On a recent baby-sitting assignment in Brooklyn, I was given a preview of my granddaughter Alex’s Halloween costume. I snapped a picture of her in full Batgirl regalia, striking a model’s pose she apparently picked up from her regular babysitter, an aspiring actress. As it turns out, her friend Scout had already staked a claim to a Supergirl costume for Halloween, which otherwise would have been Alex’s first choice. Alex is not quite four, and up to now superheroes have never crossed the threshold of her imagination. On a rack in Alex’s play area at home are no less than five gauzy princess costumes for everyday wear, along with several ballerina outfits she might put on to go to the playground. Sometimes she will mix and match, announcing that she is a princess ballerina.
Although small children are often accused of blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality, I have not observed this to be true in actual practice. By the time they are capable of role-playing, they have already grasped the concept of “only pretend,” as in, “Shrek is a scary monster, but he’s only pretend.” Their mastery of this distinction enables them to embark on extended flights of fancy, secure in the knowledge that they have never really left the ground. They will also have had an opportunity to safely rehearse the myriad roles that will one day be incorporated into that unwieldy agglomeration we think of as “me.”
There is a story in the New Testament about a deranged man who was so strong and violent he could not be subdued. Unfit for human society, he lived among tombs in the country of the Gerasenes. Jesus came upon him and saw he was possessed by an unclean spirit. “What is your name?” Jesus demanded, addressing the spirit. “My name is Legion, for we are many,” came the reply. Whereupon Jesus cast them all out, and they entered a herd of swine that were feeding along the seaside. The poor swine then raced down the embankment and flung themselves into the sea, where they drowned.
Nowadays there is no entry in the standard psychiatric manual for demon possession. The current term of art is dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, a condition in which one’s identity is fragmented into two or more nearly autonomous selves. These alter egos jockey for control of the individual in question, and they may or may not be aware there are other pretenders to the throne. This malady is difficult to diagnose, since we all possess fragments of identity that may differ markedly from one another; however, we don’t normally dress them up as entirely separate personalities.
These fragments of identity – or ego states, as some psychologists call them – are generally formed in childhood. Today Alex vamps in her Batgirl costume or wears her ballerina outfit to the playground, but she is also absorbing what it is to be a mother from her own mom. One day perhaps she will be horrified to discover she has blossomed into the mother her teenaged self swore never to become. By then, of course, it will be too late. Once we are adults, we have all mastered many roles, depending on what is called forth in a particular situation: parent, child, friend, foe, sinner or saint. And which is the bigger delusion: to think that each shard of identity is the whole person -- or that the thousand and one characters clamoring for the spotlight can possibly be summed up in a single self?