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The Problem of Self and Regeneration (a Caitlin On . . . post)

24 September, 2011

MtM (Me to Me Transitioning)

The process of regeneration (transitioning) calls a number of basic assumptions about yourself into question: how you move, how you speak, how you interact with others. We see ourselves in a new way and others perceive us in a new way. We alter how we interact with others and they alter their interactions with us. It is a new dance and often times we step on each others toes in the process. This new way of viewing myself, as a woman moving through the world as a woman (as opposed to a woman moving through the world as a man), has sparked the inquisitive and introspective side of me. I have always been one for the deep end of the pool, regardless of how much or little water was in it, but with this new issue I am nervous about plunging in headfirst, as I might go so deep I forget where the surface is. Nevertheless, I take a deep breath and dive into the issue of identity and selfhood.

To begin, a brief explanation of why this is an issue of import to me. Part of being a transgender person is having a repressed sense of self. Every trans* person I have met has had at least a few years in their life where they were denying their true self or hiding it from others. This comes from fear. Fear of how others will react. Will they approve or disapprove, support me or leave me, shower me with (at times an uncomfortable amount of) praise for my bravery or will they just beat the ever-living-hell out of me? Also, fear of how we will react. Am I strong enough to do what is necessary, mentally and emotionally prepared for the consequences, willing to risk everything I have for something I believe I need? We locked our selfhood away and developed characters, perceived selves, that we could don in the appropriate social settings. I was a drinker and a playboy when I was at the poker table, I was a protector with my wife, I was the physically able always ready to haul a stack of wood or fell some trees country boy with my dad and brother. But I was never me. Never wholly and never intentionally. As my Jewish professor told me, if you act a part long enough, you become that part. My sense of self was wrapped up in who I was pretending to be and at the start of the transition I did not know how to be me. I had to learn this and am still learning it, but now I am much closer to me than I have ever been. And this is where my concern about selfhood comes in. I have changed physically, emotionally, and mentally. How do I know that this person who is Caitlin is still the same person who was once A?

Three Theories

There are three major theories to how we know we are who we are. Let’s take a look at them before I raise my issues with them and drain all the water out of our philosophical pool. After all, you can’t drown if there’s no water, right? ::shrugs::

Theory one suggests that we are the same person we were because our current self is recognizable as our previous self. I can look in my mirror and say that person is, on the whole, the same person that was staring back at me yesterday and the day before, and the day before that. When my friend is walking down the street, I can recognize hir because ze still looks like the person ze looked like before, maybe a few pounds more or less, a scar here, a wrinkle there, but overall the same person. It is the very condition of sameness that links us to who we were and who we will become. But is theory one too easy to be true?

Theory two proposes that we are who we are not because we resemble our previous selves but because we have memories of being the previous self. I remember being a little girl-boy in a rural town in northern Minnesota. I remember being an outcast and feeling ostracized. These memories link me to my past and define me as a separate self over and against every other person in the community. This theory sounds more convincing than theory one, but I take greater issue with it than with the previous theory.

Theory three is the most convincing of the theories. This theory states our personalities define who we are. I think, act, and behave a certain way. I have a certain sense of humor and a specific outlook on life. These elements combine to form a distinct personality that is constant through time and links all incarnations of my selfhood together. Perhaps.

Physical Consistency Equals Self Continuity

The idea that we are the same person because we bear a physical resemblance to the person we were yesterday and will be tomorrow is a weak attempt at a theory of selfhood. On the surface it looks good, but if you plan on examining who you are in your depths you better have some back-up theories because this one is like trying to SCUBA dive with a snorkel. You’ll be sucking more water than air. The most glaring problem with this is childhood and puberty. Other than a few qualities such as eye shape and an innie bellybutton there is very little that links who I am now with who I was as a toddler. So, immediately, we have the theory breaking down on a closer inspection.

But let us say, for a moment, that the selfhood of a person does not develop until a relatively stable physical appearance has developed. The Hebrews said that a boy becomes a man at thirteen so set that as our approximate age. The wonderful experience of puberty! ::shudders:: If you were to look at photos of who I was at thirteen and compare them with who I was at nineteen, twenty-five, and thirty-something, you would be able to identify each snapshot as being the same person despite the difference in age. True, one picture may look dorkier than another and I may have long hair in one and short in another, but the general features are, subtle differences aside, the same. A is recognizable as A consistently. But if you were to compare a photograph of me now with a photograph of thirteen year-old A, you would be hard-pressed to recognize the one as being the same as the other. The characteristics altered in the transition process have become disassociated with the characteristics of my former self. And this is more than a matter of having breasts. Physical changes in the face, hips, waist, and tuchus has resulted in an over hauling of this lassie’s chassis. Thus, by the standards set by this theory, Caitlin and A are not the same person.

And this is not unique to those of us who have regenerated. A myriad of things can happen to a person and result in the same disconnect. Survivors of traumatic accidents that result in severe burns or amputation. A person who undergoes corrective or enhancing plastic surgery. Sometimes just plain old aging is enough to make us unrecognizable. Even before transitioning I caught glimpses of myself and couldn’t figure out who the old person was in the mirror, I’m still nineteen! No, I’m afraid that as a functional theory of selfhood physical resemblance just isn’t enough.

I Remember Mama, Therefore I Am

The idea that we are the same because we have memories of being the previous incarnations sounds like a firm theory. We don’t run into the problem of growth spurts and the majority of accidents are incapable of altering our indelible sense of self. I remember what it was like to sit and have a cup of coffee on the patio with my mum in 1998, therefore I am the person who sat and had a cup of coffee on the patio with my mum in 1998. My life, if viewed from a four-dimensional perspective would look like one of those time-lapse photos, a blur of memories connecting A in 1998 to Caitlin in 2011. But there are so many things that can interrupt that flow of memories that this is a dangerous way to define our selfhood.

When I was in college I was sitting in the dorm room of my then girlfriend, J. J and I were talking about the psychology course we were taking and how one out of every three people experienced some form of abuse as a child. One case study in particular, a boy who was sexually abused by an older boy, sparked something inside me and I was suddenly flooded with the awareness of being in the babysitter’s basement and being confronted with the demand to give oral sex to the babysitter’s oldest boy. A repressed memory had risen to the surface of my mind. An event I had no previous recollection of had now become a pivot point in my memory. If I am my memories then the person before the spontaneous recall and the person after the spontaneous recall are not the same person.

Now, let’s take it the other direction. My grandmother is showing signs of Alzheimer’s. She is forgetting more and more things. She has trouble remembering events that have occurred and muddles the past in with the present. According to this theory of selfhood, my grandmother is becoming a different person, because the memories that link her to her previous selves are being stolen by the disease. This is also the case for people who experience traumatic brain injury, drink to the point of blacking out, and suffer from amnesia. If this theory holds, the moment they lose their memories they become another person, which would make helping them recover their memories a unique type of murder as we would be eliminating one person in favor of another. No, this theory is too volatile and too many things can end that chain of memories to make it safe to hang our understanding of self on.

I Am What I Am and That’s All That I Am

I think of this third theory as the Popeye theory of selfhood, the idea that we are the same person we were because we demonstrate a consistent character throughout the course of our lives. My sense of humor, my indignation at injustice, my compassion, and my skill with words define me. These things are important parts of my personality and they are fundamental cores that have not changed with regeneration. If personality is taken solely as these elements then yes the person who was A is the same as the person who is Caitlin. My personality, however, is more than just those things. Personality consists of traits and characteristics across a wide spectrum and can include style, preferences, outlook, and demeanor. If we look at who A was and who Caitlin is we can find as many differences in their personalities as similarities. A liked spicy food, Caitlin not so much and A couldn’t stand strawberries, but Caitlin loves them. A was the type of person to get violently angry when pushed by a situation. Caitlin withdraws in the same situation. A was animated and enjoyed tossing himself into any given debate, but Caitlin is more the type of person to listen and absorb while others carry the conversation. A was disorganized, not very good at self-care, and difficult to motivate. Caitlin is more put together and initiates the things she needs to do to preserve; she makes things happen while A waited for them to happen to him. By the standard of the Popeye theory, A and Caitlin are nowhere close to being the same person.

This holds for people who aren’t regenerating also. Consider the Type A business person who has a heart attack leaves hir high-profile, high pressure job and takes up Zen meditation. Or the religious fundamentalist who watches hir friend slowly waste away from cancer and loses hir faith in god. People are inconstant and constantly changing who they are and how they deal with the world based on their present circumstances and even who they are with. This theory cannot work because it ignores a fundamental characteristic of the human self.

So, Where Are We? Who Are We?

With all three theories failing to hold up to honest examination I find myself stuck in a selfhood purgatory. All rational thought argues that who I am now and who I was then are two completely different people, that Caitlin and A are not and could never be the same self. Yet, there is something inside me that recognizes who A was as who Caitlin was and who Caitlin is as who A is. I feel like the same person. But is a gut feeling enough? I wish had the answer. All I can say with certainty is none of the current thoughts on the consistency of self survive exposure to the human factor. Each looks nice on the surface, but each is incapable of sustaining us for deeper reflections. The pool of identity is deep and clouded by a plethora of psychological detritus; if we’re going to go diving in, we better bring more sophisticated equipment than philosophy offers thus far.

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One comment

  1. I am interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this issue. Please, feel free to post a comment.



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