*Some names have been changed in order to obfuscate identity of other people.
1. Anna Begins
“You may do this, I tell you, it is permitted. Begin again the story of your life.” — Jane Hirshfield
What is a creation story, after all?
Do we write our own redemption by telling ourselves our own true stories?
It can take a lifetime to become human again, to undo the damage we come from. To get real about the bad shit, to recognize what we are repeating — consciously and un. To abandon the coping mechanisms that got us through childhood but now are fucking us up as adults. It can take a lifetime to even imagine there might be more. To even consider that maybe we aren’t the shitbags that our parents treated us like — with their lies, their abuse, their neglect, their innocent mistakes. To learn we can be more than that, do it differently, to unravel who our parents taught us to be. To stop messing up our own lives, to choose better. To begin again.
2. What’s in a Name?
“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” — Gabriel García Márquez
What’s in a name? Everything, nothing.
In the beginning I had a name; let’s say it was Nan Bunch. I’m changing the specific details that identify others — for legal reasons in some cases and because my mother deserves her privacy. I believe, firmly, my story is mine to tell — but when I can avoid identifying others, I do. My father — who turned out not to be my biological father, but that’s a different story — named me after my aunt. Sometimes I was called Nan Tipo. Tipo is my mother’s maiden name and her sister’s name is Nan Tipo. Because I was raised in part by her parents in a parish where the Tipo family with their six kids was widely known, sometimes I just got lumped in. And, as much as anything, I’m a Tipo. More than a Bunch, for sure. Whatever that means.
In any event, my aunt, Nan Tipo, Nan. And then I was Nan. It is odd to be called someone else’s name. She was around, not off in the distance. So, I became Little Nan, Young Nan, etc. Ugh.
My parents divorced when I was six. My mother had kept my father-of-sorts’ name — still has it, 40 years after their divorce, 25 years after her marriage to a new man. She still has my abusive father’s name. My father who isn’t my birth father. (She attempted to pass me off as his child, but failed, though he kept up the secret for 21 years.) The name of the man who abused me for years. She still has that name. Let’s call her Jo. Jo Bunch.
What’s in a name?
At 23, I married a man who needed health insurance — and who I loved, yes. I took his name. I became Nan Shipp. People thought it was such a strange, anti-feminist act. I agree. But it was better than my father’s name. We divorced a few years later, husband Shipp and I. By that time, everyone knew me as Nan Shipp. I thought about going back to Bunch, but I hated it and the man who gave it to me and I didn’t hate Mr. Shipp. In fact we were still friends, and I was used to it. It’s hard to go back. No one tells you that when you’re young, but it is.
I did want a name all my own, but that seemed, I don’t know, more radical than I could imagine being. Sometimes people accuse me of weird things with my names — or just make up a story out of whole cloth about my names. They imagine that I am ducking something or hiding something. I shrug. I’m not one to fight these sorts of stories. I long ago came to accept that you can’t tell most people a damn thing, as my grandma says. The truth is that I was writing stories under other names as long ago as fourth grade. Oy. Thirty-seven years ago. Judy. Louise. Martha. All names I tried on and took off, like a hula hoop of desire. Going round and round, never quite figuring out how to keep it up for the long term.
After I left my husband, I moved to California to try to become me. It turned out to be one of many false starts; I was still running away from the past instead of running toward the future. I didn’t want my father’s name or my aunt’s or one I borrowed from a husband. So I made up another name, lets call it Leahy Jones. A tip of the hat to my grandmother’s Irish heritage and a bland, typical last name to balance Leahy. This was in the mid-90’s, when even in California people still had names like David and Karen and Sue and Paul. I wanted my own name and I was going to write. I knew my family would rather I have a different name anyway if that was the case. What I knew was the unspoken rule of sickness and shame in my family was “don’t talk about it.” And I wanted, desperately, to “talk” about it. Therefore, Leahy Jones was born.
When I came back from the west coast four years later I had again given up on writing. So I went back to being Nan Shipp. It didn’t feel right, but it didn’t feel wrong, either.
I did start writing again, though, a couple of years later, and published an essay in a national publication under the name Nan Shipp. At this point my mother, who had howled for years about my using Leahy Jones, suggested I have a pseudonym. When a publication requested that I use a pseudonym for their legal reasons, I reverted to Leahy Jones. But I still lived as Nan Shipp, and again, stepped away from writing for a few more years. Until a series of inter-connected explosions in my life left me with little but the words, which turned out to be everything anyway.
3. The 5 things I most don’t want you to know about me OR The 5 things I most want you to know about me OR The 5 things you think I don’t want you to know, but really I’m desperate for you to know about me
“I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.” – Adrienne Rich
In 2004, I split from my second husband after four years together. In 2005, a web-based development/consulting firm we ran together, with my name on the door, closed abruptly. Bankrupt, though we never declared, as we had no assets to disburse. Things ended badly at the business – health insurance was not paid for the last month or two, final payroll was not made, $400,000 of non-profit clients’ money could not be paid for them because it had been spent on our operating expenses. My husband and our families collectively lost about $400,000 along with another $100,000 from other investors. Twenty-five people lost their jobs without warning. Our landlord – a non-profit – was not paid about $50,000 in back rent. I thought often about suicide. A court-ordered receiver would find no gross mismanagement, no fraud, etc. –- “just” what happened to lots of businesses, especially at that time. Our concept, which had worked on a micro level, did not scale. We grew too fast, we failed, and I was broke. My nearly ex-husband and I had put all our cash into the business. It was bad. I was sick, literally, over the people who had been hurt. I had done my best—truly – but it hadn’t mattered and I felt awful. Really awful. Ashamed. Dark
And then, it got worse. It came out that I had lied about having a graduate degree. I had not recruited clients using that information or anything like that. Hadn’t used it to get a job. But, I had been lying to my mother about it since 1990, claiming I was going to grad school and then graduating. I hadn’t done either. It had started “small” – hah! – and grew. Somehow, I’d never had the courage to come clean with her and one lie led to a billion more. To keep up the pretense with her, I lied to others, too. I made up the grad school story because I was trying to make her like me, love me, approve of me, and trying to atone to her for years of chaos and problems I had created in my late adolescence. Somehow in my twisted mind – in a family where I had been lied to by everyone since birth – it made sense. Of course it was wrong, and I knew it. In 2004, she, as HR director for my firm, had written my bio and put it on our website. I’ve gone in circles in my mind about whether I knew. I don’t think I did because I remember being surprised when an industry publication reported that it had been on the firm’s website. But maybe I did know -– my mother worked for us for the last year, a hellish time. It’s possible I saw it and just didn’t pay attention to it or else just decided to let it go. Regardless, it’s my fault it was on there — 100% — and of course, of COURSE, that I lied to my mom and others about it in the first place. It came out along with the accusation that perhaps I had lied about a fellowship award I had won. I didn’t lie about it, but I won it under the name Leahy Jones, and I never completed it because it was tied to my job in California and that job ended. My lawyer suggested we have that corrected and seek to have the entire article removed. But I was out of money and out of fight, not to mention depressed, exhausted, and deeply mired in shame. Too mired to say to anyone, “hey, let’s be fair.”
Plus, I had lied about grad school and I had run the business into the ground. I didn’t want to be – and don’t want to be –-one of those people that quibbles. I did it. I’m sorry. The fellowship accusation was minor in the face of everything else.
In 2004, as my life was starting to come apart, I had decided to write again. I attended a summer workshop and wrote an essay that would go on some years later to be nominated for a Pushcart Prize. After life totally fell apart in 2005 (almost entirely my own doing), and my husband and I had split, the business closed and my lie was exposed, I decided to write again seriously. It would take me six more years to really turn my attention to it in a serious way, but eventually I would.
Here I am. A novel finished and going to market, a memoir in progress and going to market, active in the literary community, my work appearing in a wide variety of publications. But before I could get here, I went through a horrible time – a crazy time – from 2005 to 2009. Crazy.
But, 2005. When the grad school lie was uncovered. Which, by the way, my mother and I have never talked about. Not once in these 9 years – that might give you some indication of the kind of dysfunction I come from. At that time, It was also disclosed that years earlier, the literary organization that I had run in California had run aground in a similar set of circumstances to the business that closed in 2005.
I had been hurt and shocked when people were venomous toward me when that organization had closed, but I accepted responsibility though no one had a plan to make it run, and every funding strategy approved by the board failed. There just wasn’t support for that model at that time with the overhead we had. I had taken it over when it was bankrupt and had helped restore it to a health that was not sustainable. In addition, I didn’t get paid for half of the 2 years I worked there full-time plus and was the largest creditor when it closed, owed in excess of $40,000 in back salary. I did my best – but I also know my best wasn’t enough. The board felt like they didn’t know how bad it was. And it was true; I shaded the truth to them so they would let us keep trying. I shouldn’t have, and I regret it. And I take responsibility for the failure – total responsibility I am lucky to still be friends on various levels with all sorts of people from that era, but a number of people from that community hate my guts. I take full responsibility for the way the organization closed and I’m sorry. I have tried – hard – to apologize to those who were most directly hurt. For the most part, letters and emails I’ve sent have gone unanswered. I hope they have at least been received and read.
Those are three of those 5 things – the failed organization, the failed business, and the grad school lie. The other two – well, my family – the abusive father, the mother who didn’t want me and lied about my paternity and a host – a HOST -of other familial things. And, most of all, not taking care of myself and doing more good with this one wild and precious life, as Mary Oliver calls it: all my fault. Every bit. No excuses. My fault.
4. Make Yourself All Up
“I am not afraid, I am learning to sail my ship.” — Louisa May Alcott.
2005 to 2009 was a very strange time in my life. I was 37 in 2005, and it was almost like I didn’t exist. I had two failed marriages and two failed businesses, and I was broke and feeling horrible about myself. Those were dark days. I was exposed as a liar. Miserable. Terrified. I made myself an invention for a while and when that crashed, as it needed to, I treaded water and thought, a lot, for the next two years. What’s well? What’s sick? That time period of my life summoned those questions. I kind of went crazy from 2005-2006, inventing a new self — an allegory of sorts. None of it was real; I just didn’t know who I was anymore. I wasn’t my made-up self, and I wasn’t someone new yet.
I was trying to show others the reasons I mattered, invented reasons, instead of just being me. I don’t think I really knew it was an option. What looks like crazy can also be just a wounded person trying to exist.
It would take me from 2005 to 2008 to change some of the gears, and then from 2008 to 2011 to change the rest. Change came in fits and starts, two steps forward, one step back. Old habits are hard – and scary – to break. It was in those years I realized how much fear I carried. I seemed brave but deep within me were great fears. It took me those years to realize that along with all the messes I’d made, mistakes, terrible choices that hurt people, I had done good, too, and maybe I could just do that. Maybe I could just do good. The good without the bad, the lies, the desperation to exist.
During those years when I was figuring myself out, I tried on all sorts of names, including various ones I wrote and lived under. I interspersed those naming journeys with using Nan Shipp as my name. Nan Shipp felt better, at least, than Nan Bunch, the last name of my abusive father. Better than Nan Tipo, an aunt I wanted to be nothing like. That much I knew.
Eventually in 2008, I settled on my name, my name that will always be my name now: Anna March. In 2009, I switched to it full-time. Anna, the name my grandfather, Italian would call me when I would bitch about Nan not being my name. Not my right name, as I said over and over. In my Catholic school, we had to write periodically about our saint, the one we were named after. My name had no saint; it was derivative of Ann, and there is a Saint Anne. So, Anna felt kind of familiar to me, kind of already mine. Also the name of my grandma’s mom was Johanna, who loomed large in her giant hat in the photo on the wall. Plus, since she died when my gran was six, she hovered in our lives like a ghost. Johanna was evocative of my favorite Dylan song, “Visions of Johanna”, too. Johanna. Anna. Yes. And so, Anna.
Also, I like palindromes. Anna.
And then, March –an invocation to carry on, something I’d been doing my whole life, and wanted to continue to do.
Is it a made up name? What’s real? Is Nan Bunch who I am? Nan Shipp? Nan Tipo? The “actual” versions of these names that I’m not publishing here?
March: to move forward. Something I have managed – with great help — despite everything.
And, of course, it’s a paean to Little Women’s Jo March.
One day, my chosen goodmother (so much better than a godmother, especially for an atheist like me) said to me, “…you had to make yourself all up.” It was true, I did. But I did such a bad job, such a bad, bad job. I came from the shame of an unwanted, out-of-wedlock pregnancy because my mother got pregnant at 19 by an older, married man. Then there was the shame of the years of sexual abuse by my father and the stigma of divorced parents, and I repeated it through my life, shaming myself. I made myself all up with lies and pretending for so long, I had to really work to do it differently.
To say that it feels good to not live under such weight anymore is the understatement of my lifetime. It is a tremendous joy to learn to be who I really am, to be the me I might have been all along had I not been hurt and then continued to hurt myself and others. One day in 2010, I came to the exciting realization that not only could I do it differently but I actually was. I realized that I get to be a good person for the rest of my life, like I should have been for the last 25 years. Not perfect, not flawless, but good, and not a mess. It’s exciting to work to undo the damage I’ve done and be the treasure that prevails despite everything. Forward, march.
“We can spend our lives letting the world tell us who we are. Sane or insane. Saints or sex addicts. Heroes or victims. Letting history tell us how good or bad we are. Letting our past decide our future. Or we can decide for ourselves. And maybe it’s our job to invent something better.” – Chuck Palahniuk
One of the nicest things in my life is that friends who have known me since I was six years old — and others from various points in my life, high school, college era, my 20’s and every other point – friends who knew me as Nan Bunch, Nan Tipo, Nan Shipp, Leahy Jones – they all call me Anna March now. People have transitioned and I am grateful. When I reached out to a high school friend I hadn’t communicated with in 26 years and explained “this is Nan Bunch, now I’m Anna March,” she said, “Hi Anna”, without missing a beat or asking any questions. She couldn’t have known how much it meant to me.
As Anna March, I’m home, in my skin, but people can be funny about names. About wanting to know your “real” name and being suspicious of other names. Which seems weird to me, when women change their names all the time when they are married and again, often, when they get divorced, and again, when they get remarried. It’s ok to change for marriage but not for other things? Ugh. What about people who were Chuckie or Suz or Babe in high school and then go on to be Charles or Suzanne or Kathleen? Or my aunt Maura who used to be Muriel but hated her name so changed it? What’s ok? What’s not?
Also, what is it that we think we know when we know someone’s “real” name? Do we know what they’ve lied about? Who they’ve betrayed? Their failures? Who they were mean to? No. In this age of Google we might know some, but not all of that. Most of life’s missteps are not a matter of public record. Someone I know once said to me, after someone else told him about my names and the businesses and grad school “…but I didn’t know you did x, y and z. I didn’t know about Nan Bunch.” I wasn’t hiding it – I use Nan Bunch on my credit cards and so forth– including a credit card he’d rung up himself in his business. What, should I print out a list of all my sins and carry it around?
Will you do that too?
When I tell people about my past, sometimes they tell me about theirs. I like that. Some things people have told me include: sex with the underage, plagiarism in school, multiple felony convictions, embezzlement, being fired more than once for drug use, multiple DWIs, and on and on. We think our sins are so much better, different, than everyone else’s – except when we think they are so much worse. I’m pretty suspicious of people who act haughty with this information about my life.
I’m not Christian, but I like Jesus. The idea of Jesus. His teachings. Not what’s done in His name. Fuck, no. But Jesus, yeah. Some of y’all good people missed that part about the first stone. I’m aware that I’m a sinner. Try to remember you are too.
Sometimes it comes up that I was Nan x, y, z or pseudonym a, b, c. Sometimes people think I’m hiding. Hmmm…well, if I were I’d just officially change my name to Anna March. Maybe I will one day, not to hide but for simplicity sake. But I tend to be inertia-driven about paperwork, and that just seems like a lot of hassle: change name, change bills, change license, change bank account, change credit cards, change will, change a zillion things. I live in a summer tourist town with an official year-round population of 1000, but an actual year-round of about half that. (The other half live somewhere else, at least in the off-season.) Everyone knows everyone, literally — it makes Northern Exposure seem like it was set in the big city. I use my credit card many times a day. I have never “hidden” my other names. They just aren’t who I am, at least not anymore. And that, reader, is a good thing. When I became Anna March, I became myself – one person.
I think a lot about the meme last year on Facebook that was big: “here’s eight secrets about me.” Don’t we all just want to be visible? What we all want is to be, right? Hence this essay. To be loved is to be rendered visible. To be truly seen. If someone doesn’t see you, they don’t love you.
So see me, and let my life speak. I try to remember Oscar Wilde, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
I suffered as a kid. I suffered. I have in fact suffered through my adult life, too — and in that suffering done damage to others. And I’m sorry, I regret that. So incredibly much. I do. Oh, how I do. I am not offering the pain of my life as an excuse or explanation for anything. NOTHING. My lies, my failures – those are my fault, my fault entirely. I could have and should have acted better, done right. I’m sorry. In some cases I did my very best – truly — and still failed — and I’m sorry for those things, too. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. And I’ve tried — I’ve sent notes and letters and tried to make contact and make amends – with those who I owe, who I hurt. It is an ongoing process. I want to set things right if I can; I want to say I’m sorry. And now, well, this isn’t every single thing I ever said or did that was fucked up, wrong — but it gets you there, I think, to me. And, I just, I just wanted you to know.
I’m still working on cleaning up. When you start at age 42 and go back to age 17 and have 25 years to cover, it’s a lot. I’m up to 2005, though circumstances have meant that I’ve made amends to some people from the 2006-2010 range and there are a few people outstanding before 2005. There are still a handful of things to clean up, of people to reach, and it’s slow going. I take reaching out to folks as a one at a time endeavor in order to stay on course and not just fall apart from the weight of trying to make up for 25 years of damage overnight. After 2010, I think my karma is clean. I hope. And over the next couple of years, I think I will be “finished” reaching out to everyone. I hope.
I try to be open about who I am. I’m not interested in having a blank slate; I’d rather everyone just know what’s on mine. Maybe people think I’m hiding from my past by being Anna No, far from it. I’m showing you who I am.
Do you see?
Talking to a friend who has a lot of stuff in his past, we were joking about starting a website called “heresmystuff.com” and we laughed. But, you know, — judge, don’t judge, forgive, don’t forgive. It’s ok, I can’t control your reactions and they say a lot more about you than me. That’s what a zillion dollars in therapy has taught me.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there. —Rumi
What are the 5 things you don’t want me to know about you? What are the 5 things you’d be relieved to have people know? Scared, but relieved, too. Tell me.
6. An orphan of a different sort
“The revelation is if you’re willing to discuss what you’ve been through, people become unashamed of their own secrets.” — Jeannette Walls
Sometimes an orphan is the self we left behind. The self we needed to abandon to get to healthy, happy. The person or projection we had to leave in order to become ourselves. I’m a person who, in the words of my friend Antonia Crane, spent a lot of her life “performing for love.” These days I try to just be who I am. Be kind. Be honest. Be generous. Write. Help. Work on being a better person. Forgive myself. Step out of shame.
I started lying to my mom about grad school 24 years ago. The literary organization I ran died 16 years ago. The business nine years ago. It’s taken me all these years to even approach my own story, fragmented though this might be. I want you to know my stories, all of them, and incorporate them into your understanding of me, and maybe somehow we will both feel less alone. At the same time, you don’t know everything about me, and never can. I don’t know everything about you, and never can. But let’s keep trying. My hope is that this piece is a step in that direction.
My goodmother sent me a little Louisa May Alcott doll for the holidays last year. It sits here on my writing desk, reminding me of her words “you had to make yourself all up.” It reminds me to forgive myself, to look kindly on the world. Everywhere I turn, I see people battered, broken, and also beautiful. Gracing the world with their impeccable presence, teaching us all to love, despite everything.
“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” — Gabriel García Márquez
I’m Anna March. Do you see?
–Art by Natalia Drepina