Sarah or Cecilie: The Identity Issue
by Take Root Member Cecilie Sarah Finkelstein

As a former parentally abducted child who changed names and locations almost as often as I changed clothes, I have often asked myself the question: who am I?

Not just in the deep metaphysical sense that many people struggle with, abducted or not, but in the simplest sense, deciding on which of my many real and assumed names to use, how to answer when I am asked where I come from, what religion I practice, which holidays I celebrate, and so on. Aside from the deep sense of fragmentation and pain that being abducted by one parent to spite the other has caused, I have had to grapple with questions about the basics of selfhood. And I had no easy answers. Only recently have I come to a clearer understanding of what makes up my self, and the answers are easier to give.

These core questions about identity and self-definition were so difficult in part because my fear was that no matter what I chose, I would lose, I would disappoint someone, lose something precious, and always feel a sense of loss and disconnection inside. In the choosing, would I have to give up some aspect, some part of me that made up me? As those parts were so disparate, so difficult to integrate with one other, I despaired of ever feeling a real sense of wholeness and acceptance.
It has taken some time, but I am finally finding the real me in the midst of all the many me’s that I have had to be as an abducted child, and the pain of feeling disconnected, not completely part of anything, is slowly beginning to recede as I emerge out of the chaos of the past. But this has not come easily. Take the issue of names. I have had many in my life. The first, my birth name, the name lovingly bestowed upon me as a newborn child, was Cecilie (pronounced Sess-eel-yeh) Rina. Until my abduction at age four I was called Sissi or Sisselina, in the sweet custom of nicknaming a young child. After my abduction my father changed my name to Sarah Zissel, the first of many aliases, and for all intents and purposes my birth name was no more. During the years on the run my name would change again and again, once to a boy’s name (I was dressed as a boy), the identity of a pre-pubescent boy and the challenge of choosing whether to use the women’s room or the men’s room. When I chose the women’s, I got yelled at by indignant women. Then it was Leah, Sarah Leah, and plain Zissel (which sounds a little like Cecilie, perhaps my father’s way of allowing some of my old self to exist and be acknowledged). At some point my last name changed too. At times it was Nash, which, no offense with any one with the name, I hated.

“Me” became a fluid being, changed all the time to suit my father’s intentions. We told a different story in each new place we traveled through during the years on the run. In Philadelphia we were from New York, in New York we were from Montreal, in Montreal we were from Detroit. It was scary to be asked my name or where I was from, because it was hard to remember who I told what to, and what my name was where.

Not only my name was changed. When I was 7 my father decided to change my hair color to red. He tried to put the dye in while I took a bath. It got into my eyes and I screamed. He had to stop. Even he could not inflict that much pain. Really, I cried because it touched my heart. I had lost so much, and losing my hair color was more than I could bear.

It is only recently that I have made a final decision to continue using the name Sarah, the name I used most during my childhood years on the run. Cecilie feels like a part of me, but not all of me. It is too difficult of a life change to completely remove the identity that Sarah symbolizes by never using the name again. It is what I answered to for so many years, and the name most of my childhood friends and acquaintances know me by. I agonized over this for a long time, it felt wrong, like a continuation of the untruthfulness of the abduction, to use Sarah. Yet it is a part of me, and so integral that the pain of completely letting go of it was too high of a price to pay. It was not my fault that my name was changed, and it would essentially have been renaming myself, which would have been an additional trauma and painful emotional issue to add to the long list of emotional baggage that the abduction had caused.

My mother did not insist on calling me Cecilie when we met for the first time, and understood that I was more comfortable with Sarah. I know it was difficult for her, but she did it for me, for which I am grateful. I struggled with not wanting to give my father the satisfaction of knowing that I still used Sarah, because I did not want him to feel that I condoned the abduction or accepted it in any way. But I have come to realize that I do not want to take the time and energy to have to prove anything to him or anyone else at my own expense, and just want to focus on my own healing and emotional needs. I came to realize that if I did put a lot of energy into playing those kind of mind games, then in fact I was giving him the upper hand, and giving up my own power and truth. Of course I do not condone the abduction, but I can accept the reality of the impact that the abduction had on me and integrate it into my life in a realistic and positive way. My father knows very well that I abhor what he has done, the hurt he has caused. If my using Sarah is a source of some kind of satisfaction, it is immature and short-sighted, and is not something I will waste time agonizing over. I have not completely given away my birth name, and do also use Cecilie today, preferring Ceci (Sessee) when introducing myself. I’m happy with my two names today, and the freedom to use whichever one feels more comfortable in a given situation. My mother sweetly says that a ‘dear child has many names.”

It does get confusing for others though – recently two people who know me met for the first time, one that knows me as Sarah and the other as Cecilie, and we all had some laughs when each called me a different name. I have considered using Saraceci, Saracecili, Cecisah, or other combinations of the two, but they are just too long and confusing for people so I gave up on that. It also did not feel like me. At a recent gathering in Virginia of formerly abducted children who are now adults, we joked that we needed multiple name tags for each of us because we had so many names.

Today, I am making peace with both Sarah and Cecilie. They have merged into one whole, and have formed the person who has become me. It has been difficult at times to be what has felt like two different people (and I’m not talking solely names now, but inner identity). I have had to deal with confusion and fear – who am I, who was I supposed to be, who would I have been if I had not been abducted, and would I like that person if I could magically become her now? Do the people in my life accept and love the person I have become, the person my experiences have shaped me into?

These are very painful issues, and I have struggled with them over the years. As I grew and developed into adulthood, I came to learn more about myself – my interests, my beliefs, my passions, my politics, my goals, and many key elements of my personality, and have come to accept that they are what make up me, my identity as a person. I am growing to accept and embrace all that is me, and stop feeling that I need to be someone I am not. It was not my choice to be an abducted child, but I was, and it has shaped me, and I am proud of the person I have become. I may not be fully American, fully Norwegian, fully Jewish, fully Sarah, or fully Cecilie, and this has caused confusion and pain to myself and others. I wish I could change that fact, though unfortunately I cannot. But I am the person I was meant to be, and I am able to fully able to love all of the people in my life, no matter what my name is.

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