He Grew Up With An Unfortunate Name He Hated — Now He's Owning It

Jun 8, 2018
Originally published on June 8, 2018 3:25 pm

He pronounces his last name "fyooks." Still, Allan Fuks grew up with a last name that, on paper, looks like the mother of all curse words — and, naturally, offered endless material for bullies.

Fuks, the son of Russian immigrants, grew up all over the U.S. — New York City, Northern California — before finally landing in suburban New Jersey in middle school. But no matter where he went, the taunting followed.

In a recent StoryCorps interview, he tells his former classmate, Spencer Katzman, that, growing up in the 1980s, he was seldom called by his first name.

"I was either the F-word, 'Dumbo' — because I had huge ears — or a combination of the two," he says. "It was like I was walking around with an army of hecklers behind me, constantly."

Katzman remembers there was always a "baseline taunting" for Fuks. "I don't know that I had it in me to stick up for you at that age," he says.

"No one did," Fuks says, laughing. "What are you talking about? That's a kamikaze mission."

Fuks remembers at least one upside of his classmates laughing at his expense. "This country is so polarized, but kids of all demographics were united in making fun of the last name Fuks," he says. "That brought people together."

"Even the kids on the lowest social rung didn't want me sitting at their lunch table," he says. "So I would go to the library because I didn't want to sit alone, and I remember I read the entire Holocaust encyclopedia. I recognize now that's kind of dark. But I was just such a lonely kid."

When he was 12 years old, he'd call the Nintendo hotline, he recalls, "to have someone to talk to me."

"I remember trying to painfully segue from a conversation about video games into just like, 'So how's it going in your life?' And he's like, 'What?' That's basically my childhood," he says.

When he was about 16, Fuks' parents legally changed the family name to Finn. "They were like, 'You're pale, you could be Irish.' So they threw all these Irish names that started with F into a hat and picked out 'Finn,' " he says. "And then I went to school and I was like, 'Hey guys, I'm no longer the F-word. I'm Finn now.' "

"I didn't buy it for a second," Katzman says.

Fuks laughs. "No one bought it," he says.

He describes the name change as " too little, too late." It helped Fuks' younger sister, Stella, avoid being bullied, he says, but it "didn't stick" for him because kids at his high school already knew him as "Dumbo F****."

Carrying the weight of his name, Fuks says, "to a certain extent, it's shaped me. It's darkened my view of humanity, seeing the worst in people." Today, he channels this pessimism into humor. Though legally he's Allan Finn, he decided this past year to be Allan Fuks in his career as a stand-up comedian.

"I just got it into my head that I'm letting the bullies win," he says. "I remember reading about this philosophy of a broken vase that you glue back together and you show proudly because the glue is now part of the art," he says, referring to Japanese art of Kintsugi. "And I'm hoping to achieve something like that in my own life, and start gluing the pieces back."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps, and today we have a man with an awkward last name.

ALLAN FUKS: Hi, this is Allan Fuks. My last name is spelled F-U-K-S.

INSKEEP: Yeah. He's the son of Russian immigrants - grew up in the United States, getting a lot of taunting about that last name. He recently talked about the teasing with his middle school classmate Spencer Katzman.

FUKS: No one really called me by my name. I was either the F-word, Dumbo - because I had, like, huge ears - or a combination of the two. It was like I was walking around with an army of hecklers behind me (laughter).

SPENCER KATZMAN: I just feel that there was just kind of this, like, baseline taunting that was always there.

FUKS: Right. Like, how do you remember the first time you saw me?

KATZMAN: You kind of stood out on the first day. You had a Allan gold chain, you know...

FUKS: (Laughter).

KATZMAN: ...Across your chest with a TV anchorman haircut.

FUKS: Ted Koppel haircut.

KATZMAN: And I don't know that I had it in me to stick up for you at that age.

FUKS: (Laughter) No one did. What are you talking about? That's a kamikaze mission. You know, this country is so polarized, but kids of all demographics - they were united in making fun of the last name Fuks. (Laughter) That brought people together. I remember even, like, the kids on the lowest social rung didn't want me sitting at their lunch table. So I would go to the library because I didn't want to sit alone, and I remember I read the entire Holocaust encyclopedia. I recognize now that's kind of dark, but I was such a lonely kid that to have human contact at 12 years old I would call the Nintendo hotline to have someone to talk to me. I remember trying to painfully segue from a conversation about video games into just, like, so how's it going in your life? (Laughter) And he's like what? That's basically my childhood. And then around 16 years old, my parents decided to try a name change. They were like you're pale. You could be Irish. So we threw all these Irish names that started with F into a hat and picked out Finn (ph). And then I went to school, and I was like, hey, guys. I'm no longer the F-word. I'm Finn now. They're like what? What are you talking about?

KATZMAN: I didn't buy it for a second.

FUKS: No one bought it. But, you know, this past year, I decided to go back to Fuks. I just got it into my head that I'm letting the bullies win. And I remember reading about this philosophy of a broken vase that you glue back together and you show proudly because the glue is now part of the art. And I'm hoping to achieve something like that (laughter) in my own life and start gluing the pieces back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Allan Fuks talking with Spencer Katzman in New York City. Their conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.