The Naming of Things

Elvis Costello, "Alison"

As best I can remember, the first time I met another girl named Allison was in the fourth grade.

And not only was her first name Allison, but her last name also began with the letter F. Just to make it even funnier, her middle initial was the same as mine too, an M.

So, we couldn’t be distinguished from one another in the way we could have if we’d been, say, “Allison B.” and “Allison K.” “Allison #1” and “Allison #2”—aside from the obvious scatological connotations—wouldn’t work, because, yikes, who would be #1? Who would be #2? Though we eventually became good friends, we barely knew each other at that point and there was no reason for us to attempt to compete for ranking like that. I don’t remember who suggested that we come up with our own designated nicknames, but she soon declared that she would be “Ali” (like Ali MacGraw, not Muhammad Ali). And I declared that I would be “Alf.”

Yes, the television show about the cat-eating alien was popular at that time.


And, yes, it was a neutered variation on my name, continuing my trend away from my own feminine energy that had started the year before with my mother’s death.

The name followed me for years, though with less and less frequency, until it phased itself out altogether by the time I graduated high school.

In the years since, I have been known by a variety of other names. And I have known a variety of other Allisons.

The Allison from fourth grade sticks out in my memory now as being sweet yet strong. She had a birdlike frame, yet, exotically, was an accomplished downhill skier.

Girl Skiing

We lived in Northwest Indiana, where hills in and of themselves, much less downhill skiing on them, were difficult to come by, so this speaks to her family’s ability to not only afford all the gear, but to fly her to the places where they actually had mountains to ski on. She had also been adopted, which therefore also made her the first adoptee I consciously knew.

There was another Allison a year ahead of us at the same elementary school. Physically and temperamentally, she couldn’t have been more different from the two of us. She was loud and blonde and brash, and I remember that she had enormous nostrils. I have a vague recollection that she was probably being raised by a single mother, a mildly eccentric hippie type, who marched to the beat of her own drummer and evidently taught her daughter to do the same.

In the lead-up to the presidential election of 1988, most of the kids on our school bus, following both the general tide of the country as well as Indiana’s conservative politics, were all rooting for George H.W. Bush. She, on the other hand, would respond by taunting the rest of us with her loud, solo chant of “Dukakis!!” Even as an adult, I still admire her for the strength of character it took to stand out like that.

Dukakis, 1988

In middle school, my best friend Mary introduced me to a girl named Allison she’d met in a local children’s choir, and we soon became a triad. She was a year younger than us, and went to a different school, but we participated in a lot of the same local community theater productions, so we had ample time together outside regular school hours.

In years past I’d of course encountered the beginnings of girl competition, but at least the social hierarchies had been clear-cut, with a huge gulf yawning between the pretty popular girls and the more awkward, bookish nerds like me. But this triad marked perhaps the first time that I began to see the machinations of competition among girls who were actually quite similar.

Since we all sang and acted and were good students, we struggled to figure out how to define ourselves against each other, to individuate. The unconscious method we arrived at was subtle jockeying for position. Who got the better parts, who could sing the higher or lower notes, who had been taken under wing by the more impressive adult actors. My memories of our time together remain tainted by this eternal quest to rank ourselves against each other. Those tween and early teen years felt utterly exhausting. Even then I had a sense that friendship probably wasn’t supposed to feel like that much work.

That Allison, now in her early 30s, very recently gave birth to a baby. She and her husband had struggled with fertility and decided to adopt, only to become pregnant soon thereafter. I guess I’m happy for her, though the knee-jerk impulse to emphasize our differences compels me, still, to secretly think, “ugh, I am SO GLAD I don’t have to take care of two little babies right now. I am living better.”


Throughout high school, I’d been known among my theater friends primarily by my last name, in a burlesque of the way that athletes call each other by their last names. It wasn’t until probably my junior year of college, though, that I remembered how much I actually like my first name.

A grad student who’d been the assistant instructor for a number of my favorite film studies classes was chatting with me about a paper assignment at the end of a class, and in the course of conversation, he casually said my name back at me. “You know, Allison, you should keep in mind that…” or something to that effect. I nearly swooned.

With the exception of the very occasional guy who will develop a crush on me and suddenly decide that he’s going to call me “Allie” (they all think they’re terribly original when they do this), I’ve been nothing but Allison ever since.

A few years ago, at the wedding of a former roommate I’d already started drifting away from, my place card on the table at the reception listed my first name with only one L. It was a minor misspelling, an easy error for someone to make, but it very definitely felt like the final nail in the coffin of our friendship.

One L

As I examined my pique, I found that I actively wanted both of my Ls. I wanted the All that had not so secretly been living in my name the whole time. I finally wanted the fullness my name had been offering me, a fullness that was never diminished, even while I attempted to disguise it by calling it anything but what it is.