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HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Do you still write letters? I mean, letter-letters? It’s difficult for me, because my handwriting is so illegible, I honestly get emails from people saying “Thank you for your thank you note. What did it say?”
But the other day I participated in an astonishing event. Sponsored by Women of Letters, it’s an international program that asks women to write a letter on the topic of WOL’s choice, then read it out loud to an audience.
I was thrilled to be invited. Until I heard their topic. We had to write “A Letter to My Secret.” My secret? It took a lot of thinking. And at some point, I was dismayed (?) to realize I have no real juicy secrets. I guess that’s a good thing—no, like, criminal record, or almost criminal record, no horrible encounters or crushing humiliating miseries. Any secret I thought of was—embarrassing. Or boring. Or embarrassing AND boring.
And then I got it. I would reveal—that I do not like my name.
Here’s a photo of us all on stage.
My letter began like this:
To: Whom it may concern:
Yes, I understand where you're coming from, completely. Because let me tell you, Whom, I never liked my name either. "Whom it may concern" works really well for you, and I wish I had thought of it. But I have had to make other arrangements
And then it went on:
It was 1963, remember. And it was bad enough being considered a farm girl when I wasn't, but what made it worse that was that my name was Harriet Ann. Harriet Ann!
When all the cool girls are Debbie and Linda, and you are nerdy bookie and unpopular, and named Harriet, it does not make for a pleasant junior high experience. In fact, when all I wanted to be was most popular, they voted me most individual. Harriet the individual. And they put my picture in the school paper upside down. They would not have done that to Debbie or Linda.
I could not understand why my obviously sadistic parents named me this. They tried to explain it, that it was a family thing, that my father, my biological father, was the music critic for the Chicago Daily News, and my great uncle Harry, or something like that, had introduced him to the music of Mozart. So they had, in gratitude, named me after him. Uncle Harry, not Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Which would have been equally horrible.
I did my best, as geeky little Harriet, to overcome this name thing. Oh, you're saying, how about Harriet the Spy? She was cool. Yes she was, and had Harriet the Spy existed at this time, I would've been fine. And writing you about something else. But there was no other Harriet except for Ozzie and Harriet. Ricky Nelson's mother? Are you kidding me?
It went on—we each read for about 8 minutes. (And I mentioned Harriet Vane, of course.) But wow, it was a memorable evening.
I ended by revealing how I kinda like Harriet now.
Here’s another photo—this is me backstage with host Sofija Stephanovic, then Abeer Hoque and Callie Crossley, then me, then Marianne Leone, Rose Styron and Claire Messud.
And if you EVER get a chance to attend a Women of Letters event—we had a packed house at Oberon in Cambridge—please do.
We’re not allowed to talk about what anyone else told—what happens at WOL stays at WOL.
But people were laughing, and crying, and it was truly unforgettable.
So Reds and readers—I won’t ask you to tell your secret. Not today at least. But—do you like your name? Have you always felt that way? What do you wish you were named?