It may not be truthiness, but when we write about ourselves we’re making it up. Put another way, we’re making more of something and less of something else.
At least, that’s what I do.
I don’t invent facts like the Million Little Pieces fraud. But when I write about myself, it’s an act of self-creation. Maybe that’s why I’ve long been a fan of Erving Goffman, the great sociologist (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, l959). For Goffman, the humblest daily gestures reveal a fundamental truth about social life: We are continually engaged in performances of who we want others to believe we are. A man drops his keys in the gutter and as he scrambles around for them on this knees, he mutters that — Damn! he’s got to find those keys!
It’s a performance. The bumbling fellow may have dropped his keys, but he wants to be sure that passersby won’t believe that he’s lost his marbles. That’s because, for Goffman, everyone’s on the stage. Everyone’s in on the act. Unlike the rather more romantic and idealistic notions about “authenticity,” Goffman’s vision of humanity and society is about as idealistic and romantic as what we find in Freud, Genet, Kafka, Doestoevsky and Nietzsche.
Like Darwin, Goffman sees life as a struggle for survival, which the sociologist portrays in his penetrating studies of the “mental patient,” and individuals in so-called total institutions like prisons and hospitals. At the most tragic and comic levels, the social world can make us feel like inmates and in-patients — our identity either already “spoiled” or at risk. Goffman shows the creative and strategic ways in which his subjects seek to salvage their spoiled identities in words, gestures and orchestrated performances for prison guards, prospective employers, and anyone who happens to be occupying the social stage with them.
So where does this leave the matter of authenticity and the “authentic self,” that noble ideal more honored in the breach than the observance? For a generation or more, we have been propagandized about authenticity. We’ve been fed that pablum to “just be yourself” when that advice is platitudinous, paradoxical and tautological, all at once. Who else can you be? But perhaps it’s possible to attempt to play another self beside your own?
Let me get down to cases. The Boston Globe has published l4 mini essays of mine on it op-ed page. I wrote all of them a tiny memoirs in the first-person — from my perspective. But in Goffmanesque terms, each of those l4 — which have appeared over the past 23 years — is a strategic performance of myself, as follows:
l986.I am mugged in a tunnel that runs from the Arlington station on the Green Line to Berkeley Street. Four guys surround me. Punch me in the face. Knock out a tooth. Eleven stitches. Half my coat is cut away by a razor blade. The only way I can think to respond is to write about it — knowing that crimes tend to be newsworthy. It’s my first byline on the op-ed page. I don’t see myself as a helpless victim. I bring a law suit against the MBTA, with the intention of serving the public interest by having the tunnel closed. The Globe sends a photographer to snap a photo of the long, dark tunnel, and the photo runs with my piece on the op-ed page. Shortly thereafter, the tunnel is chained shut. I’m a crusader. I’m a college professor. I want to protect my students from getting their teeth knocked out.
l987. I read about a fellow named Bernard Goetz, who, like me, was mugged. Four guys accost him on a New York subway train. It wasn’t the first time. This time he’s carrying a concealed pistol, and quite unsurprisingly, he shoots one of the thugs. Very controversial. Is he a heroic angry white man or a nutcase? It was the age of Dirty Harry (“Do you feel lucky, punk? Well — do you?”) Then-President Ronald Reagan made that line an ironic expression of a newly truculent, anti-Soviet foreign policy. I see an opening to hitch my story to Goetz’s, and I write a piece for the op-ed page.
1988. A week before my wife and I are scheduled to fly to the Bahamas for a “second honeymoon,” I tear the tendons in my ankle and wind up on crutches. The trip is canceled. No one is sorrier for me than I am. But somehow this self-pity gets transformed into a kind of elegiac nostalgia. A whiff of James Agee. Memories of the helpless of a little boy coming home from summer camp — but more about the gorgeousness of the end of August, the final days of summer and how the lovely and different the sunlight looks. So Hopperesque. The Globe publishes the op-ed and Readers Digest excerpts it. I’m no longer a crusading mugging victim. I’m a writer of lyrical prose. I’ve got a touch of the poet. But this self, too, is admirable. Sensitive.
1989. The president of the college at which I’m teaching decides that to make his mark he’ll move it kit and caboodle to Lawrence, Mass. The faculty are so incensed that they force his resignation. But I see an opportunity to write about it. I write that I teach in a college that’s dreaming. I’m all for dreams. Dreamer, poet, professor — remote from mugging victim.
1990. The over-35 men’s softball team I’m playing third base for gets into the playoffs. It’s early August. Far from the leafy suburban ballfields, Saddam Hussein decides he’ll occupy Kuwait: the beginning of the Gulf War. The manager of our softball team — my son’s dentist — tells us he won’t be able to play centerfield in the playoffs because he’ll be at a military base in Chicopee. He’s in the Reserves. I see an opportunity to write about what the cruel world is doing to our little field of dreams (the movie was making the rounds around that time). I’m a suburban Dad, playing third base for a team suddenly affected most profondly by matters far from the suburbs.
1991. The English department of a college where I’m teaching goes on an early September retreat to do some curriculum planning. The setting: A monastery an hour from Boston. Perfect: I channel Thoreau and write about solitude and contemplation. I’m a contemplative fellow, an appreciator of the great tradition of American transcendentalism. There’s nothing wrong with that self. Who could disapprove?
1994. I hear that a sex offender has taken an apartment in the general vicinity of the home occupied by my 12-year-old son and his mother. We’re separated. I’m now a weekend Dad. It’s a week before Thanksgiving and I’m driving my son over to the supermarket to pick up a turkey for our two-guy Thanksgiving dinner. On the way there, I try telling him about sex offenders — hardly the conversation you’d want to have with your son at Thanksgiving time. I see the ironic and touching possibilities in it, though, and my story appears on the Globe’s op-ed page. Not your typical Thanksgiving story. But that’s me: I don’t have what could be called a typical take on holidays or torn tendons or organizational retreats. I was a recognizably comic-pathetic character — a Weekend Dad — playing out a scene full of comic-pathetic possibility. Certainly a sympathetic character. A loser — sure — but the kind of guy you could feel for, what with all that awkwardness. Loves his son. Can’t be all that bad.
1995. Self-pity, again. I’m going to be spending Christmas alone. I will go jogging on Christmas Day through the empty streets of my town. But who over the age of 10 is wildly happy at Christmas? Don’t we all share some pretty sad memories? My Dad died three days after Christmastwenty years before my solitary holiday ruminations. And one of my students went to her death when a terrorist bomb exploded on Pan Am 103 in l988. I called it “December’s Light,” and I was glad that the piece could bring tears. This was a self who had managed to see beyond the limitations of his own, rather constricted misery. This was a guy who was aware of — even personally connected to — not only public affairs but the tragic consequences of the world. I’m not trying to be cynical. I’m just trying to make clear how a writer can do what Goffman says: Create a frame for the self — a positive, sympathetic one. Some writers prefer to do quite the opposite, such as V.S. Naipul, who permitted his biographer to know the darkest, meanest, cruelest, grossest, pettiest side of him. But Naipul inhabits the pantheon of English literature. He may have felt powerful enough, or guilty enough to dispense with the strategic creation of a sympathetic self. He’s already such a powerful, established presence that he may have had little to lose — and perhaps something to gain by what some critics regarded as the moral courage to show what a rotten bastard he was, while being such a divine, inspired author. (Which I believe he is.)
1996. More Bernard Goetz. Poor angry bastard was sued by one of his muggers, who was paralyzed by a bullet or two that Goetz pumped into him. Goetz declared bankruptcy, after a $50 million judgment against him, and moved to Boston. I saw my opportunity to return to the scene of my own mugging — this time as an expert on being a mugging victim. The Globe published the piece.
1997. The first of three pieces came on Fathers Day. My wife had remarried. Her new husband — my son’s stepfather — had kids of his own. He was a good fellow, I was immensely relieved to learn. Successful, kind and from all evidence, good to my son. In fact, I saw a pattern: My son had many fathers on that Fathers Day — chief among them (aside from me, of course) his music teacher who recognized and nurtured his talent and predicted accurately that my talented son would get into Berklee College of Music, where the teacher himself had been a student. It was another step-back piece I wrote. It was about that splendid, kind, talented teacher and his inspirational impact on my son. It was also about my son’s other Dads for whom I was grateful — as a divorced Dad sharing his son with other fathers. That was a self one could respect and admire — drawn from what Abe Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature.”
One hot day in July I looked out my window and saw that half the garages and driveways were empty. I imagined they’d gone to the Cape or New Hampshire. It was a gorgeous day, and I was in the mood to enjoy it — as well as the night. I remembered reading an essay by Camus about how he adored the sun and the sea and the sky and the men and women dancing on the pier in Algiers. I took myself to a jazz club that evening. I was in a capital mood, like a character in a Forties movie. It was July itself that inspired that mood, and my op-ed was published in the Globe. This was no self-pittying, loser, elegiac, sensitive guy. I was channeling a self-sufficient private eye from a Bogie flick — the kind of guy I imagined I’d grow up to me when I was a kid listening to Miles Davis on the radio. Out half the night at a jazz club, tapping a cigarette on my dinner plate, throwing back a shot glass of rye, and eyeing the femme fatale chanteuse on the stage, orchid in her hair. I liked this guy, this self. I could live with this guy. I could live being this guy.
October l3 it was 113 in L.A — the day Liz died. She was my wife then (I know — it’s hard keeping count). We were young. She was 28. It was a brain tumor. Never knew what hit her. Long before MRI’s. Headaches, but the Cat Scan detected nothing. Then one morning she collapsed and, went into a coma that day — Wednesday — and the life support was removed on Sunday, that awful day of the broiling Santa Ana winds. She was a published poet, an editor, a talented, lovely young woman. And here I had lived into middle age. No justice in it. In her memory, I wrote about her life and her poetry. Certainly, this was a very different self from the divorced loser guy. It was around Yom Kippur when the Globe published that piece. Liz and I had been married by an orthodox rabbi in Chicago, her home town.
2000. It was December and I read the news that General Motors had decided to stop making Oldsmobiles. I thought of the l948 Olds sedan my Dad had driven — and the lime and gray l956 Olds 98 I got to drive. My Dad was one of those self-made men whose family emigrated to America from a shtetl. Raised on the Lower East Side. Little schooling. Moved pianos. A tough, smart guy who eventually became a successful wholesale furrier. I knew I could tell the story of his life through the Oldsmobiles he drove us around in. We were an Olds family. What would he ever have thought of GM on the brink of collapse. As a moody, secretive pain-in-the-ass adolescent, I never got along very well with my father. It would be a good thing to honor his memory with a 600-word piece about his Oldsmobiles. That would be a self I preferred: A grown man who has come to recognize and celebrate a father who loved him and drove him around in a couple of Oldsmobiles.
2008. Ten years with the sweet, smart and talented woman I have taken to calling The Twitter Queen. Six months ago she got herself a Twitter account, and now she’s got hundreds of “followers.” She has reunions with friends who find her online. I decided that I would write about how I’d thought I’d married one person, but found I had married a crowd. The story appeared in last Friday’s Globe’s op-ed page.
What came as a revelation was what happened as soon the piece appeared. Commentators weighed in. One anonymous commenter took me and the Twitter Queen to task for a long list of offense: self-absorption, lust for fame and a shallow obsession with “celebrity”.
That comment got me thinking in a whole new way about celebrity. Here was this anonymous, genderless, bodiless individual out there who not only claimed to know me and my wife, but was able to draw conclusions about the kinds of people we must be — and what we represented (nothing very inspiring!). Shallow, superficial pair of goofballs.
Suddenly, I could see Brangelina and Tom and Giselle with at least a little more sympathy. What, after all, did I know of these pixels, these magazine metaphors? Nothing more than what has come to be called “mediated reality.” Not more than my faceless critic knows me. Of course I would rather my anonymous commenters express admiration. But when they do, who exactly are they admiring? My “real” self? Which one? The latest avatar?
Lord help those actual celebrities whose fans adore them, stalk them, leave hateful voice messages and posts.
And after all, how is it I know myself? And what is the nature of the self — myself — if not that chronological collection of selves I have published for 20-plus years?
Yes, I know. It gets silly, doesn’t it? A paraphased line from a Beckett play: Ah, the old questions! From the existential to the silly to the Absurb: The questions devolve, or they rise — depending on who you think you are.