The Case of Fnu Lnu

It stands for “First name unknown, Last name unknown” and is used for legal purposes when the real identity of an individual is unknown. “At any given time there can be hundreds of Fnu Lnus in the court system,” noted The New York Times. A temporary place holder, “the designation, at once mysterious and common, has taken on a life of its own in courts around the country.”

Names are distinctive ways we have of recognizing and knowing who we are. Part of our informal identities, they are borrowed from parents, grandparents and other family members, from revered public figures, celebrities and actors, and sometimes they are made up because they just sound impressive or nice. They are not only individual but also personal — and because of that they often have meaning for those who carry them.

But the scale, complexity and mobility of the modern world demand more rigorous and reliable ways to discriminate and track individuals. So we have social security numbers, photo ID’s, fingerprints, passports, credit cards, pass codes, etc. But the more formal and efficient IDs have become, the easier they are to manipulate. As a result, we now have unprecedented problems such as “identity theft,” hacking, multiple forms of verifications, security codes, mistaken identity, etc.

Unique and inalterable forms of identity try to ensure not only that we can always be discriminated from others, but they also help to make us accountable for our actions. It has been argued that we should have ID’s assigned at birth, perhaps even computer chips implanted in our bodies. That would make it clear that we are indeed the ones doing the things we do.

Even those who suffer from multiple personality disorder can’t evade their responsibilities. Although arguably they suffer the most from their identities and make the most heroic efforts to escape their pain, they are accountable for what they do.

On the other hand, we change. Mercifully we can alter and shift who we are. More and more people change careers throughout their lives. They move through multiple roles, develop different sides of themselves. Even gender identity turns out to be more malleable than we had ever thought. And we can play with alternate identities. Sherry Turkel argued in Life on the Screen that the ability to assume different identities on the internet is beneficial to many. The exploration of different identities can lead to a richer sense of self.

The Times gave an account of a man who passed though the court system as a “Fnu Lnu,” someone “who claimed to be Ricardo Hernandez, who prosecutors said had applied for a Social Security card in Mr. Hernandez’s name in 1983 and had largely assumed his identity over the next 30 years.”

His lawyer argued that he had actually come to think he was Hernandez. But the prosecuting attorney rebutted: “In real life, people know who they are. People know what their names are. They know who their parents are. They know when they were born.” Not so fast. (See, “Who Is Fnu Lnu?“)

Yes, we usually do know and need to know because we are responsible for our acts. On the other hand, we also need identities that are flexible and fluid. We don’t need to steal someone else’s identity, but we can occasional imitate, impersonate, copy, and create new combinations.

Perhaps we could all benefit from the opportunity to be “Fnu Lnu” for a while.