The Power Of An Adoptee’s Name

“Well, then, if I’m a Namer, what does that mean? What does a Namer do?”
“When I was memorizing the names of the stars, part of the purpose was to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be.”
A Wind In The Door by Madeleine L’Engle

“The power of a name–that’s old magic.”
Doctor Who (“The Shakespeare Code”)

As is held in folktales and legends, there is great power in a person’s name. Madeleine L’Engle brought this up in her Wrinkle In Time series: to Name is to create, to Un-name is to destroy. The practice of unnaming and renaming adoptees is an attempt to assert control over us.

It’s said that if you know someone’s true name, you have absolute power over them. The very fact that adoptees’ true names are sequestered by the state is evidence of this ancient law stretching into our modern society. For if we adoptees knew our true names, we could reclaim the power that has been taken from us, the power to access our records without restriction.

Adopters and prospective adopters are often eager to rename adoptees, especially international adoptees whose foreign names serve as a constant reminder that adoption is not the same as giving birth. By renaming the adoptee, the adoptive parents assert their expectations that the adoptee will have the personality and nature desired–that they will become the person they have been named. Such attempts are doomed to failure. Adopters and prospective adopters need to get out of the mindset that adopting is like picking the exact item they want out of a catalog. Part of this is acknowledging that adoptees had names and identities before they were adopted.

Adoptees are keenly aware of the false nature of their names. Many of us never identified with our adoptive names, or have had different names during different part of our lives, much as some Native tribes take on new names in accordance with life-changing events. I’m curious to know how many adoptees, like myself, have renamed themselves upon becoming adults. I have met quite a number of adoptees who have taken back their birth names or combined birth name with adopted name. Some do so to obliterate the adopted name, that symbol of their adoptive families’ unrealistic expectations. Others do so to pay homage to their blood ties, or to synthesize a unique self based upon both birth and adopted heritage.

Is there really a need to rename adoptees? In some cases it borders on ridiculous, for those who were adopted as children rather than infants and are therefore well aware of their original names. Those who promote renaming (and who, primarily, are not adoptees) trot out that tired excuse, “privacy.” This further illustrates the power of a name: the assumption that if adoptees know their true names, they will have power over birth families (and vice versa, leading to those ever-popular stereotypes about stalker adoptees and birth relatives).

Or perhaps the greater fear is that we might gain control over our own destinies. As adoptees, I propose that we reclaim the power of our names for ourselves.


  1. Interesting blog, I’ve always wondered about the changing of names and how adoptees feel about it. Chaning names certainly fits in with all the phony aspects of adoption.

  2. http://Anonymous says

    My granddaughter was adopted by the foster family that she was given to when she was an infant. I fought for over 2 years, won the battles but they won the war. They renamed her Becca Ivey even though she has siblings that knew her as Cassie. Why would someone rename a 2 year old? Your thought that it is to change them to be what the adoptive parents want is dead on. Wipe away the ties to blood. It shouldn’t be allowed.

  3. My son’s amom wrote me after my son and I had been reunited. She said that the the first thing he said to her was “I have a name.” I didn’t understand at first but now I do. Later, I put together a CD of music for us and included Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name”.

  4. I’ve not taken my birth name back. But I do intend to have it included in my obit and along with my adoptive name on my tombstone.

    My adoptive mother once told me that it was considered to keep my birth given name but my adoptive father feared the nickname that others might call me. I do have an adoptive brother whose birth given name was kept as his middle name.

    I do know when people ask me what my maiden name was, I now hesitate. In a way it just does not seem right to give my adoptive maiden name when my roots are from another surname. I have stated both surnames to some people.

    The name changing is definitely something that affects we adoptees.

  5. maybe – Among adoptees it’s a common theme, asking about names. We all seem to have so many, most of which don’t fit our images of ourselves. It goes along with not having a real “self,” just what people expect us to be.

    anonymous – That is just what I am talking about. Renaming adoptees is all about control. Since adoptive parents often maintain control over the adoptee’s information into adulthood, this renaming process has the intended ongoing effect: forcing the adoptee into the preferred mold of the adopters.

    peps – I had that feeling when my birth mother told me the name she would have given me. Suddenly I had an anchor I didn’t have before.

    Mary – If I had a choice, I would excise my adoptive name completely. It burns me up when people ask me my maiden name (or mother’s name) because I want to scream LIES! But I don’t have any other names to give, and even if I did, things like maiden name are never supposed to change. There is no mechanism for us adoptees to correct our names, once that adoption sledgehammer comes down.

  6. Such an interesting post. I’m identifying with a lot of what Mary Lynn wrote. When my husband and I were discussing our pre-needs for funeral planning, I also mentioned I wanted my original name in both my obit and on my stone. In some social networking sites, I’ve started listing myself with my original last name. It has such a melodic and Irish lilt to it, I love the way it flows.

    The day I saw my original last name in black and white will always stand out as one of the greatest days of my life. And doesn’t it suck that that it does! That the State of Pennsylvania has my name locked away is so ridiculous.

  7. Triona, what is interesting about my “case” is that I know alot about who adopted my granddaughter. She is now 7 and they are moving away from our town. I think one of the main reasons is because they are fearful she will have contact that they can’t control. I have started putting her adoptive name and original name on the web because I am well aware that in a few years she, or maybe her friends, will be “googling” themselves and she may be able to track us that way and make her own decision on whether to contact us or not. The internet has had a profound affect–for better or worse depending on which side you are on. It’s not so easy to hide. Gloria, Cassie’s grandmother.