A lot of the “coincidences” Julie Beck imagines as meaningful in her recent Atlantic article about her quest to meet the “wildly different” [see above] other women with her name, just seem part of being a middle-class, college-educated white person in the US with a common moniker. As a “Kristin Miller,” I have some basis for comparison. Another girl at my four-year, liberal-arts college with my name whose emails I received by accident? Check. Romance author with my name? Check. Lots of people with my name who are internet searchable, from similar socio-economic backgrounds, and with careers to which search results matter? Check, check, and check. She’s got doctors, lawyers, and PR reps; I’ve got doctors, teachers, a celebrity quilter, and actresses. Her points about names increasingly needing to serve as unique identifiers in a global system are interesting, as are the stats on the diversification of baby names post-web. But I wish she’d actually questioned the “social signification” of names that she references, or even queried why “Julie Beck” is read as a “friendly everywoman” [side–eye so hard]. Her story operates on the background of multiple assumptions about race, class, and access to technology, and completely skirts the implications of how our names travel through the world transmitting all kinds of information about us, even when we’re not physically present.
With my name, the joke is really on my parents—they tried to choose a unique name for me, because Miller is so common. They didn’t know, because they didn’t watch TV, that when I was born there was a prominent character on Dallas named Kristin—she who eventually shot J.R. That created a boomlet of Kristi/ens in the early ’80s: the peak was 1981, when Kristin’s story arc on Dallas came to an end. But Kristin had already been growing in popularity over the course of the 20th century, for reasons unknown to me, perhaps following Sigrid Undset’s 1928 Nobel Prize for literature for Kristin Lavransdatter, which brought an old-fashioned Scandinavian name back to popular awareness.
By 1979, Kristin was already in the top 100 girls names or it wouldn’t have popped into the minds of the Dallas writers, or my parents—whatever reasons they might have given themselves about Swedish family. Kristi/en then tailed off over the course of the ’80s and by the early aughts was as uncommon as it had been in the ’40s. According to MyNameStats.com and HowManyofMe.com, there are around 1,500 Kristi/en Millers in the US; 80% of us are white (“Julie Beck” is even whiter); and the most common places for a Kristin to have been born are Texas, California, and New York, almost certainly in suburbs, and likely to moms with leisure time who loved watching soap operas. I would guess that many people in the US, without statistics, could use my name to correctly index me by census categories: race, rough age and socio-economic background, and maybe even region of birth.
I don’t hate my name, but I’ve never loved it, even before moving back to New York from a childhood spent overseas and encountering how it framed me for others. I thought about changing it when I was younger, but at this point, for professional purposes, I’m stuck with it. And I’d be deeply naïve to imagine that its default whiteness didn’t smooth my path through life in more ways than I will ever comprehend, even with my best efforts. Changing my name also wouldn’t change the truths it tells about me, in terms of the big categories [paging “Nkechi Diallo“]. Its vanilla banality even protects me on the web; if you search “Kristin Miller” the only results that are me start on the third page, and they’re all things I chose to make publicly available—even digitally, it’s easier for any missteps that a “Kristin Miller” might make to sink and disappear. If Beck and the Atlantic really wanted to explore the social functions of names in a digital world, maybe they could have spent time talking to the three “Tiffany Trieus,” the 116 “Jamal Browns,” or the 2,000+ Angela Rodriguezes.”
The ways in which my name marks things about me that are true, but suggests many things that are not, has always been a source of discomfort. While the Kristen Miller in my college class (from Texas) and I had a fair amount in common, down to a slight physical resemblance, she’s the only one I’ve ever met, either in real or virtual life, or would care to. Though I’m sure there are Facebook groups of Kristin Millers, I would never blithely join them, as the Julie Becks quoted do, assuming some magical ability of a shared name to shape us into “nice people.” The social forces by which “Kristin Miller” or “Julie Beck” can conjure up a friendly, wholesome girl-next-door type—Becky with the Good Name—are profoundly ugly in their exclusions. Googling myself and being confronted with pages of the sorority-joining, soccer-playing, scrapbook-making, wedding-website-building women who share my name is a glimpse into a largely alien and alienating world of high-key, heteronormative suburban whiteness. Though, meeting the Kristin Miller (from California) who writes best-selling smutty romances about werewolves might be good for a laugh.