I have a secret to tell you. I have never liked my name. What does that mean, if anything? My name, which is marked on my christening cups, is the same name as my mother’s: Sheila May. So does my dislike come from a feeling of hostility toward my mother? Did I look down on my mother, considering her uneducated, a woman who had first been some sort of a servant, perhaps, in my father’s household? Was I ashamed that my father had divorced his first wife to marry my mother, the story I have written in “Love Child? ”
Or did this dislike, perhaps, come from the fact that I had read or heard somewhere that the name “Sheila” is a generic one in Australia for a girl. So that my name is just the name of any old girl. I am a Sheila. Somehow this connotation makes my name seem ordinary. Or is it that I looked down on my poor mother, thought of her as ordinary in some way?
Certainly names are not given without echoes from our past, our reading, our lives. As writers we know how important the choice of a name is for a character. We need to get it just right. One thinks of Freud’s early patient young Ida Bauer. Why did he call her Dora in the case history? He tells us himself that his sister Rosa had a maid who was also called Rosa and thus to distinguish her from her mistress took on the name Dora. This choice Freud does not analyze. Did Dora, being the name of a maid, not carry some sort of pejorative connotation?
And did Dora also come from literature, from Freud’s beloved “David Copperfield” where the child-wife who sharpens David’s pencils and dies young is called Dora. Or what about Theodora the powerful empress who was once a prostitute but rose to power through intrigue? Not to mention Pandora with her box of evils let loose on the world.
My young husband and I chose our own daughters’ names from literature and life. We called the youngest girl Brett, both after an early childhood friend I admired and also from Brett Ashley in the “Sun Also Rises” a somewhat dubious choice surely.
As for Cybele our middle daughter, her name came from a film we saw called “Sundays and Cybele,” though a Lacanien friend once suggested that the choice of the name, Cybele, though we chose it before we knew the child was deaf, must have been chosen because of an unconscious knowledge of her deafness with the play on the word decibel.
So as Juliet says in “Romeo and Juliet” "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet." Does my dislike of my name indicate low self-esteem, a reluctance to be the daughter of a mother I did not always esteem?
Yet when my editor called me into his office and asked me what name I wanted to choose for my first published book, “The Perfect Place” --Did I want to choose my first husband’s name, or the second one, or my maiden name? -- I chose Sheila Kohler, the name given to me by both my father and my mother. This is for better or for worse who I am.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.