One for Penelope and one for Adrienne. I was always forgetting which email client I was in, and I sent email with the wrong name on it all the time. And surely you know that people delete email from names they’ve never heard of.
By this point, I also had a lot of people calling me on the phone and hanging up when they heard Adrienne Greenheart on my voicemail. So I took my name off my voicemail.
Before I started writing for the Boston Globe, I seldom interviewed people. I usually just wrote about me and my friends. But the Globe demanded interviews. It took very little time before I was spending more of my day talking on the phone as Penelope than as Adrienne.
Then I started becoming friends with people I interviewed. And I could never decide when to tell people that my real name is Adrienne. If I told people too late in the friendship they would get insulted. So I started telling people earlier, and then I couldn’t remember who knew what name. And then I found myself signing my Penelope emails as Adrienne.
Things were getting complicated. So I took a drastic step and got rid of my Adrienne email. One email account would be much easier. And by this time, almost everyone who knew me as Adrienne Greenheart also knew that I wrote as Penelope. So I thought it might work.
Things just got more and more complicated, and then I moved to Madison. And I remembered, on the plane ride to Madison, how easy it was to change my name in grad school. You just tell people a different name.
So when I signed up for my son’s preschool, I told them my name was Penelope Trunk. My husband had a fit. He told me I was starting our new life in Madison as an insane person and I cannot change my name now.
But I explained to him that it would be insane not to change my name now. I am way better known as Penelope than Adrienne. And my career is so closely tied with the brand Penelope Trunk, that I actually became the brand. So calling myself Penelope Trunk instead of Adrienne Greenheart is actually a way to match my personal life with my professional life and to make things more sane.
At first it was a little weird. For example, we were driving in the car one day and my son said, “Mom, who’s Penelope Trunk?”
But now it feels good to be Penelope Trunk. No more having to figure out what name to give where. No more pretending to be someone, sometimes. No more long explanations and short memories of who calls me what.
Now, even my husband calls me Penelope. He has to. Because if he called me Adrienne in Madison, no one would know who he’s talking about. So, my real name really is Penelope. Now. And you know what? It’s not that big a deal, since, after all, it is the fourth time I’ve changed my name.