What's in a Name

Most of us come by our names not by choice but by chance

I was born with the name Robin Rochelle and had that name until I was 5. As an adult, when I told people my birth name, more often than not they'd say it sounded like a stripper.

While not exactly a stripper, there was a B-movie actress named Robin Rochelle. She starred in "Slumber Party Massacre" (which I actually saw in a movie theater in the early '80s with my mother, a horror movie aficionado, but we didn't stay for the credits) and "Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama," which I must have missed.

As for my first name, while lots of people change or tweak their first name for all kinds of reasons, I don't mind Robin. While it's not super common, it's instantly recognizable, and kind of impervious to being slaughtered into mean rhymes in grade school. It was the 30th most popular name in 1957 when I was born, rising in popularity through the '60s and dropping off the top 100 in 1980 and ever since.

My family calls me "Robbie," and I am affectionately called "Rob." In junior high, I changed the spelling of my name to "Robynne" because that was the trend among my peers—who were copying antiestablishment hippies. I've had a British boyfriend named Robin, and a female partner named Robyn, who goes by Rob.

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But really what I like most about "Robin" is that two eloping teenagers, my mother and father, hopeful and optimistic about the future, filled with lust and dreams, in a relationship that wouldn't last a year, chose that name for me. It's the name given to my mother's last rebellious act: me.

When I was 5, my mother married a man with the last name of Modiano. She enrolled me in kindergarten not as Robin Rochelle, but as Robin Modiano, a name I did not know how to say or spell, and didn't want because I didn't like him. I pitched a fit but it was too late. It was my name for the next 22 years.

In the music business, Modiano became "Mo" and I was known as Mo Modiano.

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The Modiano brothers, Sephardic Jews from Istanbul, were in construction and passed themselves off as Italian when it suited them. I thought that was shameful until I moved to New York City in 1984 and went from bodega to Italian grocer to cobbler in Little Italy asking if they knew of a place for rent. Italians only rented to Italians I learned, so I became Italian too.

When I met my husband, Russell Maltz, I was relieved to finally drop the Modiano. I was the only one of my Soho feminist friends who changed my name but my defense was that all surnames are men's names so why not choose the man you like best.

When my daughter was born a kind of primal protective instinct took over and I would not let Vic Modiano, my childhood sexual abuser, near my child. Twenty-five years of hatred culminated in that moment. I could not even write that name. I address letters to my mother by printing "Doris Modi …" And during my brief time in the incest recovery movement, I would refuse to refer to myself as a "Victim" or "Victimized" because those words contained his name.

That name came back to haunt me a few years ago in New York City when I tried to get a driver's license. I could've read "War and Peace" while waiting in line, and sheepishly presented my documents to the toughest gum-cracking, nail-filing bitch known to humankind. My social security card read "Robin Modiano," my Massachusetts driver's license and passport read "Robin Maltz" and my birth certificate read "Robin Rochelle." She would not give me a driver's license.

Now I've been Maltz for longer than I was Modiano. I no longer write letters with that name, I don't associate with anyone with that name, forms never ask for "maiden" names anymore and only occasionally do I encounter a person from the past on social media that I have to tell I was "Robin Modiano."

Last week, when I saw the New York Times headline "Patrick Modiano, a Modern 'Proust,' Is Awarded Nobel in Literature," my blood ran cold. I was aware of the writer, but few of his works are translated into English so I've not come across his name by chance. He even looks like a smarter, sharper version of the Modiano clan in Los Angeles. The name still holds power over me and I don't like that. So I thought about how most of us come by our names, not by choice but by chance. "It's just a name" is false because there is a story behind every one, and this one is mine.

Tags: memoirs