I am undone

By now, you’d think we’d have a pretty good idea who we are. I mean, we’ve been assessing and predicting things about each other since… well, a long time. And because each of us feels a pretty unbroken identity from when they were a child, it probably makes sense to assume others do as well. ‘I am that I am,’ is the transliteration of what the voice in the burning bush told Moses. Identity is fixed; it’s only the attributes that change… Or are they actually co-dependent?

Is there another way of assigning identity other than by characteristics, or traits? One obvious way is by appearance, of course, although that changes over time. So, what is the form of identity for which we are searching in, say, a long lost friend? What are the interpersonal interactions all about? What is it that makes her that same person you knew, even if she now seems… different? Imponderables all.

I began to wonder if the whole question of what I’ve relied on to determine a friend’s identity may be couched in my expectations -as if they were buried, somehow, in what their peculiarities had meant to me, and therefore, perhaps, in what I hoped to get out of the  encounter. Who I, not they, in other words, had become.

Not certain if this was a helpful insight, I decided to keep an eye peeled for writings touching on the subject. An article, written by the journalist Carlin Flora, a former features editor at Psychology Today, but writing this time in the online publication, Aeon, seemed close: https://aeon.co/essays/are-novelists-or-psychologists-better-at-describing-people

Entitled ‘Indescribable You’ she asks ‘Can novelists or psychologists better capture the strange multitude of realities in every human self?’ She starts by quoting a paragraph of an author describing some of the attributes of a character in his novel which ‘touches upon [her] looks, social class, psychology and behaviours. It’s hard to imagine a better description, and it’s certainly superior to what people provide to each other conversationally or on dating websites. And yet, any particular reader will project his or her own stored images, memories and worldview upon [her]… we’re constantly describing ourselves and others.’

But, ‘Writers search for emotional granularity, consequential details and apt metaphors, while sociologists and personality psychologists have come up with sorting tools such as the ‘Big Five’ personality traits – extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness to experience, and conscientiousness… But across time and contexts, any of these characteristics can change… A million tiny human factors – tone of voice, brand of shoes, frequency of smiles – form a gestalt as difficult to pick apart as it is to pin down. If a person contains multitudes and is perhaps even infinite, how can we compare infinities? … This fluid state of affairs is often captured best by writers, who tend to have an agenda when delineating characters.’

Indeed, ‘Novelists know that behaviour is always more revelatory than a grocery list of traits… writers often expose not the ‘truth’ about someone, but rather the gaping distance between how they see themselves and how others view them.’

We seldom have omniscience, however: what we experience, is what we get, and any analysis is, by necessity, only temporary. Even if we have used the ‘Big Five’ personality traits in an attempt to categorize their tendencies, as Flora writes, ‘Tendencies, while real, are not as revealing as countertrends: a friend is an extravert, except when she’s with her colleagues. A daughter is agreeable at school, but pretty cranky at home.’ We are all contextually fluid in other words, and our -and their- personalities, quirks, and preferences are all bundled together.

This was on my mind when I saw her: the short thin woman apparently holding court with a friend in the middle of the Food Area of a large shopping mall. With her shock of fluffy red hair, and gesticulating arms it was typical Jane. If there were people around, she’d find a table somewhere amongst them, hoping for inquisitive glances that she could return with interest.

She had always been like that -all through university, at any rate. But I hadn’t seen her since graduation. We were frequent lab-partners in our biology classes because our last names both started with the same letter. Even when we first met, it was as if I’d known her for years -and since I hadn’t, there was a lot of ground for her to cover. Her curiosity was insatiable, both about me, and about whatever classes we shared.

I remember the time of our first assignment, when I found it difficult to risk dissecting the long-dead-and-pickled Taenia solium (pig tapeworm). I tried, unsuccessfully, to hide behind my eyes I think, but she just laughed, picked it up with her bare hands, and pointed out its frightening scolex through a magnifying glass she’d brought for the occasion. Jane was like that.

She was always a pleasure to be with, even if I didn’t want to talk. And if I didn’t ask her a question about something, she’d answer as if I’d meant to ask -always with a warm smile that threatened to break into a laugh if she caught me staring at her.

We both enjoyed each other’s company, so I’m not sure why we lost track of each other, but I imagine my being shy didn’t help. And then, of course, our career paths diverged and, well, new memories greeted us both.

And yet I never forgot her, so when I saw her unmistakable hairdo even from across the Food Court, I knew I had to say hello. I waited until her friend left to pick up their orders, and decided to walk over and say hello.

“Hi,” I managed to rasp, feeling dizzy because my heart was pounding so fast.

She looked up from her coffee with a start, and managed an embryonic smile for me. “Hi,” she answered, warily, and stared at me for a moment.

There was an awkward silence.

“I… I’m G,” I stammered, using the nickname she’d always called me. “Biology at McMaster…?”

The smile never left her lips, but her eyes scanned my face as if it contained a barcode somewhere that might help.

There was no question in my mind that it was Jane. She had the same olive-green eyes, the same slightly lob-sided grin she had always unleashed whenever she was puzzled in Biology class. “We were lab partners, in Biology… maybe nine or ten years ago…” I explained to the still baffled face

But, except for the little grin, her face remained a blank slate, and her eyes continued to sample my expression, hoping for a clue. Suddenly, they stopped, mid-scan and seemed to fixate on my hair. It was always bursting with unruly curls that I’d never been able to tame.

“Oh, yes… Now I remember you,” she said slowly, and a little uncertainly for my liking. “Didn’t you have trouble with a tapeworm or something…?”

I nodded hopefully.

“It’s nice seeing you again,” she added, obviously pleased with herself for remembering, even though her voice didn’t seem that happy I’d suddenly re-appeared in her life.

The painful silence returned and obviously neither of us could think of anything more to say. The thousand questions that had been bubbling through my mind seemed suddenly inappropriate. Things had changed.

I suppose time does that, though…

The Kingdom of the Blind

 

Sometimes, after waking up from a troubled sleep, it occurs to me that I live in a world to which I have become so accustomed that I wander down its streets like a horse with blinders. I see those things at which I am pointed and accept what I am told about the rest –even about the other horses… And they, like me, process their separate realities as if they were representative. Common grounds. All, no doubt convinced of the uniqueness -the appropriateness- of their own interpretations. Certain that what they see is what we all see –should see- otherwise we are mistaken and groping. Remember, in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

But we miss a lot unless we stand back and consider what passes for reality. And why. The other day I was listening to an archival podcast from BBC 4 entitled Body Count Rising –a thought-provoking and insightful documentary about how we have come to watch- and accept- crime programs that seem to glorify violence against women. Rape, murder, abuse –all common themes that, had they no fascinated audience, no prurience, would never have gained the popularity they seem to enjoy: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07wtggz

To me, only an occasional crime show adherent, the trend was largely invisible. And yet, as a man, maybe even a steady diet of such programs would have slipped past without a comment. Without a conscious recognition that perhaps the overly realistic depictions of female abuse, the preponderance of rape as an important component of the plot, and the salacious depiction of the female corpse was actually a not-so-covert titillation. A not-so-disguised form of necrophilia.

Another component of the podcast documentary that I had not considered until then –and one that I found powerfully compelling- was not so much the increasing demand for these kinds of stories, but rather the effects on the female actors who had to play the role of the victims. I suspect that most of us become so enmeshed in the storyline, so enveloped in the plot that we forget that to be convincing, the actor has to become the character she is playing. Those kinds of victim roles must be devastating -especially when the story purports to depict what is actually happening out there in real life to real women. And yet for the rest of us, we experience it vicariously and from the safety of our living rooms.

Where does the fault lie? The documentary makes an honest attempt to dissect it –from the writers who decide what species of story is saleable, to the networks and producers who pander to audience demand, and even to the actors who, despite their reluctance to glorify the ugliness they are asked to portray, dare not risk declining or criticizing the role for fear of subsequent unemployment… Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t another form of abuse. More subtle perhaps, more deniable, and yet one more gossamer-thin thread in a web of denigration so easily ignored in our society. So readily dismissed. So invisible…

We are all to blame, aren’t we? There are blind spots in each of our lives.

I walked into in a crowded restaurant for lunch the other day, and the only table left was uncomfortably close to one where a man and a woman sat arguing. To be fair, they were initially discreet about it, never raising their voices, nor gesturing suggestively with their cutlery, but nevertheless, I felt almost as if I was a guest in their kitchen and forced to witness a family squabble.

“… Whatever!” the woman hissed sotto voce, as she glanced at me sitting so close to them. She was young –maybe in her mid-twenties- and looked as if she had just come from work. Dressed in a grey skirt and a white now-creased blouse, her auburn hair once pinned on top of her head, escaped strand by strand as she tossed her eyes back and forth from the leftovers on her plate to her partner’s face.

He was probably in his forties, and dressed in a brown suit with a red tie loosened at the neck. Staring intently at the woman, a patient smile tattooed on his face, he was leaning forward on the table when I sat down. He made several desultory attempts to touch her arm, but she withdrew each time. “Sheila asks for it, though, Janice…”

Evidently, this was not the response Janice wanted to hear and she sat up stiffly on her chair and glared at him. “Asks for it! What kind of an animal are you, Jeff?”

“Come on, Jan. Get off your high horse!” he sat back on his chair and his facial tattoo expanded sardonically. Cruelly. “She flirts with every man in the office… Including me,” he added, as if this proved his point.

“Flirts?” Janice’s voice rose unintentionally, but she glanced my way and subdued the rest of her words. “Sheila is just friendly; that’s how she interacts with people.” She shook her head sadly, and several more strands of hair tumbled to her shoulder and danced as she spoke. “You’re so shallow!”

“Friendly is one thing –you’re friendly, but you don’t stand as close as she does when you talk. And you don’t start fondling people to make a point. Sheila bores into your face with her eyes, like she wants to peer inside, or something…”

“You mean she actually listens when you talk…?”

Jeff frowned at the remark and shook his head. “No… it’s more than just listening, Jan. It’s… seductive.”

The skin on Jan’s face tightened, and her eyes tore a strip off his face. “So that’s why Jason gropes her every chance he gets? Because she’s asking for it?”

“Gropes her?” His voice rose unpleasantly loud and people at the nearby tables turned to see who was yelling. He dropped his eyes to his plate again, and lowered his voice. “Janice you’re so bloody naïve! He’s just responding to her. Stimulus-response –it’s not groping! You make it sound so… so damned lewd.”

Janice’s eyes grew to the size of the plate in front of her and her face reddened as the veins on her neck grew fat and swollen. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before answering. “Suppose Sheila kept grabbing his ass –what would you call that? Or his crotch…? I saw him trying to finger her in the corner, Jeffrey!!”

Jeff rolled his eyes and guffawed. “He’s just playing the game, Jan… And anyway, Jason wouldn’t do that unless she was okay with it.” He toyed with the bit of food left on his plate and then chose a large, dripping piece and put it in his mouth –but slowly and carefully. I could tell he thought he was being seductive.

From where I sat, I could see Jan’s fists opening and closing. She seemed momentarily speechless, although I suppose she was actually trying to calm herself down before she exploded. “Jeffrey, you’re missing the point!” The words came out between clenched teeth, her eyes locked on his. “Jason is her boss, for god’s sake! She feels she has to take it…” She tried to soften her face for a moment as she explained the obvious, but it was a losing battle. “Don’t you understand…?” she said quietly while shaking her head. I could tell she wasn’t far from tears.

But Jeff’s face stayed blank. It was as if Jan hadn’t explained anything. “Sheila could just tell him to stop, if she wanted to.” It was so obvious to him.

Jan glanced at her watch and stood up. “I’ve got to get back now, Jeffrey…” He smiled again and pointed to some food still left on his plate. “Wait till I finish this, Jan,” he said, and not kindly. It was an order, really, so she sat down again and leashed her eyes obediently.

But not before they strayed briefly to my face in apology –a silent recognition of the way things were. An invisible shrug.