I picture the opening of a movie. A medium shot of the Santa Fe Motel. It is white stucco, with palm trees around it, the sky layers of pink and yellow as the sun rises. A title card superimposes over the shot:
A woman with dark hair swinging right above her shoulders walks out from the motel. Maybe she walks to the corner and takes the bus. Maybe she walks the six miles from her hotel in National City to the doctor’s office in downtown San Diego, where she’ll interview to be a receptionist. The name she has given the doctor’s office, the one she gave to the front desk clerk at the motel when she checked in, is Anna James. This is a name she chose. How she wanted to be known. She is in a new state, a new city. Her life rebooted. She will get that receptionist job, but she’ll never be in that office again. Anna James being the name chosen by Alice Lundgren. On what is supposed to be her first day at work, she is arrested for her role in the murders of the Avery family.
Most people in my family called my paternal grandfather either Bucky or Lee. How he came to be known as Bucky is a story lost to the deaths of the family members who knew the story. Lee came from the shortening of his actual name, Leon. My siblings and I simply called him grandpa. On my mother’s side, her older sister’s middle name is Lee. A legacy of Lee on both sides of my family. Sides that, according to family lore, clashed in spectacular fashion the very few times they came in contact with each other. By the time I became aware enough to understand and remember what happened around me, the two sides no longer interacted. My birth middle name is Lee.
Both my grandfather and my aunt claimed that my parents named me in honor of one of them. Only one of them. I couldn’t have been named after both. My parents said it was neither, but rather a mysterious third candidate, which only upset my grandfather and my aunt more. Both of them wanted to claim my name, while not accepting me. I sat too much in the middle of where my family lines crossed. Too much like my mother’s side of the family for my father’s side, and vice versa. My middle name just another battleground for them.
Perhaps this is why I’ve never liked that name. Perhaps this is part of the reason why it has felt like my name carried a lot of tension. I’ve spent most of my life not liking my name, and the ugly memories of abuse and rejection associated with it. Throughout my life, I thought about changing it, but this felt more like a fantasy, a daydream, than something that could actually happen. Why? I’m not entirely sure. What would I change it to? What if I didn’t like that name either? I’d only been known as Brian Lee Kornell my whole life. I’d have to let go of it.
My family has a history of name modification. Bucky changed the spelling of my given last name, Kornell, when my father and his brothers were in high school. It originally had one “L”: Kornel. Why add an “L”? Again, as with most things with my family, no one knows. I didn’t even know this change was made until I was in my thirties. My sister mailed me our grandfather’s military ID card that still had the one “L.” My sister found the paperwork while looking for health care documents as she took care of our grandmother, who suffered from dementia and couldn’t tell the story. Neither our father or his surviving brother would tell her. This leaves me to guess, to speculate about the name change. My one guess is that Bucky added the “L” to create distance between my family and our German heritage. This change happened in the sixties, a time not far removed from WWII. My grandfather fought in WWII, so maybe he needed that separation, too. As a kid, I heard him refer to Germans as “Krauts,” a slur. Many times, he’d say this as he poured himself another glass of bourbon while my grandmother cooked sauerkraut, the sweet and sour smell of it seeping into the other rooms in the house. I’m certain he didn’t see the irony, the denial of identity, in this. Creating a family history is difficult when most of the family is dead or unwilling to talk about it.
My sister modified her name as well. She’d continually added and dropped an extra “A” in her name. Karina. Kaarina. Karina. Kaarina. Karina. Her reason for doing this? Sometimes she liked it spelled one way; sometimes, the other.
I, however, did not feel a simple spelling modification was enough. This year, I finally found a name that I felt fit me. Bruce Owens Grimm.
Alice Lundgren checked into the Santa Fe Motel as Anna James, with her four children. According to a 1990 Los Angeles Times article, Alice Lundgren told the staff “she was from nearby Chula Vista and was looking for shelter to escape beatings by her husband.” All of the cult members, twenty-nine of them, had immediately left Kirtland after the murder of the Avery family. Many went to Missouri. The Lundgrens eventually found their way to Southern California. The bodies of the Avery family had been found by the time the Lundgrens arrived at the Santa Fe Motel.
Jeffrey Lundgren, Alice Lundgren’s husband, leader of a cult who ordered his followers to murder a family of five, stayed outside because his image had begun to appear on TV screens and newspapers. Without him around as she checked in, Alice Lundgren had her first chance to say out loud that she had been abused. After her arrest, she would detail the physical and sexual abuse she suffered during the course of her marriage. According to Jeanne Murphey’s article “Alice Lundgren’s Aftermath: The Latest Chapter,” Alice Lundgren’s husband encouraged her to commit suicide while they stayed in the motel. He bought her sleeping pills and alcohol. He offered another option if the pills failed: “[H]e would assist her in plunging a knife into her chest so that the aorta would be cut and she would quickly bleed to death.” She took the pills and washed them down with whiskey. She passed out, but didn’t die.
Anna James never made it to her first day of work at the doctor’s office. She would never leave that hotel in National City. Alice Lundgren would be arrested and taken to National City Jail before being transported to San Diego County Jail. She did not fight extradition back to Ohio. She left Anna James and whatever possible life she imagined under that name in California.
I told a friend I wanted to change my name because I wanted space from the trauma associated with that name. “I would say that if you don’t like your name, you should change it,” she wrote back, “but changing it with the hope of putting distance between you and your trauma—at least in my case, that wasn’t the case.” I understood immediately. My trauma is my trauma, and the only way to handle it is by facing it in therapy and in my writing. A change in name will not magically banish my depression and anxiety. I had to consider why I wanted to change my name. The answer: I just truly wanted to.
Brian Lee Kornell didn’t leave Portland, Oregon, after the 2019 AWP Writer’s Conference. I waited until after the conference to announce my name change because I wanted the blessing of the woman whose last name I wanted to take as my own. Mary Grimm, my very first creative writing instructor. When I enrolled in her class, I had no idea if I actually wrote on the level that would allow me to have a writing career. Her encouragement and support set me on the path to the career I have now. She has shown me so much love and support over the years that when I started to think of a new last name, hers was the only one that came to mind. The only one that felt right.
Grimm also brought to mind the Brothers Grimm. As a writer who likes to explore the idea of ghosts in our everyday lives, this felt like the perfect last name. Grimm is still German in heritage. It means “helmet,” which is protective. After forty-two years of feeling unprotected, the idea of a name that can be associated with protection and many things that I adore was a welcome change.
Owens came from Susan Owens who wrote The Ghost: A Cultural History, which for me and my writing is one of the most important books I’ve read.
Bruce. I had originally chosen a different new first name. I thought it set, but then Bruce popped into my head. It wouldn’t go away. I kept hearing it in my head, and it felt right. I liked the three names together, the way they sounded individually and together, and most importantly, I liked how they made me feel—good. There is, whether we like it or not, a lot of power in a name. It felt like my old name had a lot of power over me. Perhaps I gave it that power. A negative power. However, if I gave it that power that means I could take it away. And that’s what I did by changing it. This is my choice. My decision. It’s about my future, not my past.
Bruce Owens Grimm has published essays in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review online, Ninth Letter, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, Older Queer Voices, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere. He has attended residencies and workshops at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), and he received a Lambda Literary Residency fellowship to attend The Sundress Academy of the Arts residency. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. More information can be found at www.bruceowensgrimm.com.
Read earlier installments of CULTLAND here.