Identity and the tyranny of self doubt

One of my brothers alerted me to several relatives in Holland who have made contact with him through Facebook. Presumably they knew to make contact with him because of their shared second name.

Once again, I was saddened by my concealed identity, hidden by my married name.

More and more as I grow older, I resent the loss of my maiden name. Not just my maiden name, but the name of so many other women from my past who married and then seemingly disappeared from the world of possible connections.

Every time I try to befriend someone on Facebook who travels under my father’s family name, my so-called maiden name, I need to identify myself as a Schooneveldt and not some random stranger who’s approaching them for friendship, as if an unwanted spammer.

A number of people have asked me why I don’t assume a false identity online so as not to create problems associated with my other roles in life, as a writer, as a therapist, and given my familial ties with some people preferring that all things family stay offline and some friends likewise.

But if I assumed a false persona wouldn’t I have to give all the ‘real’ people in my life a false identity too, not that I identify people online unless they’re in the public domain. Still after a while it all gets too hard.

I prefer to start from the point of myself as a real person, however many identities I might assume under that guise.

And maybe it’s just a rationalisation, but as Margaret Atwood writes ‘All writers are double, for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read.’

Too much time has elapsed between composition and publication. She’s talking here about published books and their authors but maybe the same could be said of blogs and so much writing that appears online.

In the immediacy of a chat room or on Twitter or Facebook, maybe it’s safe to assume the words and the person who typed them are one and the same, but the very fact of writing them changes things.

Nothing stands still even as words on a page can appear fixed. Once read by another person those written words can shift around. They’re open to different interpretations and perspectives even after they’re published.

We all imagine the words differently.

Identity is like this, too. It’s fluid. It shifts and sways and refuses to stay put.

I hesitated to post these meandering thoughts until I read Adam Phillips “Against Self-Criticism” from his book Unforbidden Pleasures. (Thanks Christine Brett Vickers for putting me onto this.

If you’re anything like me, these words might give you the courage you need to go on in defiance of that ‘obscene superego’, and the internal voice that tells you to shut up.

Phillips writes:

“We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people. A life without a so-called critical faculty would seem an idiocy: what are we, after all, but our powers of discrimination, our taste, the violence of our preferences?

Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves.

Nothing makes us more critical – more suspicious or appalled or even mildly amused – than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism, that we should be less impressed by it and start really loving ourselves.

But the self-critical part of ourselves, the part that Freud calls the super-ego, has some striking deficiencies: it is remarkably narrow-minded; it has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive.

It is cruelly intimidating – Lacan writes of ‘the obscene super-ego’ – and it never brings us any news about ourselves.

There are only ever two or three things we endlessly accuse ourselves of, and they are all too familiar; a stuck record, as we say, but in both senses – the super-ego is reiterative.

It is the stuck record of the past (‘something there badly not wrong’, Beckett’s line from Worstward Ho, is exactly what it must not say) and it insists on diminishing us. It is, in short, unimaginative; both about morality, and about ourselves.

Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel.

We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.”

A childhood puzzle

‘It makes me cold to look at you,’ my mother said when the grass outside was thick with dew and the wind blew down the back streets from off the desert. I was in shirtsleeves and open toed sandals and although this wind came in over thousands of miles, it must have travelled overnight when the temperatures dropped to zero and the wind was full of ice and hinted at Antarctica.

‘It makes me cold to look at you,’ my mother said, and in her words I sensed the puzzle of my childhood:

Where did I begin and end? How could the cold wind on my skin, the chill through my bones become my mother’s cold?

Besides, I was not cold. I had the metabolism of a ten-year-old, a fit and lean ten-year-old who ran everywhere, even when walking was enough.

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In those days of winter cold, my hopefulness kept me warm. Until grade six and the early morning regulation milk at recess when for the first time I recognised the cold at the tips of my fingers.

No gloves in those days, just pink fingers that grew red and itchy the more I clung to the milk bottle.

I needed to give my bottle a shake to dislodge the frozen wad of cream on top. And soon enough my pink then red fingers lost all sensation.

‘Shake your hands,’ mother Perpetua said. ‘Shake them up and down. That way you’ll get your circulation going.’

She did not tell us to put down our milk bottles first and given my tendency to do as I was told, and given my fingers were useless, I used my elbows to shake the milk bottle of ice and free my hands from the grip of their numbness.

Milk went everywhere, not only over my jumper and tunic, but over the jumper and tunic of the girl who sat beside me and worst of all a projectile of milk shot across the quadrangle where we sat. It landed on Mother Perpetua’s habit.

Blobs of cream glistened in the thin morning sun, not only on the asphalt in front of me but all the way down Mother Perpetua’s black robes and even on her black shoes.

She reached for the rosary beads at her waist and from her pocket dragged out an enormous white handkerchief with which she wiped the individual beads as if she was reciting the rosary.

But she was not serene as when in prayer. Her eye brows furrowed into one long line of black under the stiff white band that ran across her forehead and held her hair in place and out of sight.

She sighed.

I did not know what to say. My milk bottle was empty.

No longer did I need to drink but the relief I felt at being spared the cold down my throat and in my hands did not protect me from the scowl on the face of the nun that stays with me until this day and reappears in dreams when I know that I have been a sinner and can never be forgiven.