What’s in a name? If you ask David and Christen Epstein, the answer is: a whole lot.
The Colorado parents chose to name their 14-month-old son Atticus after the long-revered literary hero of To Kill a Mockingbird because “we wanted to see the ideals of Atticus Finch instilled in our son,” Christen tells PEOPLE.
But after reading Harper Lee‘s newly published novel, Go Set a Watchman, in which the beloved character is exposed as a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, they had a change of heart – and a change of name.
“When the new book came out, we just felt like, this does not at all encompass the values that we want for our son to have and know,” Christen explains. “And we felt like our son was young enough that we could change his name.”
After much deliberating, the parents decided last weekend on the name Lucas, or Luke for short. Then came the hard part – explaining their decision to their friends and family, including their 3-year-old daughter, Ayala.
“She doesn’t really understand at all why we changed the name,” Christen says. Although the parents plan to tell both of their children the full story when they’re older, for now they’re just focused on getting their son’s new name to sink in.
“He was very responsive to Atticus for months and months and months now,” Christen says of her son. “We’re using Luke so much around the house, just for us to get used to it; and for him, we’re saying it more than we normally would. But he is responding to Luke more and more.”
“We still slip up sometimes and call him Atticus and my daughter still slips up and people at his school still slip up,” she adds. “But I think he’s kind of slowly getting the new name just because we’re using it so much.”
While their daughter has taken them at their word (“She’s basically just like, ‘Oh, okay, this is what we call him now,’ ” Christen says), some of their friends and family have been less understanding.
Christen and David, both 31, decided to “rip the Band-Aid off” by breaking the news in a post on David’s Facebook page, which reads:
“This is a bit unusual, but here we go. As many of you know, Harper Lee’s second book was recently released, depicting Atticus Finch as a pro-segregationist. We chose this name for our son over a year ago because we felt then that it embodied a beautiful form of selfless integrity. In light of the new book and the fact that our son is so young, we no longer feel comfortable using this name. We have decided to legally change his name to Lucas, and will start calling him Luke as of now. This will be a bit of an adjustment for all who know and love him (Ayala is catching on quicker than us), but we hope you understand and respect that as his parents we feel this is the best thing to do for him.”
The reaction has been “mixed,” Christen says.
“Some people are so understanding and are like, ‘I totally get why you would do that and we totally support you.’ Other people think it’s kind of odd and weird and they’re like, ‘I don’t think it’s necessary that you’re doing this,’ or ‘I don’t know how to respond to what you’re telling me.’ ”
But they’re confident that their loved ones will eventually come around.
“Even just in the last few days, I feel like people are kind of more and more accepting and getting more and more used to it,” she adds.
Fans were heartbroken when the Atticus Finch they knew and loved was revealed to be a racist in Go Set a Watchman, uttering lines like, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as people,” and “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
Ironically, the name Atticus just topped the most-popular baby names list on Nameberry.com for the first time, co-founder Pamela Redmond Satran told PEOPLE, adding, “Atticus has never been as popular as it is right now.”
The timing is purely coincidental and unrelated to the novel’s release on July 14, but now “the big question is whether Atticus can retain his popularity as a baby name in the light of the racist, ranting Atticus Finch portrayed in Go Set a Watchman,” Satran said.
Christen says she just heard about another couple who have a 4-month-old son named Atticus and are also leaning toward a name change.
“Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird was the ultimate literary protagonist,” Christen says. “It was just such a wonderful name to me, but now it’s been tainted. And maybe that’s okay in the literary world, but personally for me, I selfishly wish Go Set a Watchman had never been published.”
The couple hope they will have better luck with the name Lucas, which means “light” and was loosely inspired by the Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Ultimately, she says, they just want what’s best for their son. And it doesn’t hurt that “maybe he’ll have a funny story 20 years from now.”