On Infamy

Hello. My name is Tom Fassbender. It’s been my name for around 50 years, except for a brief stretch of time when I spelled my first name Thom and an even briefer period where I went by T. Michael. (Those were dark days.)

For the most part I’ve been happy with my name, although my first name is perhaps a little too common. At some point in college, I just stopped hearing shouts of “Tom!” as I walked down the street. If you see me and shout “Tom!” it’s unlikely you’ll get a reaction from me. Some people mistake this for arrogance, but really it’s a defense mechanism to keep me from looking around frantically for anyone who might have just yelled “Tom!” on a busy street only to find they were yelling for some other Tom. Does that make me paranoid? Maybe. But it happens a lot more than you’d think.

My surname, on the other hand, is less common. You may think it’s even unusual. It has its roots in my Dutch heritage, likely coming about as a result of Napoleon’s 1811 law that required all citizens of Holland to legally declare a surname. As a result of this decree, many Hollanders selected names based on their vocations. Fassbender, according to family lore, means “barrel-maker,” which gives some indication as to how my ancestors put food on the table.

Or maybe that’s all family legend. In any case, the name really isn’t all that rare. Sure, it’s no Garcia or Chang or Smith, but we Fassbenders have gotten around. According to Forebears, it’s the 74,732nd most common name in the world with something like 5,990 people proudly bearing it. Most of us are in Germany, the United States, and Brazil (that last part surprised me a little).

In fact, it’s common enough that many people I encounter have met a Fassbender or two in their lives. This typically results in questions like:

“Hey, I know a Chris Fassbender. Hollywood Florida. Any relation?”
(Don’t think so.)

“I knew a guy named Fassbender in Nebraska. Relative?”
(I may need more specifics.)

“Hey, are you Joe Fassbender’s kid?”
(Nope.)

And while questions like that are not unusual, for a long time people would often struggle with the proper way to pronounce Fassbender.

“Is it ‘Fassbender’ or ‘Fossbender’?”

Truth? I don’t care. I will tell you that it isn’t Fassenbender or Fastenbender (people do love putting that extra “en” in there). But it doesn’t really matter to me how you say my last name — I know who you’re talking to. Some people get really bent out of shape by my lack of pronunciation preference, which I find humorous. Why should they care?

People also find delight (like, a lot of delight) in calling me Fast Bender (or asking if I bend fast), Assbender (or F. Assbender), Fozzbender, Fozzie Bear, and countless other variations. If you think this is only the stuff of youthful playground name-calling, you’d be wrong. Adults, even to this day, do it all the time. If this is the sort of thing that makes you laugh, bring it. I’ve heard ’em all. Hit me with something brand new and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.

In recent years, things have changed a little. The ascension of actor Michael Fassbender (big fan) has helped people feel at ease with pronouncing my surname. Around the time he first appeared as Magneto, I’ve found fewer people ask how to pronounce our last name, they just say it. Which is nice. But there’s still a 50/50 split between the ‘long a’ sound and the ‘short a’ sound. Another effect of an increasing cultural awareness of Michael Fassbender has spawned an endless stream of similar questions:

“Any relation to the actor?”

“Hey, cool name.”

“Do you know … him?”

I’ve been asked this by total strangers (usually cashiers who bother to read the name on my debit card) as well as people that I’ve known for decades. Even my kids get it from their friends. Such is the price we pay for living in media-aware times.

Because we’re so media-aware, many years ago I set up a Google alert for “Tom Fassbender,” mainly to find out what people were saying about the [books I’d written] (shameless plug). It’s mostly been a quiet alert, but in 2005 it blew up when Steven Avery was arrested for murder.

As it turned out, there was another Tom Fassbender, a special agent for the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation, who played a big role in the case. His name was in area papers and on the lips of news reporters almost every day, so my little Google alert popped up in my inbox quite frequently — well into 2007, when Avery went to trial and was convicted.

And then it was silent. Until recently, that is.

Thanks to Making a Murderer, the Netflix documentary of the moment that revisits the aforementioned Steven Avery case, the name Tom Fassbender has taken a sinister turn from one of relative obscurity to one of infamy.

I mean, people really hate Tom Fassbender.

I know this because I frequently get angry, profane messages meant for him, primarily through my Facebook page. Here’s a small sampling:

“‘Try to get her in the garage.’ What the fuck is your problem, dude?”

“You disgust me.”

“You’re the one who should be in jail, you piece of garbage.”

Most people are very apologetic, even a little embarrassed, when I explain that I’m not the Tom Fassbender they’re looking for.

But none of them had stopped to think before sending a scathing message to a total stranger that maybe — just maybe — there might be more than one Tom Fassbender in the world. I know of at least three in the United States and many more in Germany.

Sure, the fact that this other Tom Fassbender and I both hail from Wisconsin doesn’t help (although I’ve been a Californian for longer than I’d been a Wisconsinite). But still. If you’re going to fire off a message impugning someone’s character, it might be prudent to preface that with a little due diligence.

On a related note, another curious thing that’s been happening since Making a Murderer was released is that I get a lot of LinkedIn connection requests from random lawyers in far-ranging places, which is kind of ridiculous. Even a quick peek at my profile should be enough to let a lawyer (or anyone, really) realize that I’m not the Tom Fassbender they think I am.

Now I’m not here to say anything about the character of this other Tom Fassbender. I don’t even know the guy. I’m just here to say that I’m not him. I have never worked for the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation and I’ve never been a witness for the prosecution in a high profile murder case.

Rather I’m the Tom Fassbender who has published and written books and other stuff, goes on long hikes, and has traveled the world with his family. I like being the Tom Fassbender that I am, but maybe it’s time to go back to using T. Michael, if only for a little while. These are, after all, dark days.

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A gentleman adventurer and writer of stuff. Co-author of By The Balls: The Complete Collection (http://amzn.to/1dl4da) and Explorer of Los Angeles.

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Tom Fassbender

Tom Fassbender

A gentleman adventurer and writer of stuff. Co-author of By The Balls: The Complete Collection (http://amzn.to/1dl4da) and Explorer of Los Angeles.