Among certain groups of people who live the international life, there is competition. Competition may be about the number of countries in which one has resided, or the number of continents. It may be about how many languages one speaks, or how many nationalities one has acquired, whether by birth, marriage or residence. I was seduced by the idea of acquiring nationalities. I had only one. In due time, by way of marriage to a Frenchman, I was able to apply for my second.
There were forms to fill. I carefully put my father's surname as Morddel, surely causing some high-speed revolutions in his grave. I made copies of the necessary documents and passed a little French language test. We were lucky in that the authorities did not suspect that ours could have been a marriage of convenience. When they do, their investigations are astoundingly intrusive into the home and the life of a couple. The tales I have heard from others of official inspections too sordid to relate here leave me with nightmares about the POWER OF THE STATE. So, I was grateful to have my application accepted by the bureaucrat who said he would send it off to Nantes, where decisions would be taken.
Decisions took about eight months to be taken but finally, I received a notice saying that I could come to the office to collect the reply. I was very pleased and went down right away. A large envelope was presented to me, for which I had to sign before I could open it. People were busy. I signed and turned toward the door, opening it as I walked. I made it to the lift before I pulled out the folder.
"Congratulations," it said. "You are now a citizen of France." There followed a letter from the President on fancy stationery, welcoming me to La France, then a copy of the original application form in which my father's phony surname had been lined out. Lastly, there was a certificate of nationality, but not for Anne Morddel. It was in my birth name. I should have expected it, but really, I could not believe it. I was so upset and angry that I was shaking. The lift went by two or three times as I stood there and then, I am afraid I lost all control of my vicious temper. I stormed back into the office, sputtering and screaming in a mish-mash of French and English -- all of it most foul -- to the room in general.
"What is this? How dare you?" and more remarks of general outrage. "This is not my name, how could you do this???" I zeroed in on my bureaucrat, a simpering, skinny man in his thirties.
"That is your legal name."
"No it is not, and those idiot clowns in Nantes know it!!! I changed my name long ago."
"Not according to French law. The document shows your legal name in France and you must accept it." Oh, how he should not have used that word "must" to a recalcitrant child of Sixties California. Shaving years off my life, and probably doing no great good to the international image of Americans, my rage reached a new and previously unexperienced peak.
"I have to accept nothing from France, nothing at all. What do you think I am, someone begging for your nationality? Are you insane? I am American! I do not need this. It was purely for entertainment." Standing in the centre of the office, I took the certificate of nationality from the envelope, crumpled it into a tiny ball and threw it on the floor, screaming insults and stamping on it, then walked out the door throwing the envelope and the President's cheery letter over my shoulder. I believe I walked about a dozen miles afterward before my vision went from purple, to red, to pink, then slowly to a dark grey of shame and despair.
Though I was deeply ashamed of my infantile explosion, I was also convinced that I was in the right. The French seemed arbitrary to me. They accepted part of my country's documentation, such as my birth certificate and passport, but not the big document from the Department of Sate, complete with red ribbon and gold seal. It was incomprehensible to me that they felt they could pick out the bits of information that suited them. I have since learned that this is not uniquely French.
With this nationality fiasco, my simple name change had become a war. My dispute with my father about it was never a war because his refusal to recognize it had no effect upon my documentation and identity. A government's refusal, however, did. Documents and tax forms arrived in my birth name. I used a lot of White-Out/Tip-Ex, pretty much nullifying them all. People thought I was mad, but this is not a madness.
We live in a world that increasingly controls every aspect of every person's life. I expect that quite soon, newborn babies will be microchipped. Surely, the determination of one's own identity must be one of the bastions of resistance against this bureaucratization of our souls. If a person is permitted by law to change his or her sex, the most fundamental aspect of any person's identity, then by extension changing a name must also be permitted. My war ceased to be very much about the name Morddel and became focused on my right to decide who I am and that my right on that particular point supersedes the right of the State. As I have repeated to many bureaucrats, judges, lawyers and such:
"You can tell me how to be educated, you can make me pay taxes, you can tell me how to behave according to numerous laws, you can make me go to war, you can gaze at my nude body in airports, you can decide how that body when dead will be disposed of, but you can NOT tell me who I am."
©2010 Anne Morddel