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. Tony Tallent
    Tony Tallent says:

    When I was in a freshman in college I was bumped from winning “best in show”(or whatever the prize was called) in the Art Students’ League Exhibition because the judges didn’t believe that “Tony Tallent” was a real person’s name. They thought it was a made-up name an undergrad had created so that he or she could enter more than the maximum number of art pieces (rules!). I later found this out from a trusted art instructor and felt completely powerless over a name my parents surely didn’t think much about before they swaddled me and took me out into the big-wide-world. Later, in a post-graduate school side-gig as a film student, I decided to adopt a nickname I’d been called by a few people when I was younger: T. But I left off the “.” For my whole stint in film school I was T Tallent. Confusion was minimal on this one, though I would have to shift gears with friends who’d come visit, and I felt like a third-grader when they called me “Tony” in front of the film school crowd. Moving on to my next incarnation and back in grad school, I stepped back into “Tony Tallent” (with a round or two of intense renamings among various circles of friends) and then moved onto a life that was attached to a profession and my “real name.” For the past 10 years or so I have worked quite a bit with authors, illustrators, musicians, and artists of various hues. Inevitably, I’m asked in the process of booking or negotiating: So is that your real name or your assumed name (or some configuration of the question). “No, it’s real.” Ha. Is it short for Anthony? “No, it’s just Tony. Tony Tallent.” Oh. I take some kind of comic solace in the idea that the name is memorable or catchy or ridiculous enough to work for me. Because of the name-thing I have found myself thinking too much about names in my life–even as a kid. What I’ve finally decided is that after the initial curve of meeting a new client or co-worker, we become more remembered for our hairstyle or shoes or other defining mark. (I still often sign my name “T Tallent” for kicks, though).

  2. Dina
    Dina says:

    A cool story! Changing names is always a funny story I’ve changed my name few years back but in google one finds both names so they can link my current name to the first one.

  3. missC
    missC says:

    I’m writing a couple of erotic novels and had planned to publish under pen names to spare my mum embarrassment. Now I’m thinking it’s just too complicated. Hell, maybe mum will enjoy erotica.

    This all makes me think of Brian D’Amato’s discussion of French philosophers’ take on ‘reality’ in ‘Beauty’. If it’s what people really call you, it’s your real name!

  4. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I have mentioned your blog to several people and more than once, the response has been, “Trunk? Like a tree?” I am positive that if I were to bring up your name again, they would remember you and the context.

    I am getting married in two months and taking my fiance’s name. I have been Strumwasser all my life and hated the name growing up. Teachers, professors, friends, friends’ parents…I have gotten a Strooomvasser from all of them. (Plus, it was always too far down in the alphabet for me – it’s very traumatizing being called last in gym class).

    When I was younger, I wanted to marry someone with a short, easy-to-spell name. My new last name will be Lowenbraun – neither short nor easy to spell – but I am now thankful because my name will continue to differentiate me. Inevitably, someone refers to the beer! It is a memorable one, which is important in the business world.

  5. John Lacey
    John Lacey says:

    I remember a time when I started using a pseudonym on the internet. It became very very complicated. However I was fairly disenchanted to google my own name and find I was one of what seemed millions of people to share the same name.

    Even with the dot com domain of my own name, I still come up on the 4th page of Google Search. I became so annoyed when I couldn’t use my own name as my username on myspace that I referred to myself as therealjohnlacey and included a tirade on the page itself saying that “some jerk” had stolen the name already. (The aforementioned “jerk” later contacted me, although all in all took it with great humour.) Another individual contacted me in this fashion, explaining that I couldn’t have been “the real” John Lacey, because his father (a War Veteran, apparently) was the “real” one.

    Thanks for the article. It just inspired a post on my own blog. lol

  6. William Peregoy
    William Peregoy says:

    Penelope, I loved your story about the name change.

    I’m struggling with it in a way myself. My name is William Garret Peregoy II, named after my father, and my whole life up until high school I was known by my middle name as Garret. Then in high school, I got into music and when I turned 18, I even started my own record label – I spent years introducing myself as GP. Then, I took a name change when I quit being an artist and wanted to be an executive, I wanted to use my real name, but figured no one could pronounce Peregoy, so I called myself William G. Cash, hence my blog – I spent some time blogging and being on the internet as William G. Cash, but now that I’m applying for jobs and about to graduate – my resume and transcript and everything important is William G. Peregoy, and putting my blog as on my resume started to seem silly, and I started to wonder what would employers think when they go to my blog is my name is William G. Cash all over the place, will they think it’s somebody else’s blog?

    It really gets confusing when I go places with old friends who sill only refer to me as GP, and then I meet new people… who do I introduce myself as? GP? Garret? William?… Hell, I never know.

    I really gets confusing when it comes to email like you said, I have two accounts, William G. Cash and William Peregoy, so I have to keep a close eye on which account I’m under. One time, I even got a package in the mail for William G. Cash, and it got delivered to the front office of my apartment – when I went to pick it up, they ask to see ID, and the lady tried to tell me that it wasn’t a package for me, that it must be for my roomate and she wasn’t going to give it to me. I had to get some help and get someone else that worked there who knew me to explain to her that I was also, indeed William G. Cash.

    Lol. But I still don’t know which name to use, at least you finally just picked one and stuck with it.

  7. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    @ William Peregoy: Are you serious about people not being able to pronounce your name ‘Peregoy’? What is so hard about it? I am puzzled.

    I come from a culture where complicated names are common. Nevertheless, in the west (Europe and America) I have always found people curious and willing to learn the right pronunciation of my name. And if they don’t, well I make sure they do :-)

    @ Lisa: From Electricity-Water to Lions-Brown – great leap indeed. Do you also use umlauts as in the name of the beer? Names which mean something are always greatly fascinating!

  8. William Peregoy
    William Peregoy says:

    I know it looks easy enough to me, it’s pronounced just like it’s spelled, but I’ve gotta all kinds of wrong pronounciations, everything from “Prego” to “Paraguay, like the country?”

  9. Ashlee
    Ashlee says:

    I too have had many differnt names, I change my last name like it’s my hobby. I have number three and hoping soon to get number four.

  10. cindy*staged4more
    cindy*staged4more says:

    Hey Penelope

    I think this is an incredibly interesting blog. I have changed my name legal when I moved from Taiwan to America because people simply cannot pronounce my name. I have spoke with other minorities who feel strongly about not changing their names, because they shouldn’t conform to people who don’t understand their cultures. But for me, I don’t like people butchering my name over and over again, not to mention US customs didn’t even spell it correctly. Especially my Chinese name was given to me by my mother. So I chose to take an English name.

    I have to say I get really attached to being Cindy Lin, now because I am so used to living as Cindy Lin. My parents even call me Cindy now, they hardly use my Chinese name, unless they are super angry with me then it’s the entire Chinese name gets yelled out.

    I get offended by people when people write me emails and refer me as Cindi or Cyndi because I take that as a sign of them treating me as a younger women and don’t take me seriously. But perhaps that’s just my paranoia about being in my 20s working with people in my industry who are mostly 10-20+ years older than me. Or maybe because they see me as an artistic hippie? I don’t know, but I do get annoyed by my name spelled wrong.

    I also detest when people misspelled my name with other Asian names like Lee, Lim, Liu, whatever, because it’s offensive that they cannot differentiate me with other Asians or Asian Americans.

    Anyway, I really love this post because it’s very interesting to think about shedding or starting a new chapter of life with a brand new name. To most people, my Chinese name doesn’t mean anything to them. But for me in a way, it is a core part of me. It is now becoming a private name in my heart, just like my culture and upbringings make up my core, no matter how my external environment have changed.

    Thanks for the thoughts,
    Cindy :)

  11. Connie
    Connie says:

    “First divorce battle is over my name. He won’t use Penelope.” Ahhh, battles… Can I assume he’s doing this out of intense anger to make it hard on you to pay for what he thinks he’s suffered for your career? Make it easier on him and help take away some of his anger in ways that you can tolerate(you’ll feel better for it). Why should you be nice and appear to give in? Even in divorce, you need some kind of relationship as parents. You know it’s over, so go forward being kind to each other. Someone has to lay down the sword, why not you?

    Is this wasted typing…do you even read these?

  12. claristhecowdog
    claristhecowdog says:

    Very amusing whilst at the same time poignant and insightful. And well written to boot.

    My only question is, when you said “I didn't want my last name to be a definition of the men I was associated with” I am wondering what the word Trunk conveys. That you associate with men with large proboscises (-i?) or other significant physical assets?

    claris the cowdog

  13. Simone Breedlove
    Simone Breedlove says:

    Well, my pen name is Simone Xenon Breedlove. My ex gave it to me. I suppose everyone needs a pen name…writer or no. I’m not sure why he chose Simone…it happened on a bowling date. I was bowling poorly as myself, and decided to bowl as Simone. My score went up significantly; Xenon, I understand, is a type of gas and sounded cool as a middle name; Breedlove? After Craig Breedlove, the race car driver who attempted to set the land speed record a number of years ago.

    Sounds like a stripper name.

  14. Ron Trunk
    Ron Trunk says:

    If you want to change your name, that’s no business of mine, but why did you pick my name?

  15. Mt Tabor Vistas
    Mt Tabor Vistas says:

    Hilarious. A Twitter friend @blogan recommended your tweets and blog today. Noticing the “First time here?” tag, I took the bait.

    In the early years of Compuserve, et al, I too adopted several non de plume, but in this latest wave of social networking, I dove in and used my real name. But I started getting some heat. Apparently some people can’t handle the truth and the authenticity is a little too steep of a learning curve.

    So, I created the above pen name and anonymous blog. Who know’s maybe one day I’ll be known as a dormant volcano in the center of a large metropolitan enclave.

  16. Jesse Trucks
    Jesse Trucks says:

    Not only is this entry well written, it is a compelling story on its own. I find it even more engaging because there are many of us that have trouble with their own names or use different names in different times of their lives. Though my own tale of names is far less interesting or profound as yours, I do see parallels in how logical and obvious your choices were, as were mine.

    Names define who we are, but sometimes we define the name. Some of us just do a little of both and more than once.

  17. Maria Purisima
    Maria Purisima says:

    Great reminder for us to be focused! I abbreviated Maria Purisima as Ma. Purisima while in High School. Now, I have to hire Notary Public Lawyers to testify who really am.

  18. Lance
    Lance says:

    That is absolutely bizarre, but I totally understand. I’ve changed my name. Twice. I moved back to a city after a one year hiatus and starting introducing myself with another name and it worked instantly. After a couple of days I become that name and if felt right. What was bizarre was that I still had good friends in the town from the first time, and they had a hard time making the switch. Still do, in fact.

    I have a very small group of friends that know me as Lance and call me by that name. I respond to it and it feels okay too. I don’t in the least have an identity issue…in fact, I think we can all assume different identities, or project a certain identity depending on the circumstance. When I blog I’m Lance.

    You must be a Gemini.

  19. Anna R.
    Anna R. says:

    You’re a professional writer, you have an advanced degree from (presumably) an accredited institution of higher learning, you’re over 40, and still you believe incognito is nonsensically spelled in cognito? With italics, no less?!

    That’s upsetting. I guess we really are f*cked.

  20. Fiona
    Fiona says:

    Wow, what an interesting story. I have a few pen names for different articles I write, so now I can only imagine what trouble I would get in if I were to become very well known. It gets complicated! You mastered it well, now that even your husband calls you Penelope! Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  21. Wyana
    Wyana says:

    I don’t know why I can’t ignore this question in my head, but what about your passport, or does the not travelling thing mean you don’t need deal with Authority? What does the IRS call you?

  22. TwistedByKnaves
    TwistedByKnaves says:

    What a disappointment. I had always thought that you changed your name when you moved out from New York, as an oblique reference to:

    “Nellie the elephant packed her trunk and said goodbye to the circus”

    Oh well: another illusion shattered.

    Though, in a way…

  23. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Wow. Reading this gave me a bit of anxiety. I knew deep down Penelope Trunk was a pen name-ish sort of thing but still you as a person. I don’t know why, but I find the fact that your “real” name Adrienne was left to be forgotten a sad, scary thing.

    Does EVERYONE now call you penelope? Do you ever think of yourself as adrienne anymore?

    It’s strange – I can read your posts on just about everything and understand your point of view, be intrigued, and move on. But somehow this has affected me. I feel like my concept of self-identity is shaken.

    Interesting post, thanks.

  24. Bob Braxton
    Bob Braxton says:

    Before first grade I liked being Bobby until I learned a high school girl had the name Bobby (and her sister Billy)! When I entered a private college I became Bob. As early as middle elementary school I discovered that reversing the letters of my names (first and last) resulted in Trebor Notxarb, which to me at the time sounded distinguished. I never used that ‘pen’ name except privately with myself. My ‘Pirkle’ spouse was glad to change from that last name in order to be able to name one child ‘Peter’ — where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Pirkle picked?

  25. Free MLM Training
    Free MLM Training 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.

  26. Jonha
    Jonha says:

    You changed your name as easy as you change your boyfriends, eh? Well Penelope, it doesn’t matter really, you’re always great.

  27. Damien
    Damien says:

    Perfectly illustrates Howard Hughes’ (probably stolen) adage that “People only know what you tell them.”

  28. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    I had my entire name legally changed in court, there was a waiting period, when my day in court came I told the judge why, I also think they did a background check.

    Anyway he approved it in court that day. I changed it because I HATED my entire name. After that happened, I had to go the social security admin, passport services, MDV, credit card company, etc…but you know what it was COMPLETELY worth it.

    I love having a name that I like. Another reason why I changed it is because I didn’t want to carry on my father’s last name, he was an abusive man who was horrible to my mother and I, after they got divorced I never saw the man and I didn’t care to.

    I’m happy to say years later my mom has a new husband, he’s my stepdad, and I have a new name that I love. No I didn’t take my stepdad’s last name, actually, I changed my name as an adult and it was before my mom dated my stepdad.

    Anyway, sometimes you need to change your name, sometimes you need to start over, sometimes you have private reasons for going by another name or for changing names. I also moved out of state and started over. Sometimes you need this new clean slate in life.

    When I met my bf, I told him the truth, and he understood. I tell him everything, he is my best friend. Sometimes if I’m really close to someone I will tell them “hey I had my name changed” and they’re like “what, how?”

    LOL. So I go through the questions and some find it interesting, and others find it weird, but whatever its my life and my choice, I’m happy with it. I still have the same SSN #, and the government knows what my old name is, so I’m not hiding or anything.

    And no I’m not in witness protection, lol. Its just good to have a name that I love. =)

  29. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I like your story Penelope. It’s well told and describes the “headaches” and “confusions” that may result due to our names.
    Here’s a funny story about a male’s name (who evidently kept his name as given by his parents) as reported by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette yesterday –

    Fort Wayne, IN — A popular name in online voting for a new governmental building in Fort Wayne is not likely to make the cut.
    Harry Baals (Bawlz), a popular mayor in the 1930’s, is currently the runaway favorite among voters on a city feedback website.
    Deputy Mayor Beth Malloy told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette that naming the center after Baals is not likely to happen. She told the paper they wouldn’t make any decisions that made the city look bad.
    As of Tuesday afternoon, the Baals name had over 1,000 votes. The runner-up, the Eugene Johnson Memorial Center, had just under 300.
    Supporters on the site said it is about honoring someone regardless of the name.
    “Naming this building after a long term past politician is what most communities do. Who cares that the name is what it is. It’s about honoring a public servant,” said one poster.
    The Journal Gazette said that Baals descendants now pronounce their last name “Bales.”

    Well there’s a lot of ways to comment on this story. A couple come to mind. What parent names their child Harry with that last name? It reminds me of a song named “A Boy named Sue”. Also name and the image it evokes are closely tied together. Maybe Harry was ahead of this time regarding personal branding. I’m hoping Harry gets that building named after him!

  30. Nothing Onyou
    Nothing Onyou says:

    Been reading your shtuff for apx 45 mins. Wow, you make me feel so lucky!!!

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. All the best to you. Every day I will think about you and say “YES!!!”

  31. betty in munich
    betty in munich says:

    I have never been a big fan of my name the rather boring “Betty”. My mom always says she was choosing between the names Sonia and Betty and chose Betty…why oh why? In any event, sometime in middle school I decided it would be cool to change the spelling to Bette. And so it went from about 8th grade until I graduated from college. As I entered the workforce and got married, I decided to go back to my real name and there was a bit of confusion. But in time I was Betty once again. Fast forward 20 years and I get an email from a long lost college friend addressed “Hi Bette”. Funny!

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  33. m
    m says:

    You really look like an Adrienne, I think. It’s a pretty name.

    For a made-up last name, I like the choice of Greenheart.

    With no disrespect meant (honestly), you’ve nearly collected enough official names for each one of your multiple personalities to have her own! ;-)

    Good for you for surviving so much.

  34. Brenda
    Brenda says:

    always enjoyable :) I check in for smiles…

    another name segue…my parents always joke that they were going to call me Penny. My last name is Nichols. ha AND there really is a teen mystery book called Penny Nichols ( (much like Nancy Drew) I have a copy of one that my brother found.


  35. Alan
    Alan says:


    I was baptized with a name that Americans see as a woman’s name. Thirty years ago, people meeting me would say “Oh. that’s interesting”. Twenty years ago, they would start getting visibly uncomfortable. Ten years ago they actually started getting angry. Problems started happening. It got to where I had to change.

    I take this as more evidence of ongoing social and intellectual deterioration. As if we needed more evidence.


    PS Penelope, though, is a lovely name, and it seems to suit you.

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