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 Who Are We, Really?

Copyright Ó 1997, Dorian Scott Cole

One of the most interesting aspects of character, to me, is the dynamic of personality1 change. All main characters should undergo some personality change in a well written story. They should find the inner resources to overcome their final obstacle. But in some stories the personality change is so dramatic that it asks the question, "Are we really who we think we are?"

Of course this is the type of story I write myself, so if you like one of these ideas you will have to do better than me, or at least market better than me - neither should be too difficult. Several stories illustrate what I'm talking about. I'm not talking about a story like unravelling the mystery of personality as in Freud's Dora, who was about to take charge of a life she couldn't stand and leave but through analysis came to grips with her behavior.

The Three Faces of Eve, involving multiple personalities of which the client is unaware, starts to get to the heart of it. True stories about split personality show us that we can find life so horrible that we transform our personality totally and so temporarily become a radically different person. That certainly asks the questions, "Who are we, really? Can we be someone else or are we locked in these personas?" And some recent real life stories about psychiatrists who created warped and dependent relationships with one client, totally transforming the client into a twisted and dependent individual, have raised additional questions about the fragile nature of who we are... at the moment.

Two stories of radical personality change that intrigue me aren't psychological dramas, they are action movies. The first is one of my favorites, Total Recall. In the movie Schwarzenegger plays a futuristic construction worker who gets caught up in a "dream" vacation. The dream is induced. Soon he seems to leave the dream, and the dream seems to be reality. In the story he is the good guy trying to rescue the people of Mars from the bad guys. But he has been used as a pawn to expose the rebels on Mars. He then learns the truth: that he was one of the bad guys and his memory was erased and he was given a fake good guy memory so he could penetrate the Mars group. But he does the unexpected. He likes being the good guy. So he is one. And of course he becomes the hero.

Do we define ourselves by the world around us? If our "worldscape" suddenly becomes unreal, are we still real? Two movies about virtual reality raise that question. In the 1999 film The Matrix, most of the people are real, but their brains are fed a constant stream of virtual reality that forms their world. The real world is a decaying trash heap outside of virtual reality. Yet once people discover that they are living in an artificial world, it becomes meaningless and they want the real world with all of its warts. If it is the minds of the real people which interact in relationships in virtual reality, what difference does it make? The difference is in the consequences. Virtual reality has no consequences. Or does it? Relationships have consequences.

In the 1999 movie The Thirteenth Floor, it is the people in virtual reality who are not real. Computer simulations of people turn out to be created by people who are themselves computer simulations of people. Both simulations discover that they are not real, and the result is chaos - a breakdown of the moral fiber that holds society together. Murder is a meaningless event. Life is meaningless. Yet the created characters have all of the attributes of real people - they suffer, they have pleasure, they have goals and purpose. Are they real - or are they minus a soul? They can be unplugged. But can't we all. At one point, the unreal people have relationships. The next, they realize they aren't real, but the relationships still seem important. In the end, a real person's  consciousness is exchanged for a created person's consciousness - a bad relationship for a good one. A real person having a relationship with a created one. If the created person is capable of having all the same attributes as a real person, what is the difference? Can the created person really love, and really choose good over evil, and understand and appreciate levels of meaning, or is behavior just the result of a deterministic computer program? Life oversimplified. Hmmm. 

Again the question is raised, "Who are we really?" Is the persona we have just a result of our current circumstances, and we could be the good guy or the bad guy if circumstances were different? That would certainly speak to the theories of environmental causes of behavior, which I only buy into as influences which are transitory and not causes at all.

The other film is the action movie Point of No Return, a remake of the 1991 French film La Femme Nikita. Bridget Fonda plays a young criminal so totally immersed in criminal mentality and so strung out on drugs that she thinks nothing of murdering a cop. Stolen from execution by some security group, she is trained by the government for a special role. At first she rejects the training. She is forced to take the training and becomes an accomplished agent, but she still has the wrong attitude. Again she is forced by death threat to conform, so finally she is completely won over and becomes a sophisticated young woman... and a trained killer. She does her first assassination - OK. But she spends her excessive free time with her lover and becomes a normal person. She likes her new role. She can no longer do assassinations. She tries to get out.

True to form, Bridget's character responded as most people do to force. She did as required, then her attitude changed to cope with (overcome dissonance, or possibly integrate) the new behavior and she became the new person. In real life the daughter of a publisher and philanthropist, Patty Hearst, was kidnapped by a gang and forced to commit armed robberies. At the time of her capture, she was a criminal.

In the military, recruits are forced to live a new clean and ordered life. They soon like who they have become and feel separate from, and superior to, the slackers on the outside. I have often seen this kind of force work, and the change becomes permanent. Identification is a powerful tool. In college, some students become elite - they will no longer go to certain kinds of churches or do certain activities, as they adopt behaviors and attitudes that are modeled for them by senior peers in their profession.

Personality change happens in all professions, and sometimes in very negative ways. Law enforcement agents often have to emulate the people they are trying to capture in order to infiltrate their ranks. The danger for them is that they lose their grip on values and become the very criminals they are fighting. In one case, FBI agents barbarically tortured a man. In other cases, the police have turned to the same crimes as the crooks. The mafia forces compliance from people in illegal activity. After a while those compliant people are accomplices. People can become good people, separatists, or bad people through exposure to their environment. Some slide into the new role, and some are forced to change and transform their personality because of it. But who are we, really?

Frontal lobotomy is a very radical procedure that has been used off and on by psychiatrists to prevent destructive behavior. Severing the connection between the front lobes of the brain makes the personality placid - apparently prevents strong motivation or overreaction from occurring. It is only used as a last resort. In the 1966 film, A Fine Madness, Sean Connery played a poet who was apparently stricken with that manic-depressive state often associated with creative people (Poe, Van Gogh). Either that or he was just an irascible and incorrigible poet who was prone to violence. It isn't his choice, but they perform the frontal lobotomy on him. A few days later he returns to the same aberrant behavior - completely unchanged. I think the writer took some medical liberties here to make a point. But his point was, some people are just that way. They aren't going to be changed no matter what.

In the 1971 film Never Give An Inch, Henry Fonda plays a stubborn mill operator who loses everything, including his family, but he won't give in. He reflects a lot of people in real life who simply won't change. Was Bridget's character really forced to change in Point of No Return? Bridget's character began as a criminal, was made to be an assassin, but found a good role that she liked. She was forced to change in one way (sophisticated killer), but force did not make her accept the assassin's role. Hmmm, a little like real life. (I'm trying to remember if Jane Fonda played any roles like these of Henry's and Bridget's - I may have bumbled onto something here.) Can we be permanently molded by force, or at some point in time do we begin to reintegrate and recover, just like the real life Eve?

Who are we, really?

On the one hand, people are forced into new situations and become different people. On the other hand are people who define themselves by a certain role, and reach a critical point when they can't succeed in that role. Women who reach the end of their child-bearing years often have an identity crisis. Being a mother is all they know, and they don't know how to be anything else, or even have any desire to. Men often reach retirement and without their job they don't know who they are. They have no purpose. Their health often fails quickly, or they commit suicide. Men and women whose mate dies are often left in limbo for years. The problem is exemplified by eating, which has been defined by them as a social function. They don't eat. Their lives go on in a meaningless series of days, and days turn into twenty years. In my experience with the elderly I have been most moved by one constant - so many of them say they have no purpose so life is not worth living. Without that mate, or that job, or some other pursuit that defines them, they have no purpose.

Can we redefine ourselves? Can we substitute one purpose for another? In the earlier examples, people in real life and people in films became radically different people, but it was temporary. They really weren't those people. But can a person who defines herself as a mother, or provider, or a physician, or a successful company president, redefine herself as something else and find meaningful activity? And if not, what happens to them? What happens to the frustrated singer who can't sing? Perplexing question.

I have to go partly by my own experience. I have had several major careers, and have done them very successfully. Two of those careers I had very little choice about doing - engineering and business management. Did I find these fulfilling, or were they just roles? Did I find those things satisfying even though I was successful and put myself into them and got rewards from them like supporting my family and trips? Nope. They really never meant anything to me - just a means to an end. I dropped them like boat anchors.

Before those careers I chose to do radio - it was rewarding to a point - but probably was an early confidence building experience. I dropped it also. I had a couple of other careers that were rewarding, but I don't miss them. But writing is something I always return to. I do have a career in it. I like it. But entertainment writing, which I have a quasi-career in - like most writers I don't make a living at it - is what I keep going back to. Yet I really never was praised for writing, and never had any writers that I really looked up to. I don't even identify with entertainment writers, or with people who teach writing. In fact for a long time I had a relatively low regard for all entertainment media. I do know of several reasons why I write, which I won't put here, but none of them is sufficient motivation to keep me doing it. I can do something else for a while, but I have always been and apparently will always be a writer.

Can we redefine ourselves and be someone else and accept that? What happens if we can't? Can change be forced? Is it necessary to hit rock-bottom, then recover like an alcoholic? Or do we have a permanent role designated by some unknown force, or God, and successful or not we will always reintegrate and return to it?

I think it is a question of values. Sometimes it's a question of moral values, as in the case of criminal activity. The morals of a society and especially the morals we assimilate through experience, I don't think can ever be changed as values. People may change temporarily, but they will eventually return to their basic values. It's also partly a matter of whom we identify with. I think that we do define who we are at different points in our life. When we achieve our experience in one area, we integrate that and redefine who we are - we take on new goals, new experiences that help us grow. One person loses a mate and life is basically over for them. Another person defines their role as a teacher, his mate dies, and he keeps going and remarries. That's enough of what I think - I can't prove much of it.

Who are we, really? Can people redefine who they are? That's the concept for a story.

¤ What about the woman who defines her role as a mother, but childless at sixty-two, too late to have a baby, she lies about her age to the physicians and has an embryo implanted? When the baby is fifteen, she will be seventy-seven. Who could keep up with a teenager at seventy-seven? It might keep her young. Would being a grandmother, or a day-care worker, or a neighborhood mom work just as well - or even better? Maybe not.

¤ What about the young woman of seventeen who defines her role as a mother and can't be anything else. She marries the first guy who will have her. After four years she realizes she married too young and divorces. This one almost sounds too typical.

¤ The professor who at sixty-two has defined his role as a department chairman. That is the only acceptable fulfillment of his life. But the current forty-two-year-old chairman has built a fortress of support and has no plans to leave - not ever. His obvious choices are murder; treachery, false witness, and mutiny; move to a different university; find another career at sixty-two - not an easy task; or beat himself into submission and slap a smile onto his face - a comedy.

¤ The research scientist who defines his role as the one who discovers the cure... But his research leads nowhere.

¤ Or the... no, that's the one I'm going to write.

1 Personality in this article doesn't mean the flashy appeal of a person, it is used in the sense of the traits that characterize the sum of a person.

Related reading:

Andreas, Connirae. Core Transformation, Reaching The Wellspring Within, Utah: Real People Press, 1994. (Note: Ten steps facilitating personal change related to relationships, anger, illness and abuse.)

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