My Life as Lizzie Borden


Although strange and unique names like Apple, Suri, Blue Ivy and Brooklyn are becoming more the rule than the exception for children today, I was born in a different time to a family that believed that the only acceptable names for the next generation were ones that were already carved into the family tree. On my mother's side that meant Marguerite, Priscilla, Elizabeth, and Adele for baby girls and on my father's side: Shirley, Janet and Elizabeth. My parents chose Elizabeth for me, naming me for my father's grandmother Elizabeth Evans. But for some incomprehensible reason they did not fully realize the effect that name would have today when paired with our surname - Borden.

In the late 1800s, while my namesake, Elizabeth Evans Borden, lived a quiet life in Rose Tree, Pennsylvania as the wife of a gentleman farmer and a mother of three, Lizzie Borden, her cousin many times removed, allegedly murdered her father and stepmother with an axe in Fall River, Massachusetts.

"Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her father 40 whacks
And when the dirty deed was done,
She gave her mother 41."

These were the words of a nursery rhyme that I thankfully seldom heard on the Manhattan playgrounds where I played as a child or the campuses or neighborhoods where I spent the next 15 years. But when I moved to Massachusetts to attend graduate school in Cambridge, Lizzie Borden reared her bloody head almost weekly, especially after a new TV movie starring Christina Ricci as my namesake hit the airwaves. Some recited lines from the poem, others smiled and asked "No homicidal tendencies right?" or "What were your parents THINKING?" One TSA agent, after inspecting my driver's license actually asked "Really? Is that really your name?" His nametag read "Stephen King," so... really?

Despite the fact that I share a name with one of the most famous patricides since Oedipus, I adore my father. So sometime toward the end of my first summer at grad school, I convinced him to take a road trip with me to Fall River. One Saturday afternoon we hopped into the car to investigate the scene of the crime and the source of my increasingly frequent trouble, cracking jokes, singing along to my father's beloved Eric Clapton and letting the wind blow through our hair with the top down on his convertible - something that we did whenever we were together regardless of weather or season.

The Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum is a plain, dark-green shingled building that stands awkwardly amidst parking lots and storefronts in a part of Fall River that has evolved from residential to down-on-its-luck commercial. Inside the small front parlor we were greeted by a scowling teen girl with Kool-Aid pink hair and scattered piercings, dressed in black all the way down to her Doc Martens. After inspecting my driver's license as proof of identity she waived the $15 entrance fee - and allowed us to skip her canned welcome speech to wander the house on our own. We started in the kitchen where a woman in a long blue period costume introduced herself as Lizzie Borden, toured the sitting room where Mr. Borden was killed, the guest bedroom where his wife met the same fate, and lastly the dark and unfinished basement where the owners sold souvenirs from dusty boxes. My personal favorites were the mugs that said, "I survived the Lizzie Borden House" and the Lizzie Borden bobble-head dolls.

While I was momentarily tempted by the axe-wielding mini-Lizzie, we skipped the souvenirs and headed to the cemetery where Lizzie is buried in a grave that visitors often decorate with flowers, coins, plastic skulls and graffiti. Many other Borden family members also lie in that same cemetery beneath large marble slabs that mark their position as prominent members of a community that has vanished - including my father's great grandparents who were very distantly related to Lizzie.

On the drive home we were quieter and more subdued, thinking about relatives we had never known, distant relatives about whom we know far too much and the strange business that charges people money to visit, sleep and even shop at the site of someone's family tragedy. We put the top down again, not with the elation of our earlier drive but to shake off any ghosts that might follow us home.

These days, while I go by Lisa, I have a stock answer ready for the many comments and questions that I get from the airport security agents, telemarketers, waiters and others who see my ID or credit card. I smile and quip "both parents still living," wait for the inevitable laugh then change the subject. On the bright side, no one ever forgets my name.