As a young Oxford academic working on international law, I changed my name in 2020. I hoped to draw a line under the trauma of having my name dragged into the Corbyn/anti-Semitism dramas of the previous few years. This is the story of how my Left-wing colleagues and former friends then turned on me more than ever.
In 2019 I began a faculty position in Iceland, having completed my doctorate at Oxford in 2017. But I spent a week fielding phone-calls from journalists and worried old friends after another Oxford academic had written on the internet that I was “just pretending to have a doctorate”. I was, actually, not pretending to have a doctorate. Confusion arose because my dissertation had been embargoed, and was therefore not available in the Bodleian Library, because of statements I’d made in it about human rights abuses committed in the Arab world. Not fancying death threats and fearing going out in public, I’d asked the Bodleian to keep it under wraps until I could polish it into something fit for public consumption. Perhaps this was an act of cowardice on my part, but in my defence, far less cowardly than the former acquaintance who used a pseudonym to defame me online.
A long, painful and friendship-group-rupturing investigation yielded the likely cause of my being targeted in this manner. I’d committed the “crime” of going to Tel Aviv University for my post-doctoral fellowship in 2017, and was therefore apparently fair game in the eyes of Left-wing academics to be slandered – never mind that all my scholarship operates within the framework of international human rights law. At the height of the poisonous Corbyn/anti-Semitism debates, my name had been put on a list by supporters of BDS — the campaign to boycott Israel. Thus my name and reputation got ripped to pieces on the internet, just as I was meant to be celebrating a happy new chapter in my academic life.
I was in Iceland as it all played out, a country I’d moved to a month earlier to lie low and stay anchored. After five years staring at a laptop to complete my doctorate on the Arab revolutions, and the exhausting, interminable media debates about anti-Semitism, I wanted some mental sorbet. I hoped to press the re-set button after all the horrors of ISIS massacres and authoritarianism that I’d had to investigate to complete my doctoral work – so I jumped at an offer to join an Icelandic university. “Log off, relax, talk to your neighbours and learn how to knit lopapeysa (Icelandic jumpers),” I thought to myself.
But the toxic, cliquey cruelty of the internet had followed me to Iceland. As I sat watching the Northern Lights that never stopped astonishing me, I knew that my name had been denatured, defiled, mutated by lies. It was the end of the decade – a decade, for me, of wars and watching my friends die and nightmares from Syria to Ukraine – and to draw a line under the end of the 2010s, our own “low dishonest decade” as Auden reflected in 1939 – I logged off, deactivated all my social media, and spent my first winter in Iceland writing a novel in longhand. It was about cruelty and gossip and the importance of keeping one’s name clean, the Jewish concept none of my Oxford former friends understood when I called them tearfully from Iceland, explaining “but it’s a lie, it’s a lie, it’s my name and they’ve covered it in lies”.
Of course, as we now know, 2020 brought a whole new tidal wave of trauma and displacement. My own little private pain, in late 2019, felt as if it had no place in the big broad narratives of the last two years. I got to know my Icelandic neighbours and colleagues: they really did teach me how to knit a lopapeysa jumper, and how to climb a glacier, and fish for salmon: their kindness was a tonic to all the vicious little nastinesses of my Oxford former-friends who had decided I was ripe for a “cancelling”. The Icelanders explained their naming system to me. As with Slavic patronymics, each took a name of their parent and added “son” or, if female, “dottir” (“daughter”). They explained that it was fine to take one’s mother’s name if that was preferable, but I loved the idea of honouring my father – who’d raised my sisters and me and who’d worked in quiet dignity of thirty years of academic life, without ever feeling any compulsion to “take someone down” or “start a flame war”, as my progressive former friends in Oxford seemed to spend their time. One day, climbing the hill in Borgafjordur next to my tranquil college campus, I asked my friend Leifur a question : “Do people ever take Icelandic surnames when they come here?” He smiled and said: “Sometimes, and we love it when they do.” So I enquired with my new friends in Reykjavik – how would they feel if they met someone who changed their name after they moved to Iceland? Every person I asked said they’d think it was an honour, that someone would so respect their country that they would take on the naming system.
I called my father in Cambridge: “Sweetheart, how lovely,” he said, knowing how distressed I’d been at seeing my name contaminated with lies. So a week later at the university I asked the kind administrative staff (who’d had to handle the brunt of my “doxxing”, as the phone calls claiming that I was an “evil Zionist traitor” began to pour in after the lies online the week I started the job) to change my name on the university register to “Allansdottir”? My father’s name, Allan, suited the Nordic formulation well – after all, all my Icelandic friends would tell me when I teased them about their country’s lack of diversity – “well, there were Irish coming and going here for centuries”. So my father’s Celtic name felt like a perfect match for the Nordic suffix “dottir”.
And I was proud – unfashionably proud, in these times – of being my father’s daughter. My father is an academic engineer, and quietly, uncomplainingly, gets on with his work, tending to the little garden of his own life. I remembered reading the passage in Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids when the poet Allen Ginsberg tells her that she must honour her name. Patti replies: “But my name is Smith.” Ginsberg says: “Exactly.” And through that Patti learns to take a diligent, workman-like approach to her vocation.
I felt that through my name change I was not only wiping my spirit clean, but that I was being crowned with all the good of my father and my father’s approach to life and work. A little coronation and acknowledgement of continuation. I loved it so much, I wrote my new name out over and over in my notebooks like a teenager in love. I sent off the manuscript of the novel I’d written in the Icelandic winter to the publisher with a note – please can I publish this under my new name, “Allansdottir”? He wrote back, joking: “Heather, did you just do it so your name will be first in the alphabetised book catalogues?” No, of course not, but hey, in the cruel and cliquey worlds of academia and publishing that had so mauled my name the first time round – every little helps, right?
I took a trip to the Westfjords, a name straight out of Game of Thrones and a landscape like Lord of the Rings. Covid was rampant globally by now, but Iceland was one of the best places to wait it out. Provided we wore masks on public transport, residents could move through the country quite freely. I brought with me a copy of Elena Ferrante’s novel, The Story of a New Name. I remember feeling viscerally defensive on Ferrante’s behalf when a journalist had revealed her identity some years earlier – the act of violation horrified me, not so much out of feminist solidarity but respect for her as a fellow writer to be allowed to demarcate the boundaries between her work and her life. I wonder if, she too, felt her name had been defiled: after all, though I tried to resist reading the details of Ferrante’s “exposure”, one of the facts made public was that she was of Jewish descent m. She would understand the concept of keeping one’s name clean.
I guess I should have expected what happened next: the second act of my “cancelling”, the targeting of my name again. When I got back from the Westfjords, the poor administrative staff of my tiny university had more news for me – now they’d received calls enquiring about my name change, all from the UK. Had the guy who’d doxxed me had perhaps enlisted some friends? It was weirdly flattering to think that a gang of supposed intellectuals in Oxford were sitting around talking about me when I just wanted to pick blueberries, climb glaciers and knit mittens. The callers were asking: “We heard about Dr Allansdottir’s name change. Don’t you find it offensive? That she’s appropriating Icelandic culture?” Oh boy. And to think I’d changed my name to have a bit of calm and quiet.
I called my Dad from Iceland, crying and then laughing at the fact people still inexplicably wished me ill, saying, “Well, I could always change it again. After all, some of the best women have three surnames in a lifetime – look at Jackie Bouvier/ Kennedy/ Onassis.” No, my Dad said, there will be no more changing of names. For your name to be defiled once could be considered a misfortune, twice begins to look like carelessness. But what was most touching – and heartbreaking – was how sad my Icelandic friends were on my behalf. “But we didn’t find it offensive, we thought it was lovely that you took an Icelandic name.” I tried to explain to them the toxicity of the British media and academia that had so worn me down that I’d run away to Iceland in the first place. They hugged me and took me out for drinks in Reykjavik.
But I continued to reflect on this chasm between how the Icelandic people around me treated me and the politically-correct rubrics of my former friends back home in England. Will Ferrell’s film Fire Saga came out in the summer of 2020 and my Icelandic friends loved it so much that the university staged an open-air screening. My friends from Husavik – the town mentioned in the film – found it so wonderful that a film had been made set in their town that they renamed the local bar. Yet the Guardian ran three separate articles questioning whether the film was “problematic” and “offensive to Icelandic people” — never mind that the dynamics of “cultural appropriation” hardly apply so easily when the country is more northern and richer than the country doing the “appropriating”.
It’s not that my Icelandic friends weren’t discerning about the ways their country got packaged up into a palatable cliché for the tourists who, between the 2008 crash and Covid, had helped to sustain their economy. “Of course they just want to talk elves and Blue Lagoons, not corruption and the Chinese companies moving here to drill in the Arctic, so yes, of course we package up Iceland to give the tourists what they want,” a political friend explained to me in Reykjavik. “But getting offended on our behalf is also extremely….well, patronising. We’re Vikings, you think we can’t stand up for ourselves?” He laughed. Fair point.
Upon returning to the UK last year, as my father’s health began to decline, I wanted to wear my new name everywhere, and enquired into changing it by deed-poll to “Allansdottir” under UK law. Now my father was unwell, it felt more important than ever that I wear his name on mine as an act of love and devotion, as though it were a magic spell or talisman that, if I carried it everywhere, would somehow stop his heart weakening. Like the Hebrew-born “Abracadabra”, I thought maybe my “Allansdottir” would be the magic word that kept my father alive.
Yet, coming back to England after two years away, my new name in hand and having to re-encounter the people who’d sabotaged my name the week I’d begun the faculty position, the hostility to my name change was baffling, even brutalising. I’d expected, naively, for the criticisms to come from older and more conservative friends. I waited for them to tell me that a woman should only change her name upon marriage. But in fact I received very little negative feedback from conservatives. Instead it came from those who self-identify as progressive and liberal. Try as I might, I struggled to see what was so “liberal” about denying me the right to do what I wanted with my own name.
Criticism predominantly came also from those who were ever-vigilant about “using the correct pronouns”, who declared “she/her” in their online biographies. But if respecting how someone self-identifies was the core of their modus operandi, as they claimed, why could they not treat my name change with the same respect? It didn’t even seem to calm them down when I assured them that all my Icelandic friends had unequivocally encouraged the change – like the online spaces that fret about white people trying on kimonos, which contain no comments from Japanese people that they find others wearing a kimono offensive, the blanket rule of crying and cancelling others for “cultural appropriation” seemed increasingly divorced from what people from those cultures (to the extent to which there is such a homogenous entity in any case) actually want.
Anyway, I’m sticking with my new name. While it slightly marks me like a scar – the violation of my old name, the wound healed but always there on my skin – I feel it more as a reminder to live like my Icelandic friends, who know what to do when a blizzard comes, and know when to talk and when to just quietly be.
My father’s health is improving as I write this, and last week he called me, laughing, and said: “I’ve had an idea of something I should do to celebrate turning 64. I should get my first tattoo! I think my students would like it. Or will they cancel me for it?” I reassured my Dad that he’s much cooler than I am and I’m sure all his Gen Z students would think it was great. He said, wisely and kindly as ever: “OK, but don’t take this as encouragement that you should get a tattoo of your own.” I reminded him I was in a minority in my millennial generation, having lived several decades without any ink on my skin. I would never get a tattoo: both the aesthetics and the permanence of it terrify me. But I do understand the need of those who get tattooed to want to carry something on you always, as a marker of what the world has done to you and how you’ve grown around it like a vine on a trellis, still alive but shaped by it. I think about it every time I write down my new name.
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