What’s in a name? A lot actually, names are something I’ve spent a significant amount of my life focusing on. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court once said, “Words have meaning and names have power.” As a child, I noticed that my first name was different. I came to learn that on the first day of school, when the teacher paused while doing role call, it was my turn to raise my hand and help her with pronunciation. I came to expect disappointment at gift shops because I knew that my name would never be on one of those key chains. As a child I cycled through nicknames, looking for something that would make me feel normal and as an abandoned and repeatedly abused youth, normal seemed like an oasis. Correcting teachers, coaches, friends on my first name, AH-lee-uh, no not Aliyah, I’m not a 90’s R&B singer, no not Aria, this is not an opera, no not Alicia, now your just adding letters, was exhausting. The othering, the uniqueness, wasn’t something I learned to embrace until deep into my 20’s.
As someone who spent almost 15 years being exploited, I went by many names. When I was 14, my first trafficker called me his “Cali girl”. For many years, “Cali” felt like home. It was the name I continued with in exploitation long after he was gone and what I would find myself telling the Starbucks barista in order to avoid the inevitable misspelling and mispronunciation that would leave me questioning which macchiato was mine. In the adult film industry, my manager picked my name. My name, and therefore my identity, was what was most marketable for him. These names allowed me to hide myself. If I could hide Alia, then I could pretend I didn’t feel the things she felt.
Throughout my experiences, I knew Alia was a name I could eventually make peace with. Plenty of people have unique names and I knew it suited me. Just as often as I had to correct someone on the pronunciation, I would also hear how beautiful my name was. As I learned the meaning behind it, it grew close to my heart. Alia, while it required a journey and corrections, did not bring with it the same shame and isolation I felt towards my last name. Until I was about 15, I was the only person I knew with my last name. My grandparents, who raised me had one last name, that was shared by the rest of my family, my mom had remarried and she and my brother went by my stepdads last name and here I was with a moniker I had no attachment to. When people would ask, “Oh, what ethnicity is that?” I had no idea. I felt like I, equally, had no history and more importantly, no relevance, no significance, and no place.
When I was 22 I got married in an effort to escape the life. It worked, I no longer had to live that way, but in exchange, I accepted even greater abuse. When we divorced after the birth of my daughter, I penciled in my maiden name as what I would return to on the paperwork, but I never followed through with it. After the divorce, I went back into the life almost immediately and, as one might expect, found myself trafficked quickly thereafter. During intense custody dispute I felt that it was important to keep the last name I shared with my daughter. I was able to exit the life and find the aftercare I desperately needed. However, throughout that time, I was denied the court ordered time I was entitled to with my child. She was told I was not her mother and this last name, as much as it linked me to him, linked me to her as well. And I wasn’t willing to give that link up.
Eventually, I gained full custody of my child. Due to my experiences as a youth, I continued to keep her last name and she resettled in my home. I wanted her to know that we were the same, that we were a family, that she had a place here, and she did. But as time went on, and my accomplishments grew, seeing his name on my achievements began to weigh on me. My stomach churned when they called his last name as I walked across the stage at the college graduation I worked so hard for. There are awards in my home I won’t display because his name are on them. When these feelings overshadowed the joy of my accomplishments, I knew it had to change. I had no attachment to my maiden name, in fact I had come to learn that it never should have been my name to begin with. Not only did I have no emotional attachment to that name, I also had no genetic attachment to it. That meant it didn’t make sense for me to return to my maiden name.
This felt like my chance. My chance to define myself. I started the journey, like many other survivors, to legally change my name. What I’ve found is an arduous process. There are many parts of our country where attempting to safely change your name feels like climbing Mount Everest. Where the procedures required to do so actually open up the survivor to increased safety risks. One survivor who hoped to change her name to protect herself from repeated stalking by her trafficker was told that she could only change her name confidentially if she participated in Witness Security. While willing to do so, she found that she could only participate in WitSec if there was an active case against her trafficker but to have an active case, law enforcement would need to pick up the investigation. For this survivor, despite her report of her experiences, law enforcement was unable to follow through with investigation due to the lack of training in regards to her specific type of trafficking experience, leaving her without this essential safeguard.
In my state of California, for the typical name change process you must post an ad in the newspaper informing that you are changing your name. This post will include all previous names used and your proposed new name. For me, the possibility of protecting my identity has long since passed as my platform of survivor leadership has grown. That was my intentional choice, but for so many of my survivor brothers and sisters the need for anonymity is still very real. It is real, it is present, and it is life-threatening.
Thankfully, California, is one of a handful of states that has a specific program that easily allows a victim of domestic violence, human trafficking, and sexual assault to circumvent these requirements and participate in a fully confidential name change process. Many of these programs, like that of California, also offer confidential address and mail forwarding services and other safe guards to ensure we, as survivors, have the opportunity to remain as seperate from our traumatic experiences, and as safe as we desire to be.
In my journey of reclaiming my life, claiming freedom in how I am addressed, how I am identified, and how I am recognized is an essential part of my healing. As I switch over my email signature, retype my name on Linkdin, reprint my diploma, and open the envelope with my new ID, I see myself fully represented for the first time as the whole version of me. I only hope to have this piece of identity made more accessible to all survivors who desire it.
With all my love,
Formerly, Alia Dewees
"The chains of names, Are meaning itself…" - Robert Pinsky