Experience can feel like a dialogue between semi-familiar voices arguing the virtues of their various agendas. Sometimes they form coalitions, and then we take the action that feels right. Other times, we do something in the world and then search for the inner voice with the right tone of assurance to explain why we did what we did.
An aspect of one’s personality can be like a wrench. One size doesn’t fit all. They nestle inside the self like torque sockets of varying shapes and sizes. They’re forged in the factory of cause, effect, and circumstance. The right tool has to fit the right situation, but often doesn’t.
They sit around the boardroom table of your identity, each charged with protecting and promoting a different territory. Some are stronger than others, while some rely more on craft and guile. Many of them think that they alone are you. They all do their best. At the head of the table sits the director, the one true unified self.
But the chair is empty.
By the time I got to Middle School, new levels of programming started to kick in. These were new selves staking out different turf. Child voices now clamored amid voices with increasingly adult priorities. Some of these selves were actually only months old, but felt capable of volunteering (quite eagerly) to navigate the ancient mysteries of love and sex.
They were internal voices trying to elbow aside (or co-opt into allegiances) older selves. Some of these selves were from elementary school and sun-filled afternoons of play. Others, probably more important, had been formed before I had language to speak and describe. These were driving the train in many ways, though I wouldn’t understand this for several decades to come.
They each peered out from behind my eyes with their own peculiar expertise. Whenever one of them took the metaphorical microphone, they were convinced that they were the real me.
The odds are stacked against a person maintaining coherence in these circumstances. We’re all conditioned to think we’re the a unified self sailing into a painful gale. Many of us decide that there’s something wrong with us as a result.
I was one of them.
The hallways at Franklin Middle School were narrow, long, low-ceilinged, and blindingly lit. At least this is what memory tells me. From the outside, it looked like a train that was about to plunge under the ocean. At least this is how I perceived it. My inner reality took form in my gaze and showed me what I thought.
Something big was happening. Excitement and shame were a heady mix. My chest leapt with jagged breath when I noticed the bodies of girls (I saw them and the image froze with erotic import, like the clock of reality delightfully and frightfully stopping) with waves of awareness and denial breaking over the rocks of my primordial desire.
My experience then, as it was for most of my life, was doing battle against everything. Nearly every moment was a struggle. The illusion of a single self was my primary defensive cudgel, to be fortified and protected at all costs.
The narrator who constantly observed and judged, and packed sensory experience into loose bundles of narrative, had staked out its role as me.
When the coveting self arose, the self that wanted more and more, the narrator put on that mask and believed that this was all the truth there was. When the protector emerged to guard the vulnerabilities of the group, (my fear, my inadequacy) the narrator explained why this was happening, assigning blame and resentment.
The cool kid inside had learned to deflect, to be a one-way mirror. I made myself invisible even as my physical body was projecting self-assurance. I became a human smoke screen.
This strategy gave us all some time to breathe.
Humiliation was always a fear. Where did this fear of ridiculousness come from, I wondered. What primal dynamic led to this terror of ostracism, of being pronounced unfit, of being rejected?
Why had I always felt so alone?
We’re never taught that these programs are generic. We learn to convince ourselves that the desperate defense of the self is the texture of experience — on and on, until Requiescat en Pace.
The worst of all the selves was the voice of the critic inside me. He was primordially wounded, confused, and formed long before I could walk or speak.
The critic rose up in the quiet spaces. The critic arose from fear and from witnessing profound instability in my mother, from not feeling consistently safe or seen. The critic lived on the far shores of what came after vulnerability and disappointment.
The critic snarled.
The critic had learned not to trust the concept of love as a consistent phenomenon. What it needed the most, it had developed strategies for creating distance from.
I got a starring role in a play at Franklin Middle School when I was 13. It was a cardboard Western. They made me the hero, the lead, which was a cutting disappointment. Everyone knew the villain was where the action was, and the charismatic kid who got the role twirled his mustache and hammed it up to the delight of the audience.
My primary consolation was that a kiss was written into the story between the hero and the heroine he rescued from peril. I allotted a considerable amount of anticipatory energy into this reality. But the girl, with whom I believed myself to be secretly in love (we would know each other for years in a mutual orbit of misunderstanding and frequent exasperation mostly coming from her end of the boxing ring), refused to kiss me. The director, an adult, tried to appeal to her sense of professionalism, but she wouldn’t budge.
The script was rewritten without the consummation.
After the critic, almost all of my other selves conducted themselves with kindness. They tried to compensate when the critic didn’t have the microphone. They tried to make amends. The lover, the seeker, the learner, they each got their turn pretty regularly.
They tried to tamp down and deny the critic’s primal voice forged out of trauma and fear, and a doubt that reality was reliable or consistent. They put up dykes and flood walls and beat back the waters of the sea with worn-out mops. It was a terribly difficult job that didn’t come with much time off.
I’d do the best I could with all of this until much, much later, when an astrologer made an assessment of my particular arrangement of personality factors while my wife sat beside me and nodded in agreement.
There’s a powerful influence of female ingenuity and female pain and tragedy that underlies the family of selves that have arisen in response to the life I’ve led. It’s made me good at hiding from others in plain sight, and in receding behind strongholds of indifference.
The narration that came from my mother nearly every moment was so suffused with anxiety that I’ve heard it everywhere since then, even in the most innocuous comments.
We were in all shapes and sizes back then, in Middle School, our bodies developing at different rates, compounding (for me) the sense of random cruelty underpinning things. I enjoyed my friends, but I was always a half-second behind everything. It was exhausting.
The narrator was trying to describe an unfamiliar movie at the same time as watching it on the screen, never quite catching up.
I remember one kid with the visible constant agony of adolescence on his face as he shifted through personas and tactics to try to make the unease and burning instability a little better. He told tall tales about a real witches’ coven he knew about, where the souls of the other side powered necromancers who flew and cast spells to influence the unsuspecting right in our very own town in Central Ohio.
Very unlikely, I thought. But you never knew.
The real ghosts are inside us. They’re thin and insubstantial. They were formed in the shadows of our unremembered pasts, reaching spectral fingers back before our birth, combining and recombining into voices and ways of being. They clamor among one another, asserting their truth, wanting to take control, watching and judging from their particular perspective and assumptions. They want permanence and substance. They want the impossible.
They believe they want what’s best for us. Sometimes they believe they are us.
The critic came from a mixed message of matrilineal power. There was something spooky about my mother and her mother. My mother had prophetic dreams, one time anticipating a death that happened within days. In my dreams, she had uncanny powers. In real life, she had visions and hallucinations. She did eerie and disturbing things in my dreams. We tended not to talk about these things.
That this could be identified by a stranger over the phone as she read signs in the rotation of the universe gave me pause. I never lent any credence to astrologers, for obvious reasons. But she was telling me things I had never talked about to anyone.
You never know.
Other stories in the Neutral Observations Project are here.