My friend Karen messaged me one day last summer. “Did you sign up with a ghostwriting thing?” she asked. “They’ve spelled your name wrong on their website.”
I texted back a thank you and confessed that, yes, I had signed up to author other people’s ersatz memoirs. “This,” I wrote to Karen, “ is what I have come to.”
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Story Terrace, the ghostwriting company, had misspelled my name. It’s spelled funny, and I’m accustomed to correcting people, when I bother to. I figure I’m to blame for this inanity. It’s what I deserve for deliberately mangling my name. My punishment is getting asked about it every single day for the past half-century.
I was 9 years old when I excised the “e” from my name. The other little boys I knew named Robert — there were three of them in my third-grade homeroom alone — seemed like kids who’d grow up to inject heroin between their toes and hold up convenience stores. I worried that if I didn’t do something fast, I’d wind up like them.
I was too young to buy a sports car and didn’t have access to hair dye, but I needed a new identity. I considered changing my name to Basket, and for an entire afternoon in 1971 I made people call me Duracell. Finally, I announced my plan to change the spelling of my name as an expression of singularity and distinction.
“You’ll regret it,” my father told me.
“Why don’t you go watch TV instead?” was my mother’s suggestion.
It turned out Dad was right. I didn’t notice right away, because no one takes little boys seriously and everyone other than my parents kept right on spelling my name the old way, even after I had it changed legally. Usually when I corrected people about the “e,” they stared blankly. They still do.
“So it’s spelled R-b-e-r-t?” is the usual response, somehow.
It’s easier to let others assume I don’t know how to spell my own name. I get it: being an adult who deliberately contorts his name puts me on a list with unhinged cat ladies and those sad folks you see on Hoarders, that cable show about people who sleep alongside shopping bags filled with their own feces. I don’t care. I tried putting the “e” back in my name one morning in 1992, but it didn’t look like my name. Because it wasn’t.
Anyway, I figure if I’m expected to be tolerant of your gluten allergy and your PTSD over the cancellation of NCIS: New Orleans, you can muster a little respect for how I spell my own name.
Unless you work for Story Terrace, the ghostwriting company that had added me to its roster of writers. I wrote to Emily McCracken, who’d hired me; we’d bonded over our love of Craftsman architecture and our mutual homosexuality. “No big deal,” I assured her about the misspelling. “It happens all the time.”
Emily promised to correct the spelling of my name on the Story Terrace website, but seven months later she still hadn’t.
“This is a tough one,” she replied when I pointed out my still-misspelled name. “Seeing as how we’re a writing company, we want to avoid the appearance of having typos or errors on our site. Any ideas on what we can do?”
“Yes,” I wrote back. “You can spell my name correctly.”
I didn’t bother to tell Emily that I’ve written for dozens of magazines in the past 40 years, and no editor had ever questioned the spelling of my name. Or that part of her job was making sure that things were spelled correctly. I decided to be patient with Emily, who clearly had no intention of spelling my name right. She worked for a company that tricked people into thinking they could write a book, I reasoned. Lying to people and hoping they wouldn’t notice was her job.
A few days later, Emily wrote back. She’d spoken to “a colleague or two” who told her that she couldn’t just go around changing the spelling of someone’s name. I wasn’t a client, after all, who could be fooled into giving Emily my life savings in return for making a book out of an anecdote about the time Grandpa got into the cooking sherry and wound up mistaking Grandma for a coat rack.
Again, Emily promised to fix the spelling of my name on the company website; five more months went by and still she did not. Meanwhile, Story Terrace writers Bsrat Mezghebe and Serginho Roosblad got to have their names spelled correctly on the company site. So did Shoshana Cenker and Chaunie Brusie.
I began to feel self-conscious about my complaint. In a world where some states have passed vicious laws saying transgender students must be addressed by pronouns that match their birth gender, am I allowed to feel marginalized over an errant vowel? In the post-MeToo, hash-tag-woke 21st century, could I — a middle-class, middle-aged, cis-gendered white guy — dare to feel discriminated against? I knew this wasn’t the same kind of aggression as asking a person of color to adopt a more “normal-sounding” name or like asking Sam Schwartzbaum to become Stan Smyth. But as I cruised through other profiles on the Story Terrace sight, I wondered: Was Layla Broumand actually Branagiddle Kuperman? Did Michelle Anjirbag use to be Mi’Shell, until Story Terrace got hold of her?
While I was busy comparing my discrimination with that of others with bigger problems and being gaslighted by people whose job it was to convince plumbers they could be published authors, I received an all-staff email from Story Terrace’s new editorial team leader. “Please reach out to me for help with updating your online profiles, or feedback on any part of our process,” wrote Kevin Danielczyk, whose own name was suspiciously bereft of vowels.
I could tell by Kevin’s liberal use of corporate-speak and random exclamation points that he wasn’t the kind of person who would force an identity on someone just to make his company look good. I took him at his word when he asked for feedback.
So I wrote to Kevin and asked why Story Terrace employees Zen Vuong and Arjanna van der Plass got to have their names spelled correctly, but I did not.
“This is just me, doing as you requested,” I reminded him. “Reaching out to you for help with updating my online profile and offering feedback on our work relationship, which so far has been limited to being discriminated against and being treated like an idiot who deliberately misspells his name.”
Kevin wrote back the next morning to tell me that I was fired.
I didn’t feel fired. Story Terrace hadn’t found me any work while I was signed with them, and I’d worried that if they had, I’d have had to listen to someone describe his career as a hat check clerk in an ice-skating rink and then try to make it interesting. Getting canned for being “different” by a man with flawless hair who lives in West Hollywood and lied to by a woman who got to mention her wife in her workplace bio but thought nothing of oppressing an old gay guy felt more like a parting gift.
In the end, I was grateful. I hadn’t written any pretend books, but I’d been reminded how it felt to be treated less-than, a useful lesson these days for an old white guy like me. And I’d learned that even in this more tolerant age, the grand American tradition of discrimination would continue. It'd just be for even stupider reasons. Like because somebody spells their name funny.