At the beginning of each term I ask my students to share the story of their name, and when it’s my turn, I sheepishly admit I don’t know what my father was thinking when he named me after a song about a prostitute. Most of my students are too young to know the song Lalena by Donovan, so I sing a few lines of the refrain, and they get it. “When the sun goes to bed / that’s the time, you raise your head.” Recently, a student asked if I wasn’t sure if maybe she wasn’t a vampire, since, you know, prostitutes and vampires are both creatures of the night.
Lalena was released in the US in October 1968, just weeks before I was born, and my name, Lania, is my dad’s version of the song title. My family lived in Slidell, Louisiana, and my father owned a pool hall. I imagine him wiping down the bar, listening to the sad, lilting lyrics over the radio and wondering who this Lalena woman might be. He’s two kinds of people, my dad. One is a tough, Cajun, run-the-table man’s man. The other is a thoughtful rebel, the kid who started a faux “Church of the Gray Rock” in high school and joined a secret literature club, the first in his extended family to go to college, to admit he might want to write a novel someday. My dad was a surprise to his mother, a devout Catholic woman who assumed she was infertile when no children were conceived 13 years running after her first son. She thought my dad was a tumor until the doctor corrected her and said no, you’re going to have a baby.
According to my mother, Grandma Gracie wanted Dad to name me Sylvia, but Dad had an old girlfriend named Sylvia, so my mother said no way.
When I was 13, my parents divorced, and a guy in my mom’s new singles group made a mixtape for me. On one side of the cassette was Jim Croce, and on the other, Donovan’s Greatest Hits. The eerie sounds of Donovan’s vocals and sad strumming confused me. Last fall, 30-plus years after that mixtape, I was teaching as a visiting professor at a small university in England, and I found out Donovan was going on tour. I started digging for information about my namesake song, and what I unearthed surprised me. In an interview in 2004, Donovan said Lalena was a name he’d concocted from actress Lotte Lenya’s name—a mash-up of her first and last name together. She starred in the film version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s play, The Threepenny Opera. About it, Donovan said:
“I was fascinated with The Threepenny Opera as a socially conscious musical, so when I saw the movie version with Lotte Lenya I thought, OK, she’s a streetwalker, but in the history of the world, in all nations women have taken on various roles from priestess to whore to mother to maiden to wife. This guise of sexual power is very prominent, and therein I saw the plight of the character: “That’s your lot in life, Lalena / Can’t blame ya, Lalena.” Women have roles thrust upon them and make the best they can out of them, so I’m describing the character Lotte Lenya is playing and a few other women I’ve seen during my life, but it’s a composite character of women who are outcasts on the edge of society: Bohemia.”
This complicates things, doesn’t it? Lalena isn’t a condemnation of women of the night. Rather, it’s a thoughtful lament of the “roles thrust upon” women, who must then “make the best they can out of them.” I’d assumed that, like so many other stories about women, that Donovan’s song was asking the same old questions about females and sex, casting the same blame and shame upon them that has been cast for centuries.
While I was away in England, my younger son, back home in the US, was taking hormones, transforming “him” into a “her.” During our Skype chats, she’d ask me if I could see the changes. Did her skin look smoother? Her arm hair lighter? Was it time to get a bra? Was she pretty?
I’ve never had a daughter before—my only experience was being my own mother’s daughter. I left home at 16. From an early age—fifth grade—she suspected me of being a “bad girl,” hinting and alleging that I wanted sex, that I was having sex. Not until my own daughter was on the video chat screen, though, asking if I thought she was pretty, did I begin to wonder, as a mother, what it really means to want to be pretty. Does it mean you want someone to make love to you? For the first time, I felt and recognized the tug of speculation about female sexuality as a mother. You want to be pretty? Well, there’s only one reason you could want that—you want to have sex.
Which sounds so very much like my mother’s voice.
What surprised me most about the evening was not how Mantel and Walter
came to find and inhabit their characters, but rather, what they had to say about gender.
London is just over an hour away by train from the small university in Lincolnshire where I was teaching last fall. In October, writer Hilary Mantel and actress Harriet Walter participated in a conversation at Union Chapel sponsored by the Royal Society of Literature on the topic of bringing characters to life on the page and stage. Two of Mantel’s books about Henry the VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, had been recently adapted for the stage by Mantel and writer Mike Poulton. I was keenly interested in Mantel’s work, as I’d adapted my first book for the stage, albeit on a much smaller, simpler, and humbler scale.
What surprised me most about the evening was not how Mantel and Walter came to find and inhabit their characters, but rather, what they had to say about gender. Mantel confessed she’d thought, as a child, that she would grow up to be a man. Her name could go either way, she knew, and she got it in her head that after spending childhood as a girl, she would at some point become a man. Walter explained how, as a little girl watching a parade of soldiers, she felt despair at knowing she’d never become one of those men, marching like that, with command and purpose.
Unlike Mantel, I didn’t think I would grow up to be a man, but I hoped I might somehow sidestep puberty and be spared the indignity of breasts and menses. I wanted to continue into adulthood as an athlete, something not many girls in East Texas ever did. I wanted to remain that one girl who tagged along with the guys, proud that she could never figure out how to deal with the cattiness of girls. My thought was, give me an argument with a boy any day—we’ll duke it out and be done with it. Girls. Please. When Mantel said she assumed she’d grow up to become a man, audience members near me in the crowded London Union Chapel tsk-tsked in disbelief. I, however, felt a jolt of recognition. And I wondered, is this desire to be a boy, to be strong, so very different than wanting to be pretty?
A month later, when I attended the final performances of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I was thrilled to see Mantel in the audience at the National Theatre, graciously signing programs on her way to her seat. I imagined there was an invisible thread, as fine as a spider’s webbing, connecting me to her—writer, adapter extraordinaire. I sat back to watch the final performance of Bring Up the Bodies, its deep, dissonant opening notes a tense call for attention. Afterward, when I left the theatre and made my way along the Queen’s Jubilee Walkway in the evening chill, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed, in the end, by Mantel’s retelling of history. Because she’d written Thomas Cromwell into such a complex character in Wolf Hall, I’d assumed she would do the same for Anne Boleyn. I’d run out of time to finish reading Bring Up the Bodies before I saw the play, so it’s my fault, I suppose, that I didn’t grasp the nature of the story line.
It’s true that writer Poulton had to choose only a handful of characters out of the 159 in the two novels, but still, had I finished the book, I might have been better prepared for the evening’s delivery. Which, to my mind, was a protracted meditation on one woman’s sexuality. Men, like vultures fighting for a picked-over carcass, circled round and round Boleyn’s sexual maybes and maybe nots, and the entire play hinged upon, not whether or not the men were lying or ruthless or cruel, but rather, whether and how many men Boleyn had allowed into her bed.
Later in the semester, I attended a modernized version of Shakespeare’s Othello in Leeds, set in a pool hall, perhaps not unlike my father’s back in Louisiana. Othello, a general returning home from campaigns abroad, is convinced by the scheming Iago that Desdemona, his fiancée, has been cheating on him in his absence. The contemporary pool hall setting and the female clothing—tight and “trashy”—created a stark contrast to the overbearing men. The angular lines and blaring, dark music underscored the violence of the play, the intense maleness. And, like Bring Up the Bodies, Othello, of course, unfolded as an evening’s meditation on female sexuality from a jealous, vengeful male perspective. A few weeks later, I attended the production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The play, written by John Ford, was first performed around 1630 and reveals the incestuous relationship of a brother and sister, ending with the sister’s murder as the father comes to force her hand in marriage to save her reputation, and by extension, his own and his son’s. The evening was candlelit. The actors’ voices unamplified. I watched from the balcony as the lithe players portraying brother and sister writhed on the bed below me, their gorgeous young bodies caught in the sheets in an embrace that lasted in my mind far beyond the end of the scene. Again, like Bring Up the Bodies and like Othello, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is a long meditation on female sexuality. This play is different from the other two in that the brother truly loves his sister and sees no wrong in what they’ve done—he doesn’t consider her a temptress or ruined in any way. However, the rest of the men in the play, all representing various forms of power—be it ecclesiastical or monarchical or moneyed—are caught in the trap of speculating about the sister’s chastity, her fidelity to the man chosen for her by her father.
And it is a trap, isn’t it, this speculation about women’s sexuality?
Perhaps I’d become sensitive to such thoughts because of my daughter back home, the transformation I was watching from afar while in England. Perhaps my sensitivity was a result of living, for the first time in my life, truly on my own. I left home at 16 with a young guy on a motorcycle, got married soon after, pregnant, pregnant again, divorced and then a few years later, remarried. And in all that time, I’d spent only a few dozen days completely alone—no parents, no boyfriend, no children, no husband. As I traveled solo for four months around the UK and Europe, I became acutely sensitive to questions from new colleagues and friends: Where was my husband? Why was I walking this street alone? Why was I having conversations with the cute young staff member? It became clear that traveling alone was an illusion—there were boundaries to my freedom others thought I shouldn’t step across.
When my daughter asked through the computer screen if she was pretty, I heard the response in my head, Why do you want to be pretty? I was asking the beginning of the same questions Shakespeare, Ford, and Mantel were asking. Woman, are you having sex? And with whom?
The easy, modern answer is that it’s none of your business. But the questions get asked over and over again, and you begin to think they matter. Maybe, though, like with Donovan’s songs, there could be a softening. Yes, we wonder about women and sex, we want to know whom the girl will choose, as in the recent film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far from the Madding Crowd. In the movie, after receiving a surprise inheritance from her uncle, Bathsheba Everdene is free to choose a husband from among three men: Gabriel Oak, the faithful workman, Sergeant Troy, the derring-do soldier who has, unknown to Bathsheba, spurned his true love, and Mr. Boldwood, a seemingly kind neighbor. The film, shot mostly in Dorset, England, is gorgeous, and Jessica Swale’s thoughtful adaptation, allows us to ask the question—whom will the girl choose—of Bathsheba, of any woman if we’re going to ask it at all, out of curiosity, not condemnation.
When I returned home from teaching in England, after a dinner of leftover pizza and Caesar salad, my daughter asked me to call her Alice. She’d been reading while I was gone. Kate Bornstein, a gender non-conforming author, playwright, performance artist and gender theorist was at the top of Alice’s list, as was Reddit, a site with user-generated content ranging from news to rants to intimate personal stories, and Alice’s top hits were threads about and for transgender people, like r/transgender, r/Tgirls, and r/MtF. Alice also carefully read patient information packets from the Howard Brown Health Center, a medical clinic for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens in Chicago where she travelled once every three months to fill her prescriptions.
“But that’s an old woman’s name,” I said.
“Think of it like Alice in Wonderland, she said.
“Oh.” I imagined a girl poised in a frilly dress with a bottle in her hand. “Drink Me,” the label said.
Later, when I asked about saying “she” instead of “he,” what if I mess up, what if I forget, she said, “It’s just a pronoun shift. It doesn’t have to be hard.” In the foyer, as she pulled on her pretty white and blue ski jacket, she said the name Alice could just be for here in the house, for now. “Okay,” I said. “I think I can do that.”
That evening, though, she said she’d changed her mind about it being just here, in the house. “If you call me by my old name, I’m calling you Lania.”
“But I’m your mom.”
“I know, so let’s get it right.”
Later, when she was writing her Japanese word lists at the dining room table, she called out to see if I was ready to watch the next episode of the Japanese anime, Hunter X Hunter. “Twenty minutes,” I said from the kitchen sink, and I used her old name. I made the mistake.
She came into the kitchen a few minutes later and said, “I’m done with my homework, Lania.”
“I’m sorry, Alice.”
“It’s okay. Mom.”
And then, last week, we went shopping together. I stepped out of the changing room and let her see the sweater I’d pulled off the rack.
“It’s not your fault this thing looks bad on you; it’s the sweater. Try this,” and she handed me a shirt-dress with angles and zippers. “The clothes need to work for you, make you look the way you want to look.”
“Make me look pretty?” I asked. Because I do so want to look pretty.
“Of course,” she said.
That evening, I borrowed her makeup. I couldn’t admit it until just when I was walking out the door for a friend’s birthday party. Even though we’d been talking more—we’d just conversed about Alice’s forays into meeting potential sexual partners—I was hiding from her. I was still uncomfortable sharing with her how very much I wanted to be pretty. With what it meant about me.
Alice stopped me in the hallway. “Let me see,” she said, pulling me back to the bathroom mirror, leaning in close.
“It kind of shows my pores.”
“Only if someone leans in close to look,” she said. She put her hand over mine and patted it. “You look great, Mom.”
She held up the Drink Me bottle. She offered a gift—we want to be pretty, and that’s okay. Or we want to be strong. Or we want to have sex, and that’s okay. It doesn’t matter all that much what anyone else thinks. What questions they ask.
I took a sip. “Thanks,” I said. “Alice.”