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What’s In a Name Change

By Sylvia Newman

On June 19, 2000, my name officially became Sylvia Newman. For the previous 15 years, I had been Sylvia Knapp*. I married Trey* Knapp on August 30, 1985. My divorce was final December 4, 1996. My marriage and divorce seem like ancient history now, like a life I heard about once but don’t much recall, as if it happened to someone else. And, in fact, it did happen to someone else. It happened to Sylvia Knapp.

People asked me, “Why didn’t you change your name when you first got divorced? Why now?” The answer to the first question is easy. I  wanted to have the same last name as my boys.  The answer to the second question is more difficult. In my more crass moments, I told them, “Well, I never liked the name Knapp even when I liked my ex-husband.” But there is more to it than that. I am not who I was, and I like the person I have become, and she was and is different enough to need, to deserve, a new name.

A new name for a new person. How ironic, then, that my new name is Newman. I joke that perhaps I should have changed it to “Newwoman” or the even more progressive “Newperson,” but that was, perhaps, just a little much.

Sylvia Knapp has slowly become a shadow to Sylvia Newman. She has almost disappeared into the file folders of old bills and important papers. When and how did Sylvia Knapp become Sylvia Newman, and what does this new person know?

In July 1996, I filed for divorce after 11 years of marriage and three years of struggling to make the decision to divorce. I had begged my husband, Trey, to attend marriage counseling, but marriage counselors, he told me, are “full of crap,” and so my efforts failed. When he was served with divorce papers at his work, he called me at my work to talk, something he had never done before. He called to tell me his parents had offered to pay for a counselor, so, now that the divorce was imminent, we went. We had been in counseling for two months, when our counselor, Kent, left me in the waiting room while he spent most of the hour alone with Trey. Finally, Kent called me into his office, and Trey walked out and waited in the lobby. Kent said,

“Are you frustrated?”

“Yes.”

“So am I. I spent the last 45 minutes doing reality checks with Trey. Sylvia, the lights are on, but nobody’s home. His reasoning ability is completely shot.” He shared with me that Trey didn’t know the amount of our monthly house payment and didn’t seem to understand that his estimated income of $200 month was insufficient to support a family of five. One of the Best Accountants in Nottingham can help you in dealing with your assets and liability.Hence, understand this is just a small issue.

Relief swelled from my stomach to my chest until I thought I could not contain it. “So I’m not crazy. It’s not just me!” I reveled in my mind. Until this moment, no one else knew that Trey’s business was not bringing in money, that he was draining his inheritance to keep it afloat. No one else knew how we were living off my wages as a part-time secretary and adjunct faculty member at the local university. And almost no one knew my biggest secret–that he had once thrown me down the stairs in front of our three children, that he had, in the dead of winter, locked me out of the house in my nightgown, and once held a pillow over my face as he yelled at me to shut up. And no one knew that I blamed myself for it all.

No one knew these things because Sylvia Knapp thought that these problems were her fault, that they represented a problem within herself and were a source of shame. Sylvia Newman knows that it’s OK to have problems, that everyone else does too, and sharing them does not make her less of a person, but often more. Sharing her problems allows her to learn from others and others to learn from her. Sylvia Newman knows that maintaining a facade of happiness and serenity is costly and draining. She knows that appearances mean little and “keeping them up” will never make up for what is really missing or going wrong.

Kent called Trey in and gave it to him straight, “Trey, you have to move out. You are not doing what you need to do as a husband, as a father, or as a man.”

Trey moved out two weeks later. Two days later, he returned home by bus for some of his belongings. He asked if I could give him a ride back to his motel. Ever wanting to avoid conflict and even feeling guilty about his new living situation, I agreed, and with my 4-year-old son, Noah, in the back seat, we headed down the busy boulevard to his motel. Trey asked, “Why are you doing this? Why do I have to leave?

“Kent told you, and I told you in my letter.”

“Oh, yeah. That stupid letter. What was that supposed to mean?”

The stupid letter. The stupid letter that I had worked on for two weeks to make sure I was not exaggerating or just venting raw emotion. The stupid letter wherein I pointed out that our family “got by on $12,000 (and a few miracles) last year” and that the $10,000 that he spent on his business “might be worth it if you were managing your business, or paying someone to manage your business, so that people were getting properly billed, taxes were being properly paid, etc.”

“The counselor told you the reasons.”

“Yeah, well,” he shouted. “I want you to tell me!”

“I’ve told you before. I wrote it in the letter. Kent told you. Talk to him,” I said quietly, staring straight ahead as I negotiated traffic.

“I want you to tell me!” he yelled. I drove on in silence. I had answered him all I was going to. He screamed, “You bitch! Tell me why you’re doing this? What gives you the right?”

Silence.

He hit the back of my head with the back of his hand. I pulled the car over and told him in the same flat, even tone, “Get out of the car.”

“I will not get out of this car!”

Again, without emotion, I repeated my command.

He screamed, “If you ask me one more time, I’m going to rip you out of this car and beat you!!! Then what will you do!?!”

I answered the only thing I could think of, “Call the police.”  

It was an empty threat in this day before cell phones.

“Yeah, right. And what are they going to do!?!”

He had called my bluff. Consciously or not, he knew I would not make a scene. I released the clutch and slowly pulled the car back into traffic. He continued his tirade of insults and vulgarities. We finally reached his motel, and he got out. Before he slammed the door and left, he glared at Noah in the backseat. His look did not soften; his eyes stayed hard and cold, and that was more terrible than anything that had preceded it. I thanked God with all my heart that he turned and went to his motel room. It was a nasty motel.  Even then I felt guilty that he had to stay there.

When Noah and I got home, I lifted him from the car and asked, “Did Daddy scare you?”

He looked at me quizzically and said, “No.”

I held Noah close and told him, “Well, he scared me, and it’s not OK for Daddy to act like that.” No more was said, ever, about this incident.

Sylvia Knapp thought that as long as her boys were not the targets of Trey’s anger, as long as they didn’t know about the times that she was, things were OK, and she could handle it. Sylvia Newman knows that it was never OK.

After I got the boys to bed, I called Kent. I had to leave a number on his pager. As soon as I hung up the phone, it rang. It was Adeal, a counselor I had been seeing on my own a few months before. She had never called me at home before. She told me, “I just had a feeling I should call and see if you’re OK.” Truly, a tender mercy, and just the first of the evening.

Almost immediately after hanging up with Adeal, my friend Michelle called. She said she was also following a feeling that she needed to call me. After listening to my recounting of the evening’s events, she reminded me firmly that it was not my fault; I was not responsible. This is obvious now, but it was not at all obvious to me then.

Then another phone call–my sister Margaret. When she heard what happened, she offered to come spend the night with me.

I had called and left a message with my friend Carol. She called back and told me, in a blessed coincidence, that she had just returned from her first training to be an advocate for victims of domestic abuse. Another tender mercy, another small miracle. She told me what I needed to do, and we made a plan for the next day.

And then Trey called. He said, “I’m sorry, but you have been abusive and mean to me, too.”

Not willing to engage, I responded, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I hope you realize you have lost some privileges tonight.”

“What do you mean by that? Tell me what the hell that is supposed to mean!?!” he thundered.

“You won’t be able to see me or the kids. I have to go,” and I hung up.

Finally, Kent called back. When I heard his voice, everything that I had been holding back burst forth. Through sobs, I told him what had happened. He warned me, “You must protect yourself. Get your locks changed and file for a protective order first thing in the morning.” Then he reassured me, “Sylvia, it was not OK for Trey to do that. You are not responsible.” I sat in my living room, shaking until Margaret arrived.

The next morning, Carol picked me up and drove me to the sheriff’s office to file for a protective order. I had to write a detailed statement of what had occurred the night before. Carol introduced me to two victim advocates. When we were finished, she took me to lunch.

Sylvia Newman knows that she is loved by God and many, many friends, even with her problems and imperfections. She knows that God has an active part in her everyday, personal life through tender mercies and, yes, miracles, small and large.

Two weeks later, my friend Michelle accompanied me to the courtroom where a commissioner would decide if the protective order would be made permanent. We waited in a room set aside for the plaintiffs so they could not be easily intimidated by the defendants, most often their spouses. Trey stood in the hallway and glowered at us. Michelle moved me where he could not see me and took on his angry glare herself.

When we went before the commissioner, he read my statement and asked Trey, “Did you do these things, sir?”

“I did not.”

Michelle and I looked at one another, unbelieving. Yet behind that unbelief, the blinders were falling, the light was shining in, and I felt free. I thought, “He just lied to judge and I had nothing to do with it!” I had always felt sorry for Trey. He was a child of divorce, his father had been very hard on him, his family had all but rejected him in favor of his step-siblings, and bad luck followed him like a wake. But for the first time, I realized that he made choices, that those choices were not my fault, and that I needed to feel sorry for him no longer.

Sylvia Newman knows that she is not responsible for other people’s choices. She is learning the difference between helping and loving someone one, and feeling sorry for or pitying someone. One is constructive and freeing, the other is destructive and often binding.

The commissioner asked Trey to tell his version of events. In his retelling, he said, “And I bopped her on the back of the head.”

The commissioner retorted, “So you DID hit her.”

“Just with the back of my hand.”

Having caught Trey in his lie, the commissioner made the order permanent. He asked Trey what his income was so he could determine temporary child support. Trey replied, “Five hundred dollars a month.” The commissioner was incredulous, but even this was a lie. Trey had not provided more than $200 a month for our family for the previous three years.

“I suggest you get a job, sir,” and then the commissioner awarded me $23 monthly child support based on the $500 figure.

Michelle and I went to lunch. I told her it was my treat since, after all, I now had $23 a month to count on.

I was a single mother for ten years. In that time, I earned my master’s degree and became an instructor at a local university. My boys are all grown and on their own, and I live happily with my husband of ten years and our two dogs.  Two years ago a friend and I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro. And I’ve learned to like myself.  It seems like a no-brainer but my ex-husband made me second-guess everything. All his bad choices and behavior were somehow my fault, so for me, liking myself was getting something back that I had lost. I am grateful to the people who helped me find that. But I owe, perhaps, the greatest debt to the one person who was with me all the way through. I owe my greatest thanks to Sylvia.

*names have been changed

About Sylvia Newman

Sylvia Newman has been a mom for 30 years, a teacher for 24 years, a wife for 11 years (well, 22 if you count both marriages), an empty-nester for five years, and a lover of all things literary since her parents began reading her books as a child. It is a thrill and a privilege to be included in the Segullah community.

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