Being Robby: My Life/My Death

Robby Nadler

Hi Robby,

Hope this e-mail finds you well—and brilliant and lovely as usual. I was actually hoping we might have the opportunity to work together on a feature for Haaretz. I’m planning a project having to do with names—specifically this weird trend we’re noticing with millennials who are changing/combining/inventing (usually last) names for themselves in new and different ways.

Wondering if you had any thoughts on the topic, and if you might like to chime in. Your thoughts?

Francis*

(We would of course be able to pay you—the exact payment TBD based on the type of story.)

*This name has been changed at the person’s request.

• •

I tell everyone to call me Robby despite the fact that it’s not my real name. I’m not one of those my-real-name-is-Robert-or-Bob people. Robby bears no resemblance to my real name. The two aren’t even part of the same language. A lot of people feel tricked by me when they learn this. I understand that feeling. Being Robby is probably the biggest lie I embody.

But I don’t tell people my real name for the same reason that I don’t tell people my birthday; instead, I tell them excuses, such as it’s near impossible to pronounce correctly in English . . . well, that’s actually true. The “r” sound in Hebrew doesn’t exist in the English language, and most people incorrectly use a French “r” to say it. But even the “r” aside, the rest of the name is not pronounced as it appears to be spelled in English. I tell people it’s easier to call me Robby, which it is, and that’s what they do.

But a good amount of people will ask me to pronounce it anyway as if I were performing a trick for them. Roll over, Robby! Now say your real name! Good boy! Maybe there’s something exotic about foreign names that I don’t process. Maybe people want to hear my accent. I usually oblige them with this request but only after failing to change the topic of conversation. And I know they mean no harm in asking because that’s what you do with people: you ask about their names, their real names. But to me there is harm in this simple request.

The truth: I’m twenty-seven, but I’ve spent only half my life as this Robby figure. The other half is but a ghost whose name when spoken aloud conjures a past I have buried many times in shallow graves lit by a dull night.

• •

My other life, my life before Robby, began and ended with the lie of the Orthodox Jew. But to understand this, you first have to go backwards.

The lying predates me: it begins with my mother. It’s something I’m convinced I inherited or was at least taught by her before it became a defense mechanism. Some of these lies were inconsequential in that their purpose was only to please ourselves: she was the one who liked to postulate that we’re relatives of Bob Dylan. True: her maiden name and his original surname are identical. True: they both have family from Poland. That aside, there’s nothing else to anticipate my invitation to his family reunion; this never stopped her from telling us when we were young that we couldn’t deny the possibility, the magic. After enough desperation, magic is easy to believe. But a great deal of these lies, though seemingly trivial, had destructive totalities.

Many people don’t realize that the Ten Commandments are but the first ten of six-hundred-thirteen commandments. Six-hundred-thirteen laws that not only condemn murder and adultery but also forbid eating shellfish and shaving your sideburns below the ridge of your cheekbone. Without splitting hairs, adherence to these laws is what differentiates the various religiosities of Judaism. To be Orthodox means to ascribe to every commandment to the fullest extent. A rung down the religious ladder is a step to Conservative Judaism, which is defined not by the strict compulsion to practice all six-hundred-thirteen but a desire to fulfill as many as you can. Then there’s Reform Judaism—the Unitarianism of Judaism, if you will—that believes following the commandments is not essential to being Jewish: Judaism is about a person, a history, and god as you define it.

In this light, Orthodox Judaism is the “hardest” version of Judaism to follow because those hundreds of rules were written in a world preautomobile, prepenicillin, preindoor-plumbing. But in the way that attending an elite university proffers respect in that surmounted difficulty often is esteemed, in the Jewish world, there, too, is currency in bearing the unease of an Orthodox life. And this is because for certain populations of Jews simply being Jewish isn’t enough.

Take, for instance, the way I believe I’m half-Israeli. Though it’s true I’m only half-American based upon my parents’ origins, Israeli is technically not the other half. It’s Polish. My mother was born in Poland in a town she told me the forgettable name of once and only because it was required for college financial-aid documents. She never talked about Poland outside of the context of the Holocaust—though she talked continuously about that. Being able to correlate your family to one of the most horrific attempts to wipe out the Jewish people is but one of many badges a Jewish person can sew onto his/her identity. At age five I began to experience nightmares of Nazis coming to abduct me as a result of what some might argue was a much too early exposure to the gruesomeness of the Holocaust.

However, it’s not as if this lie of geographic identity is unprecedented. Shortly after Israel’s independence, my mother’s family relocated there. For all intents and purposes, Israel is her true home; I do hold an Israeli passport. But the decision to tell people she’s Israeli—a decision that negates centuries of her family’s history as Polish citizenry—is a political one. While the argument can be made that many Jews rejected their European identities post-Holocaust in reaction to the ease in which their countries turned over Jews to the death camps, there is also the compelling marker that to be an Israeli Jew is of the highest order. This is similar in America to those select people who can trace their lineages back to Plymouth Rock.

The problem with presenting myself as both Orthodox and Israeli was that it, too, was steeped in lie. In an act of pure hypocrisy, despite the Conservative lifestyle we maintained at home, my siblings and I were instructed to portray the illusion of being Orthodox publicly and to collude in the complicit shaming of the non-Orthodox around us. You see, names—not just your own name but the names of the entities you categorize your world by—are always matters of importance. We were embedded in a religious community and risked social outcasting if its members knew otherwise. To an outsider, this might not mean much, but to be a Jew exposed is a matter of social excommunication. And in a community where you were expected to have your whole life determined by the community―from who your friends were to which restaurants you could eat at―an exile was no less than a loss of the entire world as you knew it.

With such deceit in the name of face-saving for a bunch of religious rules I had no choice but to accept, it came naturally that I didn’t tell my parents I was gay for years. I was seven when I first recognized my feelings. I was at a Jewish summer camp, and the male head counselor was a man named Matt Saile. It wasn’t sexual, but I dreamed about him. How my entire family would be killed in a car crash except for me. How he would then adopt me, and I would live with him in his apartment. I was too young to know how sex worked, so it didn’t occur to me that two men could do more than cohabitate. All I knew is that I wanted to be around him.

• •

Depending on my mood when I tell the story, the name Robby has different origins. The common tale I offer up is that I was attending an Orthodox Jewish middle school, and in the fifth grade there was a substitute teacher, who wasn’t Jewish, for a science class. She read over the roster at the beginning of class but couldn’t pronounce my name despite my attempting to teach her several times. She asked if I had a middle name to go by. I told her Darren. The other kids in the class laughed. They never considered I could be a Darren—these were Jewish boys whose sole exposure to Irish culture was the idea that you could pinch a girl on St. Patrick’s Day if she weren’t wearing green and not get in trouble for it. After class the kids joked about the oddity of my previously unknown name. One of the more clever kids said, You know, he really looks more like a Robby than a Darren. Then a different boy agreed with him. Then another. Soon enough, they all thought it was the funniest joke ever devised, and they called me Robby for the rest of the day. I expected the joke to stop being funny the next day or the next few at the latest, but it didn’t. They were relentless with the nickname. After a certain point, I resigned the urge to correct them and accepted that I’m Robby.

Another story alleges that I named myself after a friend who overdosed on cocaine at the age of sixteen. He was the first boy I loved. He was my closest friend—though I only thought that because I had few friends to begin with, and in reality he probably didn’t care much for me. He used to be a great kid until his parents sent him to an ex-gay therapy camp, and he came back with a drinking habit. Once he told me they turned on a fire hose and sprayed it over him while he slept if they thought he weren’t making enough progress, that they would have him watch gay porn while electrodes were attached to his dick, and if he sprang an erection they’d shock him. It’s hard to fault a person, much less a kid, for turning to drugs after an experience like that. I was devastated by his death. I remember his parents asked me to dinner, and I went because I felt they were lonely and needed to be parents to any kid for at least one meal. I remember Robby’s dad drinking a whole bottle of wine during the dinner, and when he drove me home later, he mentioned how he didn’t think it was an accidental overdose. He asked me what I thought; I told him the sky looked as if it could hail. I never heard from his parents again.

There are other versions, but I don’t tell them often, so I’ve forgotten most. The truth of the matter is that those stories aren’t necessarily lies. There were substitutes who couldn’t pronounce my real name. Many people think I look more like a Robby than a Darren. Yes, I had a friend—named Robby—who passed away shortly before I renamed myself.

• •

I didn’t know Robby isn’t your real name—which makes it kind of creepy that I wrote that first e-mail, right?

But because I like creepy, I’d like to ask you if you’d be willing to write a 1,200-word version of this essay for us (assuming it hasn’t already been published elsewhere). We could pay you $250 and would need the final draft by April 6.

Work for you? Hoping we can make this a regular thing.

Francis

• •

When I was four, I remember my mother picking me up from school on a Friday afternoon. As we walked to the car, I asked her who created god. It wasn’t a mean question, but that’s how I felt it was taken by how she responded. I was curious and genuine in that manner. I simply reasoned that if god made everything then something had to make god. In my head I pictured a genie in some giant lamp rising from a plume of pink smoke and inventing god. It didn’t occur to me that something needed to have fashioned the genie first. She told me never to ask that question again. I felt embarrassed as if it were an obvious answer that I was stupid for not knowing.

• •

Part of realizing you’re gay at a young age means developing an obsessive need to please people. The way dogs can sense fear, adults—at least in mind—could sense deceit. They might not know what you were hiding from them, but they knew it was something. And the way this was remedied was to give them no cause to suspect you or at least appease them enough that they left you alone. I was the über polite kid. All my teachers and parents’ friends knew me as a respectful—up to a brown-nosing point—child. Learning also came easy, so in a religion where scholarship is one of the most-lauded social pillars, I used my intellect less as a means to pursue knowledge and more as a cover for my failings as a Jew. In a sense, performing well in religious schools because you want to be the rabbi’s star pupil and performing well to conceal the fact that you masturbate to the mental image of your rabbi looks a great deal alike.

My mother liked to redirect this instinct of deflection and channel it as natural ability. Of course, it’s difficult for me to parse the reality of the past without accusations. Can I concede that, in reality, my mother was a typical Jewish mother in that she bragged about anything she could, even if it weren’t true? Of course. I think many mothers use their children’s achievements as genuine episodes for bravado. But there came a point when my recognitions conflated with her entity as a person. Whereas recognition meant very little to me, she latched onto anything she felt would enhance her standing in the community, even if these experiences were explicitly not things her children desired.

It was that neurosis that ruined our family. Aside from maintaining a false depiction of our religious lives, there was tremendous pressure to perform well at everything. It was unacceptable if I received an A- on a test, and I had to join the synagogue’s choir, despite the fact I don’t sing well, if only because other boys in the community sang in it. My mother would feed me stories about how much I hated those boys and shouldn’t let them overshadow me, but I didn’t hate them. Sure, they were mean to me at times but in the way boys are often mean to each other at a young age and then move on. We generally left each other alone. Still, she was convinced I was at war with rival Jewish boys and must out-sing, outperform, and outsmart these enemies of mine that didn’t exist outside of her fantasies. As a child, I couldn’t see that these actions on her part were the result of a mentally sick woman reconstructing reality as a means to obtain a life she never experienced for herself. No, I simply hated her.

• •

Around puberty, yeshiva students move away from stories of Noah and his ark and begin to study the parts of the Old Testament where god explains the great sin of homosexuality. I sat through class after class of rabbi after rabbi ranting about the evils of gay lust as if there weren’t a possibility of any students being gay sitting in the desks before him. I was instructed that it was a choice. Though I was not even old enough to be bar mitzvah, it became clear that in the context of the Orthodox world I needed to choose between my parents’ god and something innate. To me, this desire, which bloomed from simple cohabitation with men to wanting to experience the totality of their bodies, was a god I believed in. I wanted to pray in the muscled arms of a man and feel fullness, to taste the love of a personal god on my lips as stubble from his face rubbed against my chin and rug-burned into it as proof of his love for me being real the way I imagine my mother accepted the sun rising every day as proof of god’s love for her people. This love: a belief I could be devout in.

• •

Sometimes people assume something is wrong when all I’m doing is thinking about what to make for dinner because there’s a plaintive stare glued to my face. I forget that I often wear that look as a relic of my childhood the way rubber stretched too far will not reset. On my twelfth birthday, I locked myself in the bathroom and drank cleaning fluid. It was the first of three times I would attempt suicide before I was graduated from high school. The details are fuzzy, but I recall coming home from school excited and my mother ruining my celebration in a way only she could by turning my birth into a day about how much I shamed the family a la the various ways I didn’t measure up as the perfect Jewish son. I’ve never celebrated a birthday since. I don’t expect to celebrate another birthday, and I make sure of this by telling people fake dates when asked when it is.

• •

Thanks so much. A really beautiful piece. I’m running a couple passages past our lawyers and will get back to you as soon as we get the green light.

I’ll let you know if there are any other notes from the powers that be. If not, I think we’re just about set. Will keep you posted.

By the way, this is fun. You interested in writing for us again?

Francis

• •

During high school I came out to my parents or, rather, they knew after rummaging through some of my e-mails. I should also say it involved me in a police station and my mother coercing an officer into making me confess my sexuality. There was also the time she called my father over to the house. That was when I said I refused to talk about my life in that regard, and he yanked me out of a chair by my shirt and dragged me across the house. I grabbed onto a door frame and cried that he was choking me and had to let go of my shirt. I’m not sure if I passed out or if the shirt ripped first, but I remember coming to in my room as my father lifted me by one arm with hideous strength so that he could strike two jabs to my stomach before throwing me headfirst into a wall. I remember waking up on the floor and my father’s leg pressing into my ribcage similar to a photo I saw of Ernest Hemmingway posing with an animal he had just killed on safari. I remember my mother watched all this happen and showed no compunction or protest against my father’s actions. There are stories to explain these events of violence, but I’m not going to tell them to you because memory is a wound that cannot be sewn up. I’ll only say the abuse increased and culminated when I begged my mother to accept me, and she spit in my face, then slapped me. She said she’d always choose her community over me.

• •

I want to say I understand where my mother is coming from, but I don’t always believe I do. There was that time over Thanksgiving dinner when she earnestly attempted to justify the killing of all Palestinians, which is, of course, a genocidal statement of the highest degree. But while I never could understand or agree with her rationale, over time I have empathized with the forces that shaped it. If the vast majority of your family were killed in the Holocaust and then your mother and young sisters at your side relocated to Israel, a country that has been attacked since its conception by so many wars that you remember the decades not by what was in fashion then but by which type of missile the enemy obtained, you, too, would always be too taut in anxiety to breathe. Consider it a decades-lived bout with PTSD. I know it’s out of this fear that my mother’s hate for people she perceives as threats culminates. And as someone who only knew a world of fear, even when there weren’t genuine threats in front of her, she created villains in order to vanquish them. She earnestly believed she was doing good—that she has always done good.

I don’t have a background in psychology, but it seems her hateful interactions with me lay in insecurities—a problem with power and maintaining control over the impossible world she imagined in her mind. If I stepped out of line with that world, I would be punished. I’m sure the neighbors heard the daily commotion, but they never acknowledged it if they did. While the abuse was mainly verbal, there was physical abuse in the form of hitting, which I could have prevented had I hit her back, but I took my father’s stance against hitting women; however, I convinced myself at fourteen that pushing my mother to the ground or grabbing a wrist as she tried to land a blow was self-defense and not the same as hitting.

• •

It’s been a decade since I last attempted suicide. I know there’s a lot of psychological research about the importance of dealing with trauma in order for it to leave the body. But I also know the human mind evolved to create repression as a means to discover reasons to live. There’s more to this story of how I became Robby—much of it more unsettling than what I’ve shared—but I don’t remember it. Or I pretend I don’t. This is because I don’t remember I have such a troubled history until I sit down and think about it—say when someone calls me by my real name. And as if my body knows the potential that exists to destroy it with its own hands if I’m ever too conscious of my past, in my mind when I listen to my breath each exhale sounds like a chant that repeats as a prayer to be allowed to experience tomorrow: forget, forget, please forget. . . .

• •

It was also during high school that my mother went into cardiac arrest. The doctors said it was rare for her age (forties at the time), but given her diet, inactive lifestyle, and rage that circulated her every breath, I wasn’t surprised her heart finally revolted from all the stress.

The call arrived during my last class on a Wednesday in May. It was an English class, and we were learning about metaphysical poetry. Ms. Goler said the attendance office had requested my presence and that I should go with all my belongings. I didn’t think much about it until I saw my father and knew something very wrong had to have occurred for him to be standing there—even more so when he sounded sad as he talked about the woman I knew he, too, hated.

We spent the next thirty minutes looking for my brother, who was ditching class. I told him during the car ride to the hospital that if she passed away in those thirty minutes that I’d never forgive him. At the hospital, my mother’s religious friends were waiting with an aunt who’d flown in from New York. One of the men approached me, called me by my real name, and said we must pray—an indirect way of stating they needed a minyan and were short—but I kept on walking to the waiting area. I want to make it clear that I didn’t cry up to this point. I wasn’t stoic, but it was hard for me to feel for this woman who had yelled at me that very morning that I was going to burn in hell.

One by one immediate family entered her room where she was treated in the ICU. I was the last to see her. As I rose from a plastic purple chair that smelled like rubbing alcohol, my father explained I didn’t have to go in if I didn’t want to. But I did. I knew good-bye was important, even if only one-sided.

It’s difficult to describe my mother in that room because she didn’t look like my mother. Her face and chest were bloodied and bruised from a face-first fall onto the ground. She wasn’t breathing on her own; her body writhed and spasmed under the influence of a respirator. She looked like a rag doll a child had taken poor care of, her hair dead from the cheap peroxide she bleached it with in an effort to pretend to be blonde—a synonym for young. To her left were her shoes placed in a Ziploc bag. Leave it to a gay boy to notice his mother’s shoes. They were the ugliest fucking shoes I’ve ever seen—a cheap, gold-worn “pleather” with a low heel that resembled a cross between a ballroom salsa shoe and bathroom slipper. There were holes in them, and they were dirty. She wore those to work as a professional.

I couldn’t help but look down at my own shoes. They were relatively new. A pair of skater shoes that cost sixty dollars. And in spite of all my hatred for my mother, I couldn’t suppress the guilt of standing in those shoes and then looking at what she wore as a sacrifice so that she would have the money to provide for my needs—though I’d later remember my father bought those shoes for me. And for the first and only time that was the loss of my mother as I knew her, I cried. I walked over and kissed her on the mouth and said I was sorry. In truth, I know I had less to apologize for than she did, but she was still my mother.

That night I was ravenous and ate a whole pizza for dinner. Nothing ever tasted so good and filling. I slept well even. I was at peace. The only thing that lingered in my mind was that my aunt on the way out of my mother’s room made a point to show me the dying man in the bed a few curtains over. We both knew what she meant when she said it was my choice if I wanted to end up like him.

• •

Isn’t it strange how the job of naming is steeped in the duty of fitting a body—a life—to a word? Thus lies the dueling notion: a name to grow into and a name to inherit. A name of future and a name of past. An individual name and a shared name. A name you keep for yourself and a name you pass on. This simultaneous baggage and responsibility put on a child can be tremendous. Why then, for a generation like mine so keen to shake the yolk of a history they did not ask for—and often do not want—should it be surprising to retitle the convention of giving things their proper voice? A self-declaration that chooses its own introduction to the world on the speaker’s terms.

For a name is but a vessel that collects the entity of our lives. For me, my name, my real name, became a cup so large that to drink from it initiated drowning. So I changed my name to something anti-Jewish—Robby is rooted in German. I give false birthdates. I reconstruct my past and lie about much of it. I lie because lying means I don’t have to remember what Clorox tastes like.

It’s a strange power parents retain over their sons. They choose to circumcise them. They choose their names. I can’t reclaim my foreskin, and I’m not sure I’d want to if I could. I do, however, believe in the right to claim your existence as your own. That it’s my right to tell or invent my history in the manner that best lets me live. That it’s my right to stand naked in a field and shout into the darkness how much the moon must obey me by any name I choose to be revered by.

• •

Hi Robby,

I’m afraid I have bad news. I ran your essay by our lawyers and the powers that be, and they are very concerned about potential libel issues dealing with your parents. It wouldn’t be a problem if your piece were published in, say, a literary journal, but because we are a newspaper we have to adhere to different legal standards. Unfortunately, that means we will not be able to publish your essay after all.

That leaves us with two options: I’d be more than happy to pay you a “kill fee,” half of the $250 we’d have paid had your piece been published. Or, if you think you’ll be seeking publication elsewhere in the future, we can skip the kill fee and just relinquish our rights to the piece.

Absolutely up to you, and again, I am very sincerely sorry for the bad news. It is a gorgeous piece, but you know how much I love your work.

Let me know how you’d prefer to proceed.

Francis

• •

Then some nights you realize there isn’t a hole deep enough to bury a name and the body that comes with it.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter