What's in a Name

No matter the family dysfunction, if you have children you have an opportunity to change direction. And it does seem, that if you come from a family that was functional, you can change that, too, with the right match.

But for now, let's stick to the former idea, the hopeful one, that no matter the family dysfunction, we can change direction somehow. Let's stick with this thesis that we can direct fate, for everyone likes thinking they can. We don't have to be slaves to circumstance.

Those of us with anxiety disorders especially like this world view.

As are those in The Business. They know that we go to the movies to see how others fumble at controlling their lives, and how other people, ordinary people, make it all work out somehow. Satisfactorily.

The people in the business know that some of us really need happy endings. We need to see change that will make it all functional, and we're so grateful for this art, for the places we can go to see that things really do work out for the best. Our favorite drug, seriously.

Therapists like me try to model our personalities, actually, off of therapists in the movies. We assume that they get paid better, so why wouldn't we? I admire them, but can't really bring myself to behave like them.

Like the therapist in the movie Ordinary People (played by Judd Hirsch, a natural therapydoc) leaves his office and chases down his patient, a fifteen year old kid. He goes where ever the kid's pathology takes him.

The little guy, poignantly played by Timothy Hutton, has watched his brother drown in a boating accident and has significant post-traumatic stress. Timothy is not going to go to therapy voluntarily. His mom, Mary Tyler Moore, isn't a touchy-feely Mom. She apparently isn't chasing him. So Judd chases him.

When the doc catches up with him, the conversation goes something like this:

The kid says, "I needs control."

Judd says, "We therapists aren't real into control."*

And it is true! I clap loudly, of course, when I hear this and get dirty looks from people all around me in the theater, but I can't help it. Who could? It's true. You want to control your life, but life basically takes over, does whatever the __ it wants.

We have a Yiddish expression, and I always get it wrong, so forgive, me, correct me, put me in idiom jail, Mann tracht und Gott lacht. Man is busy making things happen, plotting the details, and God laughs. I'm sure He/She has a serious knee-slapper or seventeen million of them every single day.

Anyway, one way of doing this, controlling your life, plotting the course of destiny, is to name a child after someone you respect. I'm pretty sure that several cultures do this.

For example, a guy named James might name his son after himself, making his son James II. James II names his son James III, and so on. This pattern continues generationally. Pretty soon you have many, many respectable guys named James in the family tree.

This makes it a lot easier to be a family therapist plotting names and dysfunction in the family forest. We don't have to ask, "So what was your great-great grandfather's name?" We're pretty sure that it is James and a Roman numeral.

On my husband's side, there's a David in every family. At least one David. I had no idea how important the tradition of naming the first son David could be until I failed to name either of my first born male twins, David. In my family's tradition, if a living uncle or an aunt is named David, you wouldn't name your kid David. It's just not done. So we didn't.

And we're paying to this day.

Relatives from far away will visit and gaze at photographs that I have elegantly stapled to a wall in the hallway to the kitchen, giving up on picture frames (they break) long ago. I dedicated the entire wall to pictures and when I get depressed I go there and visit everybody.

So visiting relatives will look at the pictures, too, and say, "So which one is David?"

I'll point to my fourth child.

"Wait a minute. He's not the b'chor (first son)." I tell over the Explanation.


Nah, I'm just kidding. They smile as if to say, "Well, you figured that one out." That's how it is in most families with strong traditions about names. Keep it functional, they're saying, or we'll show you the door. And we want to please them, too, and keep the wheels of history well-oiled.

It's about wanting control. Well, some of it is.

We really do want to change history, change tomorrow if we can. That's what therapy is all about. It's why we go to see therapists. And if the therapist is a behaviorist, we begin to play around with the future. This is exactly what we do in therapy, some of us. We play around with the future.

For example, a patient will mourn seeing the next day, dread going to work: "Tomorrow I'm going to go to work and the boss is going to beat on me something fierce." Therapists hear this at least once a week.

And we'll say, "Ha! You're not going to work! Are you crazy?"

Forgive me. Forget that line Are you crazy.

We say, "You're not going for three weeks! Maybe more. You have to get better." And we all bless Bill Clinton and FMLA, the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Or we discuss other ways of handling situations and teach assertiveness. If you're not really sick, and face it, you're probably not, we work with the system, and sure, teach assertiveness. We teach this even if you are sick, but we wait until you're well enough to absorb it.

You'll say to your boss, at some point, "Boss. I have two hands only."**

We can control quite a bit when we open our mouths, sometimes.

Therapy is hard, however, so the simplest way to control destiny really is to have a child or adopt a child and to name the little peanut after someone you totally admire and respect, someone who probably wasn't always saintly, but grew into the role.

If we're smart about this, we'll look into the family tree or perhaps our communities, or even to history, and will find someone born with an easy disposition, someone thoughtful who doesn't automatically get riled up just because everyone else is riled up. We'll name a child for a person who thinks before speaking, responds rather than reacts, has a ready smile and if at all possible, an aptitude for music, even song, for song is music; someone who assumes the best in people, rather than automatically suspecting the worst.

Then the little miracle, robed in this fabulous name of a fabulous person tells people, "I'm named for So and So. Let me tell you about So and So."

And So and So lives on.

Talk about controlling destiny.


P.S. You can read about imagination, control, and addiction at The Second Road. I post over there once a week.

*Thanks Paramount. For sure. The best line in movie history. Whatever it was.

**And thanks, Helen, for the two-hands-only line.


Lou said…
I'm glad to know that therapists believe dysfunction can be changed!

I'm a little disturbed that therapists go to movies to find out how actor therapists do it!
blognut said…
I come from the world's most dysfunctional family. Okay, there's a lot of competition for that, so maybe it isn't the worst. However, I do really believe that I have done better with my kids BECAUSE of that. I knew everything I wanted to do differently and my husband and I are doing it. My kids will have all new dysfunctional issues - none of those old ones I had - but it's got to be better. :-)

Love this post!
Jack Steiner said…
Control is a funny thing. Or should I say trying to adopt the proper balance of understanding what you can and cannot control.
Tanya said…
"so the simplest way to control destiny really is to have a child and to name the little peanut after someone you totally admire and respect"

In other words, if a little peanut named "Kid Rock" saunters into your sanctum, you need to be a might bit wary....
April_optimist said…
Sometimes it is useful NOT to be named after anyone. To avoid family battles, my mother gave me a name no one in either family had. In fact, I've rarely met anyone with my name. And that gave me a freedom I cherish--because no one quite knew what expectations to have for me. I got to be ME.
Syd said…
This is a good post with lots of information. I find control issues everywhere I go. And one of my character defects is--controlling. So I see in others what I myself have. Not an uncommon problem.
Jackie said…
There's a whole side of the family whose names I CAN'T use for this very reason!!! The other side of the family all of our names more than one generation back are all in another language, not really names you can saddle a kiddo with today, even if their namesakes were the most wonderful people ever (which they were).

So... we're settling for middle names for family names, and just plain old ones we like for first names. Unfortunately, all the names my husband likes sound like each other and I refuse to have rhyming children.... Ah, the joys of compromise in marriage!
Isle Dance said…
This is funny. And true. Those assertiveness skills are priceless.
Anonymous said…
Wow therapy doc this post rang so true for me. It's spooky! Great post. And why don't therapists in real life make as much as those movie guys do :)?
therapydoc said…
Easy one, Rachel. We don't act as well.
Mark said…
Very good thoughts.

My mother was Catholic and she named each us with a name that would flow well when preceded by Sister or Father, as in Father Mark Timothy or Father Patrick Matthew.
Retriever said…
Our parents named the first girl (me) after my mom, and first boy after my dad. Throughout childhood there would be hollering for Little Female or Big Female, or Old Female and Young Female (using the name). I wanted my own name, not hers, secondhand.

I was told I should cherish my name because my grandfather had been clueless what to call his second daughter (my mom) because they had only had boy names prepared as that's what they wanted. The first beautiful thing he saw in the British Museum on a distracted postnatal walk, gave him the unwelcome female's name. I spent a lifetime picking different nicknames so as NOT to be her (my control).

Spouse and I (assortative mating) came from equally messed up families. Have contorted ourselves to shower kids with love, avoid our parents' mistakes and cruelties. Oddly, our kids have much the same neuroses and serious problems as we do. Plus a couple of far worse ones, sadly.

Which leads to the occasional despairing wondering if maybe none of it is under our control, but all biological?
therapydoc said…
Or something. Not all or none, me thinks.
nashbabe said…
Will your next blog installment be about "In Treatment"? ;-)

"Ordinary People" was the first movie my husband and I saw during our courtship. As my therapist would likely say, "pathology attracts pathology." Seemed a little too much like our lives to be a good date flick... ;-)
Anonymous said…
pinky said…
Ordinary people has been on my list of movies I want to see. I have not gotten far on that list. Just asked my daughter to order it from net flix.

When I was naming my Son there were no names I HAD to name him. There were only names I could not name him if didn't want to alienate some of my spouse's family. Which is actually better cause what if I didn't like the name DAvid?

The stapling is pure genius. I have boxes and boxes of framed pictures and hanging them up is such a pain. As a matter of fact. Most are still in the big plastic tub.
therapydoc said…
Not to brag, but it was an inspired moment, the Let's Create the Wall of Fame moment.
Beth said…
Sorry to be late in coming around, but I enjoyed this post (yes, control, control, the great desire, so much better when we give it up) and wanted to say I'm so sorry about your back - and glad it's better!
Wait. What? said…
That movie came out when I was a teen and I got it - my dad took me to it and I cried, because I knew that mother and that terrible need for control.

My oldest child is named David with the roman number 5 after his name. Go figure.

Popular Posts