What's in a name
AS READ ON JANUARY 28TH @ THE WHISTLESTOP
The first time my name was changed, I was 4 years old. My parents had sent me to live in a Hare Krishna school in Dallas, TX. My name was changed from Vanessa to Radha Manjari a sanskrit name. I wore saris. Covered my head. Ate indian food. Woke up at 3:30am for prayers. Sold spiritual books door to door and in airports. Studied the Bhagavad Gita. Fully immersed, I had very little contact with the outside world including my own parents and extended family. Phone calls were allowed for 10 minutes on Sundays and all forms of communication were heavily censored. We saw our parents twice a year.
From the age of 4-12 years old, I attended 7 different Hare Krishna schools. Over those 8 years, us kids were slapped for talking back, forced to lick food and milk off the floor if we spilled it. When I was 7, I ate okra and promptly threw it up. I was then forced to eat my vomit. It was after all, offensive to Krishna (God) to waste food. As punishment, we were routinely isolated from friends and family, poked, hit and humiliated - all by the adults who were on a mission to elevate our consciousness from filth of the material world. I wanted to reject this treatment and ideology, but was deterred by the consequences. I curbed my instincts for several years, going along with the way of life I had been forced into.
The second time my identity was on the line was when I was 11 years old. I was kicked out of school in upstate New York for causing discord among the group. My friends who had my back were the fallen angels. I was Lucifer. Getting kicked out wasn’t such a bad deal. I was proud, actually. I was free. The best part was that I would be reunited with my mother who I hadn’t lived with in 8 years.
However, once we settled into our routine, it was nothing like I imagined.
One afternoon, as I returned home and walked up the steps to the trailer, she handed me a basket filled with orange laundry.
I noticed it had men's dirty clothing: socks, a prayer bag and a dhoti. A dhoti is a garment Hindu men wear. Orange clothing is worn by a celibate unmarried man.
A knot formed in my stomach. Waves of disgust came over me.
With a sick feeling in my stomach, my wild instinct kicked in.
"You want me to get married"?
My face turned red in embarrassment, panic and anger.
I put down the basket. “I am not getting married”!
She extolled the virtues of marriage. I would be made into a good woman by virtue of getting married and serving god by dutifully submitting to my husband.
Please give him a chance”, she begged”
I was too young at the time to know the spiritual and physical threats the Guru had made to her, if she didn’t get me under control. All I felt in that moment were the sharp stings of betrayal by my mother.
I agreed to talk with this man. Honestly, I didn’t have a choice. I was 11. My suitor was 29.
Like anyone vying for the good graces of a child, my suitor took me to Epcot Center, a newly opened amusement park in Orlando Florida. I don’t remember the drive, other than sitting in the back seat. I wore a colourful sari, my usual clothing. However, I had never been in such a public place dressed like this, and practically alone with a grown man. I watched the other girls giggling with their friends, wearing pants, their hair flowing in the Florida sunshine. I watched longingly as parents held their children’s hands and moms and dads walked together smiling. I was 4 the last time my family was together like this.
I had never been to an amusement park and while it all seemed overwhelming, there was an excitement in the air I couldn't resist. Walking awkwardly through the park, I hung onto the threads of my childhood and immersed myself in the fantasy that I was adopted. Perhaps I had “real” parents somewhere who might someday save me. Maybe I would be “discovered” and put on TV. Maybe someone else would just like me and rescue me.
We decided to take a ride on Space Mountain. My suitor sat in front of me, my mother behind me - as I spun through darkness: excited, scared, hoping to be transported into another life. Maybe I’d jump out and let myself fall into oblivion. My little hands held tightly onto the only sense of freedom I knew and would possibly ever know again.
In the rush of the ride, I felt my confidence grow and a sense of wildness return.
My suitor laid out the many benefits an 11 year old might reap of marriage: protection, freedom and popularity. We went through a question and answer session, which included: What’s your favorite food? Cookies, I said. (this hasn’t changed) He told me I would be able to eat as many cookies as I like because I would be considered an adult - if I marry him. He also promised that I would be the “star” of my school. You know, because I would be the first of my friends to be married. Little did he know.
I sharply stated “I’m already a star! Everyone from here to Europe knows me. I don’t need you”. I was unyielding. My unrelenting inner strength shined through and he realized he picked the wrong child-bride to mold into his vision of a perfect wife.
When we arrived home, my mom cried as I shared I didn’t believe in Krishna. I wanted to change my name back to Vanessa. To see my grandparents. I wanted to go to college, become a psychologist and have a real job, not beg for money in the street.
As I spoke clearly that my wants were different than hers, I felt her heart breaking at my decision, yet I felt so betrayed by her. She had given up on me. And I decided to give up on her. All those years, I longed to be with her, cried myself to sleep for 8 years and when we are finally reunited, she wanted give me away - again - to someone else, not to love me but to control me.
That afternoon, I went to the only freestanding phone in the community and called my dad collect. I told him mom wanted me to marry a man more than twice my age and that he needed to fly me to london or I was going to call the police.
Yes, there I went again with my crazy threats. This one worked.
A few weeks later, I flew to London.
For the first time in 8 years, I slept in past 4am. He introduced me to Frank Sinatra songs and Pizza hut. We ate spuds piled high with sour cream and cheese and drank soda. I wore a short blue and green plaid kilt almost daily. I read Lord of the Rings and Stephen King’s FireStarter. Watched Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones at a theatre in Piccadilly. I stuffed myself with chocolate, had my first crush on a boy (without getting demerits) and smoked my first cigarette with a catholic girl who lived down the street.
Away from the Hare Krishna’s, I recreated myself in a way that felt unoppressed. That hinted at some kind of freedom. I changed my name back to Vanessa and used my dad’s last name as a way to reinforce that I had made a definite break from my the past.
Over the following years. I danced the lines between my wildness and conformity. When I got married, it was with trepidation that I took his last name. In the aftermath of what started as love but grew into a sense of confinement and eventually a split, I decided to reclaim my identity the way I envisioned it.
I had once let everyone else name me, rename me and categorize me to suit their comfort.
So tonight’s a really big night, not just in sharing this story. You see, today I took things into my own hands and legally filed to change my last name to one that reflects the part of me that no one could ever take away. No, it’s not LUCIFER.
My last name is WILDE.
Wilde is in honor of the women in my family who sold themselves out to marriages of convenience and succumbed to the confines of skewed spirituality.
Wilde celebrates my parents who were driven by pure passion and creativity but got mixed up with the wrong gang.
Wilde is in honor of all the dreamers who came before me.
It is in faith of those who will trail blaze the road ahead.