Adventures in the Nation of Myselfistan

8358125090_7a064bf33c_oA couple of years ago I was doing research for a non-fiction book proposal and I looked into the question of how a person could start her own country. It turns out that launching your own sovereign nation is a surprisingly simple affair. There is no single international body in charge of recognizing nations and there is, strictly speaking, no legal definition of what constitutes a country. So there is nothing stopping you from defining your back yard as the Nation of Myselfstan, population one, naming yourself emperor, drawing up a constitution, printing passports and designing your flag.

The more challenging part of this is convincing the United States that your backyard is not part of its territory. Unless you’re prepared to build a rather impressive army, there is not much chance you will come out on top in that conflict. In his book How to Start Your Own Country, Erwin S. Strauss, suggests that if you want to form a country within another you pay taxes to the host nation and define it for your purposes as a “defense budget” rather than “tax.”

In other words, you need two things to be a nation. 1. You have to declare yourself one. 2. The outside world has to accept your declaration.

Personal identity, it turns out, works pretty much the same way. You express who you believe yourself to be, but you also need the people you encounter to accept it.

Psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson put it this way, “The conscious feeling of having a personal identity is based on two simultaneous observations: the immediate perception of one’s selfsameness and continuity in time; and the simultaneous perception of the fact that others recognize one’s sameness and continuity.”

If no one else acknowledges your existence, you might as well not exist at all. As the hermit Christopher Thomas Knight told a reporter, “Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there.”

We will not accept a person’s self-reporting of his identity if it claims a past that is not historically accurate. If you say that you were born in France and grew up in Paris and earned a degree at the Sorbonne and you were born in Detroit and grew up in Cleveland and dropped out of high school you are either and imposter or delusional.

So one rule of identity is that it must conform to one’s historical biography.  When a person cannot not remember her past, say if she has Alzheimer’s, her social network steps in to provide the continuity of identity that she can no longer provide.

Children are given more freedom to play pretend and to try on different identities. As adults, we expect our identities, and those of our peers, to be more fixed. We rely on other adults to remain fairly consistent. Imagine that every time you went to work your boss and your co-workers wanted to be called by different names, said they had different resumes, and now had an entirely new set of goals for the organization based on the new people they were. Society couldn’t function.

So we can only grow and change certain aspects of our identity, slowly, up to a point, and within limits. The older you get, the more people you have in your life who are invested in you being who you have always been.

This can all feel a bit constraining and so we allow ourselves small holidays from identity. We dress up in costume on Halloween. We go on vacation where we are not known. Some of us play role-playing games.

Cross-eyed Nerd ManIn the novel Identity Theft, the character of Ethan goes a step farther. Ethan works for a pop star who uses the stage name Blast. When he is given the passwords to update his boss’s social media accounts, it gives him the freedom of childhood, the chance to play pretend. When he starts to correspond with the rock star’s fan, Candi, she responds to him as a rock star thus confirming the identity and making it real. Ethan starts to value this second identity more than the one that corresponds to his actual history.

Back in the late 1950s a man named Milton Rokeach conducted a controversial experiment in which he brought together three patients who shared the same delusion, they all thought they were Jesus Christ. He wrote about it in a book called The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. He wanted to see how they would react to what he called “the ultimate contradiction conceivable for human beings.” For in addition to the previous rules that I mentioned (others must confirm your identity, and you cannot change your history) there is one even more basic, so basic that even the three delusional men accepted it, only one person can have a particular identity.

“It is clear that these three psychotic men, like all men, were stimulated by their environment and responded to it,” Rokeach wrote.  “Like all men, they immediately perceived their personal and social situation, were affected by it, tried to understand it, thought about it, and formulated hypotheses designed to explain it. The three Christs were, if not rational men, at least men of a type we had all encountered before; they were rationalizing men.”

Ethan is a rationalizing man.

He goes to great (and ultimately futile) lengths to rationalize his use of Blast’s identity and to deny that such a game could cause any real-world harm. He even wonders (much like the maddening creators of the Jon Ronson “informoph”) why he should not have as much right to the theatrical Blast persona as the man who had created it.

How does it end?

Read Identity Theft and find out!

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