My name evoked unwelcomed curiosity in the John-and-Mary 1950s.
“Say in a loud voice ’It’s from Shakespeare,’” my mother Agnes demanded of me as soon as I could talk.
When strangers asked the inevitable, “Where did that name come from?” Agnes greeted the question as an accusation. She silently goaded me into defending my name with a withering look meant for the questioner but sent my way. She hated talking about it or anything else having to do with her children.
Catholic clergy intimated my name wasn’t written in the Book of Life, and the gates of heaven might be closed to me. “Hmm, Regan. That’s not a saint’s name.” They’d muse aloud. “Is that your middle name?”
In King Lear, Regan is the king’s middle daughter. She’s a power-hungry evil sister who tries to flatter her father into giving her the family fortune, then drives him out into a raging storm. In the end, Regan’s jealous older sister poisons her.
Six months out of a psych ward in 1971, I picked up the besteseller The Exorcist at the Main Street Drug Store in Belmar, New Jersey, and headed to the diner. Sipping on a coke, I opened the book while waiting for my grilled cheese. An hour later I was in my Volkswagen Bus in the diner parking lot, bewitched by the story.
The book’s demon-possessed twelve year-old protagonist? Regan. Exorcist Regan’s name came from King Lear. In the book, Regan’s mother was an actress who frequently entertained her director, Burke Dennings, with too many martinis. My father, whose last name was, of course, Burke, loved too many martinis. Exorcist Regan lived with her mother in Georgetown. My family had lived in Georgetown.
I finished the book and serpentined down the road in second gear to my mother’s house. The dizzying story of Regan’s demon possession plundered my recovering nervous system. I blasted through the front door and slammed The Exorcist down on the coffee table.
“Who’s this author? How do you know him? Why didn’t you warn me about this? How could you let me read this?”
Though an avid reader, Agnes was oblivious to the summer blockbuster. She speculated that author William Peter Blatty was one of the hordes of anonymous acquaintances who’d attended parties at our Georgetown home when I was a toddler.
Years later, a friend ran into Blatty at a political event and asked if he’d named Regan after me. Blatty’s reply: “Absolutely! That name always haunted me. Who would name their little baby after one of Shakespeare’s most craven females?”
When The Exorcist became a movie in 1973, my then-husband started calling me “Babe.” The movie uncloaked such evil that he was afraid to even say Regan. The Exorcist was the first horror movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. For years afterwards whenever I met someone new, I’d get, “The Exorcist, right?” Right.
What’s worse: having the name of an evil literary character and horror film freak?
Or, not having a saint’s name?