My name is not really Penelope

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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.

161 replies
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  1. Stephen Seckler
    Stephen Seckler says:

    If your goal is to keep us coming back for more, you achieved it with your latest blog post! What will we learn next? That you are actually an African American Muslim who is testing out a complex theory of racial and religious stereotypes?

    Reminds me of the Woody Allen movie Bananas where at the end, an obese black women is testifying in court and asked to state her name. She responds with J. Edgar Hoover and explains that she has to travel in disguises.

    Keep pumping out the great content (whoever you are :) ). I love it!

  2. Zandria
    Zandria says:

    This was really interesting to read. Especially the part about how the name an employer came up with is the one you now use both professionally and in real-life. I guess if you’d known back then what the eventual outcome would be, you might have tried harder to have some input into what they called you. (Not that Penelope Trunk isn’t a nice name!) :)

  3. Steven Grant
    Steven Grant says:

    So far I am aware of six different places in society where you are asked to change you name, your style of dress and where you live all at the same time. This is usaully done to “reset” your identity in order to assist you to conform to a new life.
    Joining the military
    Becoming a Monk
    When a woman gets married
    Becoming a lead singer in a heavy metal band
    Everyone should be encouraged to recreate oneself whenever it feels needed. However, be very carefuyl when someone offers to change you name for you.

    Great post. I loved the post about the beach office party.

    * * * * * *

    Steven, I like your summary of times to change a name. Metal band. Funny.

    And thanks for remembering the beach party post. I can’t acutally find it anywhere, or I’d have liked to it…


  4. Stever
    Stever says:

    A few years ago when I was designing / writing for a very small magazine i changed my last name to Winters — I really only wrote about 5 articles total. Even to this day people that I became friends with through the magazine debate what my real last name is.

    If you change your name again, can I choose it for you?

    * * * * * * *

    For the next name, there will be a contest on the blog, of course :)


  5. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    Boy, what a tortured tale. The peak comes with “even my husband calls me Penelope”. That seemed weird at first but actually simplifies the issue. You don’t have two names. You just changed your name to Penelope Trunk. 

    * * * * *

    Right. Summarized so clearly. Thank you.


  6. Mary
    Mary says:

    How funny! I knew three out of four of your names, but not “Roston.”

    I took my husband’s name because I never liked my maiden name. Plus, my family just automatically started addressing mail to my new name. But, it does irk me that people from my past, when they Google my old name, won’t be automatically transferred to my new name and learn of all my fabulous accomplishments–or lack thereof.

    I think there is a website business in there somewhere–people who change their names, but still want to be found by others from their past–could register given name/new name(s) so Google would find them.

    * * * * * *

    This comment says so much. It is from one of my best friends. And look, even she didn’t know the whole story on my names. Keeping track of the flow of information has been absurd – like I’m living in an Ionesco play.

  7. tamar
    tamar says:

    Glad you have outted yourself. I “knew” years ago when I read your column (I think it was associated w bank of America or something about banking) that PT was reminiscent of another PT – Phineas Taylor… Barnum, known for his hoaxes and for founding the circus that eventually became Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Thanks for coming clean.

  8. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    Fascinating! And your courage in coming out has allowed me to reveal my dark secret: My real name is David Hasslehoff, but potential confusion with the Baywatch Actor forced me to change my name and become Chinese.

    * * * * * *
    Ha ha. Funny. But also not far from how I have felt during some points in this naming fiasco.


  9. Jojax
    Jojax says:

    I think maybe you are naive in thinking that people hadn’t already worked this out!

    About a year ago I got curious as to which companies you actually worked for. I did a whois lookup on and found out it belonged to Adrienne Greenheart, and from there I googled that name and the connection was obvious.

    Still, the whole name-change story was quite interesting!

    * * * * * *

    I think it’s actually an understatement to say that people had already worked this out in their heads. In the last six months, most of the new people I’ve met said to me flat out: “Is that your real name?”

    I am relieved that I now have a post to point them to :)


  10. Matt Maupin
    Matt Maupin says:

    I figure one of these days I will have to change my name – I spend way too much time being honest, reading cliche sociology, and using semicolons incorrectly; I’ll never be the mayor of Wayne, PA if I stay Matt Maupin.

    Best post of yours I’ve read in some time. Better than anything Scott Adams is churning out this week.

  11. Bob L.
    Bob L. says:

    Hello AdPen TruHeart,

    I really enjoyed this post. If you subscribe to the Carlos Castenada school of naming, it’s best to leave your true name unspoken. But maybe our true names are more like the whispering wind, and attachment would be an exercize in futility, anyways.

    Enjoy Madison, and remember to keep your bugspray handy this summer.


    Bob L., a regular rss reader

  12. Dave
    Dave says:

    Of course, if you and your husband want to be a bit devious out there in Madison, have him refer to you as Adrienne now and then, but only not in your presence. People will think he’s got a girlfriend on the side ;-)

  13. Wendy Waters
    Wendy Waters says:

    Great post! Last summer when I was getting ready to launch my blog, I asked you for advice on pseudonyms because I thought I should use one.

    You advised against it, arguing that since my blog is somewhat related to my paying career, I should keep one consistent brand name.

    That was good advice. Thank you. I haven’t run into any problems at work yet.

    Of course, I do share a name with a Fisher Price Rescue Hero action figure. But most people seem to be able to separate my mythical alter-ego and the real me.

    Actually, having the same name as an action figure has been a good ice breaker at networking events etc. even if only parents of pre-schoolers get the joke.

    * * * * * * *

    I can’t resist:

  14. littlepurplecow
    littlepurplecow says:

    What a great story! I’ve wondered about your name.

    When I married, I took my husband’s name and went from the exotic Italian identity of Calabrese to the “all-American” Roberts. Not once have I had to spell it, or dispel relations to the Mafia. Simplicity has its benefits.

  15. Simmer
    Simmer says:

    Like others, I “knew” Penelope wasn’t your “given” name. Maybe you mentioned it years ago in one of your posts. Anyways, keep up the good work. I had no idea you went through so many name changes though. Maybe you’re really just an undercover CIA operative. ;)

  16. Jason Alba
    Jason Alba says:

    wow – my head is spinning. I think I’m amused and confused at the same time – but you’ll always (until the next change) be Penelope to me :p

  17. Diana
    Diana says:

    Wow. I read your blog regularly, and I wouldn’t be lying if I told you that I had a feeling that the name “Penelope” did not really fit you. It’s just a subtle thought that would pop up while reading your writing.

    Because I’ve had a few.. well.. marriages, and thus, name changes, it’s always fun to read my credit report. The only non criminal with so many aliases. Sounds like your name adventures are a helluva lot more interesting.

  18. Dale
    Dale says:

    Woman you are crazy!!!
    I love it:)
    This is the reason that I can’t stop reading your stuff. I learn alot about myself in your writing, I learn alot about other life experiences and paradigms alien from my own, and yet I don’t feel threatened or feel that I must fight against these radical thoughts and viewpoints.
    I enjoy your work most when you write from the heart and so more personally. Thank you for sharing.

    P.S. I am also now quite concerned (and a bit afraid of you) because you are either the most sane, self-aware individual I’ve ever interacted with, or a seriously deranged psycho:)

    * * * * * * *

    It’s a very fine line, isn’t it?

    -Penelope :)

  19. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    I finally found someone with a “name history” as tangled as mine (who isn’t a convicted felon)! At last count, 2 different first names,1 middle name (then no middle name) and three different last names (no, not all thru remarriage).

    I think everybody “changes names” in the sense that we allow ourselves to be known in different ways in different scenarios. We’re not the same person at a preschool fair that we may be in a sales presentation, contract discussion, or bid meeting, for example.

    We “change identities” every time we present ourselves in a particular light at one job interview and in a different light at another for a similiar-but-related job.

    Based on what I’ve done and my training, my resume has three distinct threads: researcher, IT geek, and grant manager. I emphasize one thread or another(or a combination)depending on the skill set desired.

  20. PunditMom
    PunditMom says:

    WOW! I had no idea (obviously!) What an interesting story. I, too, had wondered whether that was your ‘real” name. Someone actually referred to you as “Penny” when I was interviewing them for a story, as if you were both the best of friends!

  21. ex-lion tamer
    ex-lion tamer says:

    So, wait: You initially changed your name to flout patriarchal naming conventions, but then altered it again — twice — because two patriarchal corporate entities got their shorts in a wad over the name(s) you chose?

    Help me out here, Penadriennelope: Did you have a change of heart feminism-wise, or is “being your brand” more important than sticking it to the patriarchy (you know, those dudes who sign your paychecks)?

    Anyway, “Adrienne GreenHeart” sounds a romance novelist’s name, so maybe Mr. Time and Mr. Warner did you a backhanded favor.

  22. Alexandra Levit
    Alexandra Levit says:

    I have to say I never suspected! Adrienne used to be my favorite girl’s name, and because I was too young to have a baby, I named my cat Adrienne. She’s now 10 years old and very special to me. :)

  23. Mike Hobart
    Mike Hobart says:

    Interesting story of your many changes of name. I know that when I started a blog I simply used my real first name and the name of my home town. This resulted in me getting a comment on my blog “I think I know who you are…. am I right?” He was. What are the odds on two bloggers who’ve met in real life stumbling over each other in cyberspace?

    And what exactly did you write for a software award that was so risqué??

  24. Suzy
    Suzy says:

    I agree! This was not only a +funny+(lol)post, but I’ve experienced a little of this myself, after starting to blog. You see, I use an alter ego/in-cognito identity (it’s because I’m new at blogging and kind of shy about writing on the web.)

    Suzy is part of my real name (middle name), but it’s spelled differently and only my siblings and a few others call me that. I’m not sure as to how this will impact me later on, but it’s miniscule compared to all of your changes.

    I kind of serendipitously stumbled upon your site while doing research. I like your insights and the comments are interesting, too.

  25. David
    David says:

    You have no idea, how philosophically “deep” you’re story is. Having studied Philosophy of Language in undergrad (A.B. Philosophy), I’d be remiss in not directing you to the body of work by Saul Kripke, author of “Naming and Necessity.” There is a chapter in the book that addresses that phenomenon.

  26. Sunil
    Sunil says:

    Sorry – I got lost in there somewhere.

    When you said:

    ‘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.’

    What was your boss’s problem with your master’s thesis?

  27. devBear
    devBear says:

    This is a completely awesome post. I’m sometimes confused between my multiple web identities. And now that I’ve begun to blur the line between my pseudonym and the “real life” me maybe it will get better (or worse?). When I meet people in person they are also trying to figure it out. I’m trying to remember if they know me because of my blog, my foodblog or something else.

    I’ll be writing to you with my real name soon after your admonishment in my last mail ;-)

  28. mcrat
    mcrat says:

    What do you call yourself in your mind? which name?

    Also you might wanna start a psych study about all this name changing and identity crisis. It might help people who face these ‘branding’ issues.

    I personally thought of the bard when I read this. Just my 2 cents;)

    * * * * * * *
    I was thinking of myself as Penelope long before I dropped all my other names. I think that’s why it felt so natural to take Penelope officially.


  29. Phil
    Phil says:

    Your numerous name changes and their reasonings reaffirms how self-absorbed you tend to be as well as how insecure you are with yourself at the same time. You are a freshman in college trapped in a 40 year old woman’s body.

  30. kristi
    kristi says:

    wow, in my first comment to you, I said it seemed like you were living my alternate existence. This is more evidence of the same!

    I have changed my name 4 times too, for different reasons. The first two times involved getting married. Then, I decided to take my mother’s maiden name as a way of reclaiming myself after my divorce.

    I truly believed that was the last one for me, but then I chose to get married again later. It was my husband’s first marriage, and he was determined that I take his name or no deal.

    After weighing it out, I agreed. What’s funny to me is that I went from Sizemore, a name linked to “tailoring”, to Schneider, another word for tailor.

    A long way around to get back to where I started.

  31. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    I like your writing…it is always interesting. The story of your name doesn’t disappoint. Its ironic that you shed your name due to its paternal nature only to be renamed in paternal-like fashion by a faceless corporation, Time Inc.

  32. Jen
    Jen says:

    Fascinating story Penelope. I have such a unique name and such a sense of internet paranoia that most times I use two different online names.

    I’m not a famous writer like you but just do not like the idea of anyone being able to do a search query of blogs and forums along with my real name to peer into my thoughts and comments shared online.

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  34. Ez
    Ez says:

    A confused sales person once sent me proposals with Ezra Breedlove on the mailing label. Soon after, another bequeathed Treedlove on me. It was interesting both sold my address such that I started getting junk from other companies and the unique name help know who. Personally, I think my own name is fantastic enough.

  35. Mark
    Mark says:

    I received a fruitcake for Christmas from a thoughtless, insensitive (read white, Christian, male, over the age of 40) relative who dared to assume that I celebrate Christmas….and like fruitcake. I decided that the best way to show my disdain for the whole experience was to rename the fruitcake, thereby disacknowledging (I just made that up) the association of the gift with the meaningless holiday. I called the fruitcake Vanillope Junk and took a bite. It still tasted like fruitcake, so I threw it out. The name change didn’t help.

  36. innocent reader
    innocent reader says:

    And then, when Yahoo fired you for being “brazen” you became Dave, a person who posts ignorant comments on random message boards. Wonderful.

  37. Trish
    Trish says:

    This is the funniest thing I’ve read for ages…love it! My favourite bit was your husband’s comment about moving to Madison as an insane person…worthy of Lily Brett.

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  1. hypocritical says:

    Best blog post ever…?

    It’s akin to that feeling you have after seeing 2001 or some Bergman flick, when you begin to think that you might actually be starting to get it. That kind of feeling. Like reading Pynchon? You know what I mean.

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