Posts Tagged ‘Transitioning (transgender)’
Getting out of bed this morning and stretching my kinked back [the joys of sofa beds] sent a run of cracks and pops up my spine and into my brain where they dislodged an old joke the boys told in high school:
Why do women yawn in the morning?
They don’t have any balls to scratch!
I grimaced remembering this joke and not because after hearing it for the first time I made sure to yawn in the mornings. Rather, I recoiled from realising how problematic jokes like this are and how representative they are of American culture. This joke is both cissexist and transmisogynistic and it disturbs me how early on our culture indoctrinates children.
The joke promotes trans erasure by assuming all women have vaginas and all men have penises. By validating this limited understanding of gender it disregards the existence and experiences of thousands of trans* people. It is true that some trans* individuals undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS) but this is not the majority of us. Most trans* individuals either cannot afford or do not want SRS (non-op trans*). These identities are often erased (read: invalidated and ignored) by the cis public because they are not binary normative. The “official” trans* life story is recognise who they are by age five, live in fear and isolation until their mid-forties, have a mid-life crisis, and “mutilate” genitals. Cis people like this version because it affirms the binary, makes for delicious gossip, and can be used to invalidate trans* identity (“You aren’t a real woman/man. Just look at everything you had to do to become one.”) The cost of these surgeries, however, is enormous; a trans* person is looking at $17,000 dollars or more depending on whether you are just looking for the plumbing or if you want the electricity to work too. If the price tag alone is not prohibitive, and for most it is, add these facts in: there are only a handful of surgeons qualified and willing to perform these surgeries and almost no insurance provider will cover them.
The trans* individual is left to pay for this surgery on their own. A hard enough task for anyone, but made all the more difficult by the additional road blocks society puts in front of trans* people, with psychological and employment discrimination being the worst. Trans* psychology is considered deviant and trans* people are required to go through years of expensive psychotherapy before they can even be considered a candidate for HRT and SRS. Also, trans* people (particularly trans women and of them most particularly trans women of colour) face legal employment discrimination in all but seven states. Not only is it okay to not hire someone because of their trans* status, but employers can also fire them if they come out as trans* while in the company’s employ. Many educated trans* people have menial jobs or are forced into sex work because no other industry will hire them (again particularly true for trans women of colour). Of the trans women who are not outright fired, the majority of them take a pay cut which drops their salaries to below what the average woman of colour makes, on the grounds the employer is just honouring the person’s gender “choice.” So, how do you save up for the surgery if you do not have enough to pay rent without roommates?
In this regard trans men have it a bit easier than trans women. Note I said a bit this is not a dismissal of the prejudice and difficulties trans men experience, but it is easier for trans men to be read as their gender than trans women. Because of this and because of the more dramatic secondary sex characteristics trans men gain from hormone replacement therapy (HRT) they do not spend as much on transitioning as trans women do and can save money for surgery faster. [It is important to add at this juncture that not all trans* individuals chose to go on HRT. It is a personal decision and some do not feel it is a necessary step in their journey.] Many, if not most, trans* women require a number of additional procedures to be consistently read as female and to increase their safety while in public. These procedures are not cheap. The primary one is electrolysis. Electrolysis averages at $100 an hour and by the time I have completed this treatment I will have logged three hundred (300) hours under the electrified tweezers. In total, it will cost me $30,000 to have the hair burned off my face. Other procedures that a trans woman might need are facial feminisation surgery (FFS), trachea shave, breast implants (for those whose breast growth is not significantly affected by the HRT), and wigs/hair plugs/forehead reduction. It is possible for her to have to spend over $100,000 on procedures all before considering saving for SRS. Further, the more of these procedures she needs the easier it is to out her and for employers to discriminate against her.
When examined from a trans* perspective it is easy to see why any suggestion that all women have vaginas and all men have penises comes across as offensive and invalidating.
On another level, this joke is damning toward trans women. It is an example of transmisogyny. Misogyny is, basic Psych 101, a hatred or extreme prejudice against women; transmisogyny is the intersection of transphobia and misogyny experienced by trans women and is often linked with effemimania [cf. Julia Serano, Whipping Girl] Examples of transmisogyny are constantly in the news and it is the driving force behind the beatings and murders of trans women. CoCo Williams, Paige Clay, and Brandi Williams were all murdered in a three-week period of April 2012. CeCe McDonald is being held for trial after she defend herself against a savage beating that lacerated her face, for which she was denied appropriate and timely medical services by the Hennipen County Police, all because she is a trans woman of colour.
This joke is transmisogynistic because of its use of oppositional sexism, traditional sexism, and the implication that women with male bodied characteristics are not women. Oppositional sexism is defined by Serano as, “the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories.” If one is male there can be no feminine qualities associated with him and if one is female there can be no masculine qualities associated with her. Serano defines traditional sexism as, “the belief that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity.” In other words, men are naturally superior to women by the very nature of being male. The punchline of the joke is rooted in oppositional sexism: men have penises and women do not. [As explained in the section above this is not always the case.] The traditional sexism is inherent in the telling of the joke, men are superior to women in that they have a penises.
The punchline is mired in the oppositional idea that to be male is to possess and to be female is to lack; in other words, men are complete human beings and women are incomplete or inferior human beings. Genitals are often what this type of thinking comes down to. This type of logic is also used to define superior men over and against lesser men. The larger the dangly bit between his legs are the more masculine he is, the smaller the less masculine and less deserving of respect. Now, consider how the smaller male is not considered feminine but as lacking appropriate levels of masculinity, which means to possess a penis of any size is an immediate invalidation of all other feminine characteristics and is an erasure of trans feminine identity. The reverse, however, is not held true. The absence of a penis does not negate masculine qualities in women and trans men. Instead they are said to have a honourary set.” This bestowed on them due to emotional or secondary sex characteristics that are perceived as masculine and they trump the perceived female characteristic of a vagina. The sexism in this is loaded into our use of language. To “have balls” is a positive thing, a sign of courage and strength, whereas to be a “pussy” is a character flaw indicating weakness and over emotionality. Feminists have made combating this attitude, that male characteristics are superior and invalidate inferior female identity, a priority in the feminist movement.
The attitude is so ingrained in our culture that women will often use it against other women. If a woman shows an aptitude in sports, interest in sex, or enjoyment of gaming and comic books she is expressing stereotypically male behaviour and other women will use it as a justification to erase her identity as a “real” woman. This attitude has been taken to the extreme by radical feminists as a means of invalidating trans women’s identities. “Women born women living as women” is used to deny trans women access to appropriate medical care and female only spaces. If you allow a trans woman into a women’s shelter the theoretical presence of a penis is enough to potentially trigger a “real” woman’s fear of men. Despite the fact trans women are more likely to be beaten simply for being women and their cases are often ignored by the police is not enough to overcome the stigma of having male bodied genitalia. Trans women are often denied access to female restrooms and changing rooms because the theoretical presence of a penis means they will rape the first “real” woman they see. And the theoretical presence of a penis is used as an argument for the barring of trans women from events such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and RadFem 2012. By denying trans women access to these conferences they invalidate trans* identity and create an echo chamber in which only their biased thinking is expressed, amplifying itself in the absence of opposing viewpoints.
These attitudes, cissexism, transmisogyny, trans* erasure, and oppositional and traditional sexism, are so accepted in our culture that young men can tell jokes rooted in them and no one thinks a thing wrong with it. Until we begin a process of re-educating our youth to identify these thought patterns and disrupt them we will never see a culture where all women, trans* and cis, are accord equal status with men.
- The Media’s Sleazy Treatment of Trans Women (alternet.org)
- I Believe that Makes THREE Trans Women Murdered this April (tranarchism.wordpress.com)
- Definitions (nodesignations.wordpress.com)
So, it is time for me to discuss a serious issue that I have had on my mind but did not have the guts to bring up. We are all aware being transgendered results in serious safety issues for transgendered persons. There is the very real possibilities of hate crime [which isn’t legally hate crime because it is not illegal to attack a person for their gender expression, we are the only unprotected group left in America], retribution in personal and professional lives, and a host of dangers born out of legal issues and the end-all-be-all, the genetic birth marker. ::spits on the ground:: These are all very real dangers. They are not, however, the ones on my mind tonight. What concerns me is the dangers faced by those who know me: classification by association, shunning for slumming, and flacking for backing.
[Cute names, right? I’m afraid I have to use the cute approach when addressing this subject because I feel overwhelmed when I considered it without a certain degree of levity. I’m not trying to downgrade the issue, I am just trying to cope with the danger my existence as self puts those around me in.]
Classification by Association
If we are honest with ourselves we can all find things about us that are not gender ideal. The regenerating individual is on the extreme end of a very real phenomena for every person. The prevalence of cosmetic plastic surgery, anti-aging muds and creams, diet and exercise fads, and heart-healthy Cheerios all point to a basic insecurity at the root of the American psyche. On our mad dash from the cradle to the grave each of us attempts to align ourself to the gender ideal. Or, as Kate Bornstein puts it, we are all attempting to reach the capstone on the gender pyramid. Advertisements, programing, publications, and a slew of other pop-culture sources inundate us and belittle us into believing we have not yet reached the gender ideal, but with just one more purchase, one more pill, one more diet, one more round of psychoanalysis, we can come just $19.95 closer.
Living in a society that labels our worth on how much we conform or fail to conform to the gender ideal has made us all paranoid about not living up to it. It took a bold step away from that gender ideal for me to see just how deeply entrenched the idea is. Something else I have seen is how desperately people look for those who do not conform as well as they do, because it allows them to feel better about their own status. The idea that there is someone lower on the rung than you means that you are not as bad off as it seems. There is always another rung down, another slot that you have been fortunate enough to exceed. When people spend their time looking for these nonconforming points in others it is only a matter of time before they are found–real or not.
This is hard enough for the transgendered and cis-gendered [trans means cross, cis means on the same side of] when they are alone, but the cis who spends time with trans-folk are taking on an extra risk that may lead others to question whether the friend is cis or just another tranny. When this classification by association happens all the dangers the trans person is exposed to are now the cis person’s dangers too. When I am out with female friends I worry that someone may see them as less of a woman because they are associating with me. When I am out with trans-friends I worry that my inability to successfully pass due to in-progress regeneration will out them and put them back in a danger zone they were “out” of.
Shunning for Slumming
Slumming, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, is a term first brought into the common language in London, 1884 and referred to the members of a higher social class spending time with a lower social class or participating in lower class activities for amusement. It is typically done with a sense of superiority over the class being entered by the participants, a malicious mocking of the lower class. In this case, I am not saying that cis-folk that hangout with trans-folk are slumming. [Though there are members of the cis population, particularly among the wealthy and famous patrons of the arts, who do so.] I am suggesting that cis-friends of trans-individuals can be viewed as “going slumming” by hypersensitive activists and faux-friends of the transgendered. Those who wish to be friends with trans-folk, should be aware that not all attacks are going to come from the bigots who hate transgender-ism; there are plenty of people–cis and trans alike–who are going to take offense to the cis-friend’s acceptance of their transgendered friend. I, myself, know my friends are genuine, but it can be hard to convince others. Just something those who are my friends should be aware of.
Flacking for Backing
The moral majority, the religiously fanatical, and the bigoted asshats are the ones responsible for giving flack to cis-friends of the transgendered. They will, with luck, only try to convince or sway the cis away from the corrupting influence and inherent “evils” of friendship with a transgendered person. However, much like whites who marched alongside of blacks in the civil rights movement, the cis-friend exposes themselves to same physical dangers that their transgender-friend is exposed to. The people who jump your transgender-friend as you walk from the theater to your car are not going to say, “Hey, that person isn’t transgendered, so we should leave her/him alone.” The whites were not exempt from brutal attacks by racists, and neither are the cis.
And let us get one thing straight. This is a civil rights movement! Regardless of what others might think, regardless of what others might wish, the call for equal rights and fair treatment of the transgendered is a civil rights movement. If a person of color is denied the right to housing because of their ancestry, it is a hate crime against their civil rights. If a homosexual is beaten because of his sexual orientation, it is a hate crime against his civil rights. If a lesbian is shot at by a drunk, off-duty police officer, it is a hate crime against her civil rights. So why is denying housing to, beating, and murdering a transgendered individual seen as somehow less important? Why is it less of crime and why does the general population tend to sympathize with the perpetrator of the crime and villainize the victim? “The murdered transsexuals were most likely hookers,” I overheard a teacher say about the transwomen shot this summer. “That cop was just doin [sic] what need [sic] to be dun [sic],” posted a commenter on a washingtonpost.com article about the cop who shot at the transwomen who refused his advances.
This is clearly a civil rights issue and it is clearly dangerous for everyone involved in it whether transgendered, family, or friend.
It is this last bit that leaves me nervous and questioning. What have I exposed my family and friends to? None of them have been attacked or molested, but they have received verbal flack, been questioned, and been rebuked and shunned for their association with me. Yes, I know they are big boys and girls and the choices they make are their own, but it still worries me and knowing that they chose to be my friend will not make me feel any less guilty when someone puts them in the hospital because they were spending time with me at the wrong moment. Sometimes I wonder if those I care about would be better off not caring about me. Perhaps not better off, but certainly safer.
- Caitlin on Police Inaction (caitlinsong.wordpress.com)
- Caitlin on the Ramifications of the SSA’s Inconsistent Policies (caitlinsong.wordpress.com)
- Trans Woman Makes History At New York Fire Department (lezgetreal.com)
- The Hills (of Georgia) are Alive With Transgender Love in Southern Comfort (queerty.com)
- Black Trans Respondents Fared Worse In Discrimination Survey (bilerico.com)
I’m sitting in a room talking to my therapist [Every good transsexual has a therapist.] and I am intimately aware of the fact that I am in a room. Think about it. We go through our day only vaguely aware of our surroundings. Yet for some reason today I am alert to the space around me. The near perfect cube I find myself in, the eight feet between ceiling and floor, the door and the infinite space beyond it, and the four and half feet between the therapist and myself. There is the couch I am on and the chair she is in and the finitely-infinite space between us. It is that space between us and the vast space beyond the office door that intrigues me. Intrigues is the right word because I can’t help but notice and wonder about it. There is a vaguely film noir feel about this space; it is simultaneously tight and crushing and vast and unnavigable. It reminds me of John Fords’ classic “Stagecoach.” The vast expansive plains the occupants of the claustrophobic stage travels through mirror the vastness of the surroundings we cross in our tiny, fragile bodies. I don’t just see, but feel the space between the therapist and myself. Or, more accurately, I see through the space, I experience it as a vast emptiness separating her and me. Despite this appearance of pristine emptiness, the space is actively filled by trillions of vibrating atoms that are affecting the jostling, bouncing, gyrating atoms that make up my therapist’s and my persons. We are intimately connected, we are physically affected by the other. This might seem a minor connection, but it is not. How can we say we are alone if the vibrations of billions of people touch us, if the movement of distant stars set-off even the faintest of vibrations within our cells?
As much as we may joke about playing poker with Hegel in his inconstant universe, Quantum Physics and String Theory seem to be rooted in this idea. Physicists who adhere to quantum mechanics argue that every piece of matter in the universe connects to every other piece of matter in the universe. That there is a measurable bond between my body and the child starving to death in Uganda and the CEO who has just embezzled a hundred thousand dollars into a personal account. Consider for a moment the findings of Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto. Emoto studied the effects of human thought on water crystals. The most significant finding from his experiments concerns the emotional impact we have on our environment. Positive thoughts create beautiful, intricate crystalline structures; water that received a bombarding of negative thoughts resulted in a yellowed, disfigured crystalline structure. How do we account for these findings? How do we account for the fact that quantum physicists have run experiments where the observer’s expectations determine the outcome? As strange as that might seem to us who view science as beyond the influence of the personal, there have been reproducible experiments where the outcome is observer-dependent. Even Einstein, despite his resistance to the idea, admitted that quantum physics supported the theory that the universe is observer-created. As Lee Baumann said in God at the Speed of Light, “Many scientists maintain that the universe exists primarily as waves, coalescing into particles only under the act of observation.” In other words, the very act of being observed changes the way the universe functions. If observation alone can create such a dramatic change in behavior how much more so the intentional act of will upon the universe?
Practical observation supports this. Alcoholics Anonymous has long taught that what a person thinks has a dramatic impact on their life experience. If you think positive thoughts then you will draw positive outcomes and a variety of opportunities toward you, but if you expect the negative you will receive negative experiences. The authors Paulo Coelho and James Redfield voice this philosophy in their books. Coelho argues in The Alchemist and Warrior of the Light that what we think will impact what we receive. If we expect positive things, if we seek the good and virtuous, we will receive an increasing number of positive experiences. In the Celestine Prophecy series Redfield suggests a similar theory, the more we anticipate positive outcomes the more likely we are to receive them and the more we expect negative outcomes the more likely we are to be recipients of the tragic. He argues, the observer’s soul and it’s expectations of negative and positive results creates reality. If we accept this, it must impact our philosophy of self. We cannot ignore the other if we are physically affected by their vibrations, nor can we treat ourselves poorly if in doing so we send negative vibrations out into the world. This thought smacks of the Golden Rule, vibrate unto others as you would have them vibrate unto you.
But this raises serious issues for me. How do we survive in a universe where we are under the influence of others? How much of who we are is self-determination and how much is the byproduct of what those around are observing, or more accurately what they are expecting their observations to reveal? A more experienced transsexual woman mentioned at a meeting of the Metropolitan Area Gender Identity Connection (MAGIC) that how we appear to those around is dictated by their initial perception. If, upon viewing us for the first time, we appear feminine in build and presentation, we are perceived as female but if we seem to have a masculine bearing no matter how often we wear a skirt we will be seen as a guy in drag. Of course, it is not quite as simple as that, as the vibrations I am sending out will influence their perception of me. This seems a proof of the argument that if one goes through life feigning confidence ze will convince the majority of people ze is competent and capable. But this is only half of the equation for me. There is also a matter of how I am affected by those around me. Does their perception of who I am have an effect on my ability to be who I am? If the majority of people around me, such as the adults and students I work with, view me as male do I take on more masculine attributes than I would when I am with family or friends that view me as female? Will my presentation of self suffer subtle shifts due to the other’s beliefs? Are we unwitting and unwilling subjects of how those around us perceive us? [This leaves me feeling like Schrödinger’s cat.]
This question is of importance to those who are not transitioning as well. If you were the “bad girl/boy” in high school and you never move out of your small town, are you forced to continue in the vein because those around you perceive you as such? Is change truly possible if those around you are constantly thinking you back into old habits of being? Can the warrior become a pacifist or is ze forced back into more aggressive patterns by the expectations around them? Can the geek ever be cool? Can the bleach bottle blond ever be smart? Does the persistence of stereotypes become a limiting factor in our ability to achieve?
I think, perhaps, we can overcome what others perceive us to be, but it takes an exhausting amount of energy on our end to counter the vibrations sent out by those around us. We have to be willing to act against the universe’s natural flow. Like salmon swimming upstream, we are resisting the definitions and expectations slamming into us and driving us into the expected norm, into the mundane and impersonal. Change, the ability to move asynchronously to those around us, must be the result of commitment and the ability to force our right to self-determination on to the perceptions of society.
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?
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.