Jan/Feb 2021  •   Nonfiction

No Thyself

by David Raney

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador, 'Fracture II', 2015. Stinson Beach, CA

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador

I have walked through many lives, some of them my own. —Stanley Kunitz, "The Layers"

I don't think I've ever begun a sentence, "I'm the kind of guy who..." I guess I'm not that kind of guy. But would I know? For that matter, would your best friend, mother, lover, brother? Are you even the same person from week to week, year to year? Home for the holidays, I find myself acting the part of me last Thanksgiving, me leaving for college, me living at home that year I had no idea who I wanted to be.

I'm often mistaken for someone else. Not George Clooney, sadly, or Clark Gable (though the latter wouldn't be much of a compliment as he's been dead 60 years), just someone who isn't me. It can be a person who doesn't exist, as when I played in a basketball league after college and one night a scorekeeper called me Lowry, an understandable misreading of my lousy handwriting. It only became memorable when I corrected the error and he insisted he was right. One of my friends calls me Lowry to this day.

Maybe this happens to everyone. What I haven't worked out is why I like it, even when the wrong person is real. Some years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop, early for a meeting with a woman I didn't know so watching the door for that unmistakable "looking for someone looking" look. I knew her as soon as she walked in. "Megan?" I mouthed over the espresso cup clatter. "Dave?" she mouthed back, miming that she'd grab a cup and come over. We had a pleasant minute of getting-to-know-you before it emerged that this was Maggie I was getting to know, and she was looking for Ted. We'd both seen what we wanted to.

I'm sure Maggie-Megan forgot the incident before her latte cooled, but Ted-Dave hasn't. I thought about it again while reading Abigail Thomas' Thinking About Memoir:

On a recent plane ride I sat next to an elderly gentleman. He was friendly and pleasant, and he engaged me in conversation. The plane was noisy, and he asked me what I did and I replied, "I'm a writer." He asked me how long I had been a waiter and I said since I was forty-eight. I caught on to his misunderstanding when he began to tell me about his favorite restaurant in Albany, but I didn't correct him. When I asked him what he did, I thought he said he was an elevator engineer, but later I gathered that he was in elementary education... We had a pleasant journey. If I were writing fiction, I might have written a story about it.

I think she was writing fiction. We all are, only sometimes intentionally. Simone Weil once mused, "Imagination and fiction make up three quarters of our real life." When I wrote that down I thought it was hyperbole, but now I'm not so sure.

I've also relished my Zelig moments, like the time a friend at ABC News arranged for me to sit behind David Brinkley with a dead phone pressed to my ear. It's still my only appearance on the nightly news. More often, though, someone writes me into their story instead of me pulling on a mask in my own. Another friend once jokingly introduced me to someone at a conference as a potential customer for whatever he sold. The physical transformation was startling. I'd become a new person, and he morphed, too—his head tilted to match mine, his voice lowered, and touching my elbow he began a sales pitch like we were old friends headed out for a beer. When Jayne waved him off—No, no, just kidding—it was like a hypnotist's finger snap. He shrugged and wandered off. It made me wonder if he did that all day, and, a bit later, if I do.

Sometimes this happens with even less preamble. When I moved to Richmond my new neighbor, an older woman living alone, greeted me cordially on her porch and within moments was telling me what "those people" (blacks, it turned out) were doing to the neighborhood. No doubt she was to blame for making unfounded assumptions, but it made me wonder if I'm a blank screen, inviting projection, or if I'd make a good spy, hiding behind a newspaper, a confidential air, the sense of being someone just like you. A fragment in one of my journals reads, "The sum of the surfaces I offer to others, all the while thinking there's a me lying underneath." I don't recall writing this, and it wasn't until recently that I heard any play on lying.

If we do offer up surfaces, blank or misleading, do we at least know which one is us? Nietzsche didn't think so. "How can man know himself?" he asked. "It is a dark, mysterious business. If a hare has seven skins, a man may skin himself seventy times seven times without being able to say, Now that is truly you."

Maybe it's fine, even necessary, that we remake ourselves constantly. As Virginia Woolf put it in a letter, "A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living." But if so, why are those second (or third or fourth) selves so often seen as sinister? Our histories are chock full of double agents, con men, aliens in our midst, Stepford wives, evil twins. Ted Bundy, remember, was successful precisely because he acted like the rest of us. Even after his arrest, people looked on him less with horror, as Sarah Marshall writes in "The End of Evil," than with disbelief that "anyone so polite and clean-cut—so middle-class—could be suspected of such things." "If you can't trust someone like Ted Bundy, you can't trust anyone—your parents, your wife, anyone," said his former boss Ross Davis, whose two young daughters Ted Bundy had babysat. One of the police investigators, the improbably named Captain Swindler, discovered Bundy had dated his daughter Cathy, who had also trusted him: "He was someone who had a great deal of compassion in dealing with other people."

For Margaret Atwood, this is the "seminal trope in American history... the notion of the doubleness of life: you are not who you are... More importantly, the neighbors are not who you think they are." And setting aside the dark arts (Atwood is discussing the Salem witch trials), isn't refashioning yourself the American story, the one we're proudest of? Social mobility is self-transformation, permanent identity limbo: you're not the person you used to be, nor yet the one you're meant to be. What is Gatsby but a Bundy who wants to romance Daisy rather than bludgeon her?

Gatsby or ghoul, there does often seem to be peril involved, along with a perverse attraction. I suppose they go together. We'd rather read about witches and secret affairs than a guy with both hands on the wheel, doing the right thing. But if we do adopt a persona, whether sexy or sinister, are we only playing to others? Even the word persona tees up this question. Coined in 1917 in our modern sense, it derives from the Latin persona grata, "acceptable person." But acceptable to whom?

Consider acting, where the whole point is one person becoming a second to convince a third. Ask actors, though, and it's not that simple. John C. Reilly says that once his makeup was applied to play Oliver Hardy in Stan & Ollie, "I didn't have a choice whether to be myself. I was this other person." At a wrap party for crew at his house, Reilly "kept having all these weird conversations" and asked the director "Why is everybody acting so strange with me? I know these people." "John," he replied, "you gotta understand, most of them have never seen you with blue eyes, with that 100 pounds off you. They're meeting you for the first time." Reilly calls it "working inside a mask that your whole body is in."

Mark Hamill gives it a somewhat darker spin: "You know what's great? When you get into all that gear and look in the mirror, Mark Hamill's gone. I don't feel like I have to take any responsibility for my actions." Is it too much of a stretch to hear in this a faint echo of Bundy's shock at having his mask lifted? Even after being picked out of a lineup, Bundy was, according to one reporter, "Of the people who were surprised by this, the most shocked of all. He'd expected to be back on campus in time for a class later that day."

"Be yourself," Oscar Wilde once said, adding: "Everyone else is taken." Except we don't always want that, do we? Charles Van Doren, the '50s TV quiz whiz exposed as a cheater, told one of his disillusioned fans in 1986, "I'm not who you think I am—or, at least, I don't want to be." Wilde, for his part, had to conceal his homosexuality for fear of a transformation from socialite dandy to rock-breaking prisoner—his identity from 1895-97. And even when no menace is involved in choosing a new you—let's say I pick Cary Grant over George—the question remains, which one? I'll still be picking from a lineup. "Everybody wants to be Cary Grant," the actor famously said. "Even I want to be Cary Grant." Born Archibald Leach, son of a clinically depressed seamstress and an alcoholic tailor, Grant practiced his icon-elegant bearing and diction until they became natural. It seems relevant that he toured with a circus as a boy and operated stage lights for a magician at thirteen. "I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be," he explained. "And I finally became that person. Or he became me. It's a relationship."

Like all relationships, it was complicated. Grant was able to poke fun at himself, walking past a gravestone inscribed with his birth name in Arsenic and Old Lace and ad-libbing, in His Girl Friday, "I never had so much fun since Archie Leach died." But his attitude toward the past wasn't entirely glib. Is anyone's? Between those two films the Luftwaffe bombing of Bristol destroyed artifacts of Grant's childhood, leading him to place his daughter's memorabilia in a bank-quality vault in their home.

Less elaborate conversions can be just as inscrutable, as when an actor can't tell where a fake self comes from. Martin Short's Saturday Night Live alter ego Jiminy Glick was improvised, unlike more scripted characters, and Short says that in reviewing video, "I'd hear myself saying 'I take great umbrage...' and think, I've never said that. I don't even know what that means." Obviously Short is in character, not having a psychotic episode. But where is he drawing from? And if he doesn't know, who would?

You might not be a performer, at least not for a paycheck. But you may be a writer, and you're certainly a reader, two other ways of becoming someone else. Philip Roth said as much in a 1984 interview: "It's all the art of impersonation, isn't it? That's the fundamental novelistic gift... To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend." Tobias Woolf remarked recently that the "veil of fiction" gives him "the liberty not only to invent, but also to tell the truth, even deeply personal truth, which is easier to do from behind a mask." This is equally true of memoir, as Richard Todd points out:

"Write about what you know," writers are told, and it's logical to conclude that what you know best is yourself. In fact, in honest moments we understand ourselves as creatures of great contrariety. Many selves compete inside.

John Updike preferred to think of the self instead as "crystalline and absolute within us... that window on the world that we can't bear to think of shutting." Yet even he writes in the final chapter of Self-Consciousness, "I have the persistent sensation, in my life and art, that I am just beginning."

Young or old, famous or not, it's a sensation most of us feel at some point. But the reaction can be dread or delight, because I can be anything lives right next door to I am nothing. In Self-Renewal, social scientist John Gardner regrets that we...

...keep ourselves so busy, fill our lives with so many diversions [that] we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within... By middle life most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.

There's an inherent strangeness in "fugitives from ourselves." That's where both the fear and wonder come in. So when our personalities veer a bit, we say, "I'm not myself today," or, "That just wasn't like me at all." The "sense of one's self as distinct from others," argues nature writer Brandon Keim, is among the "bedrock properties" of our minds, "so integral to our own intelligence that it's practically impossible to imagine its absence."

Is it, though? Even an innocuous phrase like self-aware gives the game away, as do self-renewal, self-respect, and so on. They all require an inner other, a me observing me. And if we were intrinsically self-aware, it's hard to explain the perennial popularity of personality tests. These began appearing in the early 20th century as a way for companies to see which employees would be "a good fit," followed by a cascade of self-help books like How to Win Friends and Influence People that basically told us how to cheat. The most successful test, by any measure but accuracy, is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, invented in the 1950s and still used by more than half of the Fortune 100. Take the test twice, five weeks apart, and you stand a 50% chance of landing in a different personality category. But we crave these pseudo-scientific mirrors and believe them. How does that argue for selves that know themselves?

And let's say we are consistent, unitary beings over time. How would that play out? It certainly isn't physical. When you catch sight of yourself in a store window or elevator door, are you ever not surprised? Check your photo albums, your drawerful of old IDs, or those aging apps that show us what we'll look like in 20 years. Would that person think she's you? It isn't just the bad moustache or cat glasses, the pearly skin or voice change or sore knees. You aren't even the same collection of cells. A popular misconception has us swapping out all our cells every seven years, and while that's not quite correct, it isn't far off. Some, in your colon for instance, are replaced in days, others take months and some, like bones, are on a cycle of years. But every ten to fifteen years we are, within measurement error, entirely different bodies.

So maybe True You isn't physical but mental. Elbow cells change, sure, but in a choice between head, shoulders, knees and toes, I'm going with the head. Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of the bestseller The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, whose rare locked-in syndrome rendered him almost completely paralyzed, was essentially a bodiless mind—but he was still himself, right? Problem is, brain cells die and regenerate, too, all but a handful. Try reading a paper you wrote in eighth grade. Is that you? Would Bauby's memoir still be him, had he lived 20 years after its publication instead of two days? Our brain, like the rest of us, is a company of parts; it shouldn't surprise us that they sometimes part company.

Emotions, then—that mix of urges and impulses we refer to by the all-purpose "personality"—does that thread through our lives from start to finish? Some behavioral quirks are genetically linked, as we see in studies of twins separated at birth, but they're more suggestions than assignments and not especially consistent over time. Which may be why more than half of us say no one knows us well. This appears to include ourselves, as many people are better at external self-awareness (judging how others see them) than the internal kind. Studies show friends and coworkers can better predict how we'll do on job, IQ, and even creativity tests.

We are one and many. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology, puts it bluntly: "The fact is, you aren't who you are all the time. You have a vocabulary of the self, a range of people you become." Like so much else, this can be scary or exhilarating, or both. A Joyce Carol Oates character "thinks again and again, of both the men in her life: I don't know you at all." In a story titled "Scenes of Passion and Despair," this leans toward the latter. But other contexts leave us open to wonder, as in Mary Oliver's "The Whistler":

All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden
I mean that for more than thirty years she had not
whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was
in the house, what stranger?...
I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and an-
kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too.
...And for all that, do we even begin
to know each other? Who is this I've been living with
for thirty years?
This clear, dark, lovely whistler?

We're much more receptive to these epiphanies when they concern our fellow humans, not our own singular selves. But the fact is we're the Beatles. We're the Marx Brothers: the grumpy one, the goofy one, the quiet one. We're a neighborhood. Philosopher Derek Parfit maintains people exist the way nations or clubs do, saying we should ponder whether there's any interesting answer to a question like, "When did England begin (or cease) to be England?" Daniel Dennett says he was "brought up short a few years ago..."

...when I was talking with a philosopher and I mentioned that I really didn't want to go on living when I became a foolish old dotard and was an embarrassment; time for somebody to push me off a cliff. And she said, "Wait a minute. If you had a brother who was embarrassing, would you feel you had the right to push him off a cliff? Well, what makes you think you now have the right to make arrangements about that future self who wants to sit there watching Bugs Bunny cartoons?" And I must say that did give me pause.

None of this is uniquely a symptom of 21st-century life. Plutarch was wondering the same thing 2,000 years ago. If the ship on which Theseus sailed, he asked, has every one of its parts replaced over the years, is it the same ship? If not, at what point did it stop? What we find even harder to accept than change, though, is multiplicity. We ascribe to mental illness any cast of characters such as this account of "My self, a dramatic ensemble":

Here a prophetic ancestor makes his appearance. Here a brutal hero shouts. Here an alcoholic bon vivant argues with a learned professor. Here a lyric muse, chronically love-struck, raises her eyes to heaven. Here papa steps forward, uttering pedantic protests. Here the indulgent uncle intercedes. Here the aunt babbles gossip. Here the maid giggles lasciviously. And I look upon it all with amazement, the sharpened pen in my hand.

This is painter Paul Klee writing in his diary, though, not an inmate under observation. And English moral philosopher Mary Midgley isn't referring to Doctor Jekyll when she says:

Some of us have to hold a meeting every time we want to do something only slightly difficult, in order to find the self who is capable of undertaking it... We spend a lot of time and ingenuity on developing ways of organizing the inner crowd, securing consent among it, and arranging for it to act as a whole.

There is a clinical side to this, of course. Multiple Personality Disorder exists, though it's now called Associative Identity Disorder and remains controversial even among health professionals. According to the literature, between .1% and 1% of us suffer from it, with another 7% of the population undiagnosed. But I suspect far more than 8% of us would find these symptoms familiar:

...the feeling that the world is not real... find themselves doing things they wouldn't normally do... failure to recall significant personal information... trouble defining the things that interest them in life.

"Considering dissociation more broadly," one researcher adds, "more than a third of people say they feel as if they're watching themselves in a movie at times." I'd be astonished if it were only a third.

It's always a shock to realize what a slim isthmus separates us from Those People—how gray is the area between "normal" and something with a label and a protocol. Rita Carter, author of The People You Are, began researching a book about multiple personality disorders but wound up writing about all of us. "When I looked into what was happening in the brains of these people," she says, "it occurred to me that far from being really strange, the difference between them and the rest of us is a matter of degree. What is really surprising is that the rest of us manage to have a continuous personality at all." The difference, it turns out, is not that we deny our many selves—it's that we remember them. "There really is no core self," Carter writes,

...just lots of different selves, each as real as the next one. It's only because of the shared memory, the fact that they can always remember being each other, that makes us feel as though there's something continuous there. It's a kind of illusion.

We're both actor and audience, then, with an understudy in the wings and a new house every night. As cognitive neuroscientist Bruce Hood puts it, each morning we reassemble the parts:

For the briefest of moments we are not sure who we are and then suddenly "I," the one that is awake, awakens... The memories of the previous day return... We become a person whom we recognize.

The officially (medically) multiple don't remember those daylight lives, their parallel selves. We're Nicholas Cage in Family Man; they're Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors. But I think all of us must sometimes ponder what Andre Aciman calls "our ledgers left open, our unrealized fantasies and unlived minutes... the unclaimed luggage in the cloakroom."

We want to remember, in the end, and still more to be remembered. That's what makes the notion of a fluid self so distressing: it relies on memory to exist. Leaf through those old photos again, and try not to feel like Rebecca Goldstein in Betraying Spinoza:

I stare at the picture of a small child at a summer's picnic, clutching her big sister's hand with one tiny hand while in the other she has a precarious hold on a big slice of watermelon that she appears to be struggling to have intersect with the small o of her mouth. That child is me. But why is she me? I have no memory at all of that summer's day, no privileged knowledge of whether that child succeeded in getting the watermelon into her mouth... There are presumably adventures that she—that is that I—can't undergo and still continue to be herself. Would I then be someone else, or would I just no longer be?

We can look on this with despair or an odd sort of hope. I tend to be a bright-side guy (though I realize how dicey I've made that proposition), and as paradoxical as it sounds, I think our inner divisions could unite us. You could conclude with Marlow in Heart of Darkness that "We live, as we dream, alone." But I prefer to side with a 12th century Japanese monk named Saigyo who wrote, "A soul that is not confused is not a soul." We're all in this together. We've learned to multiply ourselves in water, in polished metal, in glass. Maybe the next step is to realize we're all in the same boat, peering at our rippled faces, never quite sure what's underneath.

As Heraclitus so quotably wrote, we can never step into the same river twice. But if it really is a new me and a new you every time we take a dip, if our identities are as fleeting as that bright, fractured flow, at least we know now that all the rivers eventually connect.