Have you ever wondered how you got to be you? Why you love Frank Sinatra? Why you hate curry? Where did you get that sense of humor? Why are you bookish? So scared of water? So resentful of authority? How come it’s easy for you to decide on a presidential candidate but not on a restaurant? Why are you a sucker for girls with French accents?
Yeah, I know–you’ve got the answers. Your dad played Sinatra all the time when you were a kid and your mom forced this curried chicken dish on you every Wednesday night for your entire childhood. There’s an explanation for why you’re you.
Would it were so simple.
What’s inherited and what’s not? Nah—better not to try to answer one that right now. These days evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics are riding high, but that could change. I think it will. Too pat. People are mysterious.
It’s not just that we don’t know how much is inherited and how much is a matter of environment. The thing that fascinates me is how, regardless of the answer, we are compelled to adopt some narrative as the “real” one. Each of us operates under an assumed identity. To make sense of who we are and how we got this way, we organize our memories into stories. These are unlikely to be true and even if true may or may not actually explain anything. But they sound reasonable and they give us what we need: A self-portrait, an autobiography—something to make our lives’ uncountable events and influences seem less like a handful of confetti that was tossed in front of an electric fan and floated randomly onto the floor. Remember that the stars are randomly distributed in the sky. The first thing we did was make constellations.
Why do I say that the stories we tell to explain ourselves are unlikely to be true? First, because our premise is probably wrong—it could be that we simply don’t know enough about how identities get made to say with any validity, “That night on the boardwalk in 1963 made me like brunettes . . . ” It could also be that, in the first place, we just don’t have access to all the facts.
When I was seven, my cousins and I were visiting our bachelor uncle, Lou, when he ran out of hamburger buns at dinner. So, much to our delight, he rolled the ground beef into hot-dog shapes and we ate hot-dog-shaped hamburgers on hot-dog buns. I remember that moment, the sheer innovative brilliance of the act–but more so, the permission we were getting from Uncle Lou to do things our parents would not have let us do. I felt like a rebel. I felt subversive. Liberated. I still remember it.
And I may, for all I know, be remembering inaccurately. Certainly I am remembering incompletely. And selectively. Did it really shape me, or is it a memory plucked up and shown off to help explain myself and win you over? More to the point: For every event like this that I remember, there are countless ones—however much they may have shaped me—that I have forgot.
While my mother worked outside the home, I was tended each day for the first four years of my life by a West Indian woman named Clara Facey. I remember not a single thing about Clara except the color of her skin, the lilt of her voice, and an impression that when we were together I was happy. But how can I reliably tell you how I got to be me without remembering more about Clara? And if I did remember more, who says those memories would not still be incomplete, or that the way I chose among them and stitched them together would really explain anything?
Up the street were five French girls whose last name was Bray. Frances, Alice, Jacqueline, Beatrice, and Nellie. Their father worked at the U.N. They babysat for me when I was little, one after another as they reached babysitting age and then grew out of it. I got through Frances, Alice, and Jacqueline before they moved back to France. How much do I remember? Less than I wish. I know I’m a sucker for girls with French accents. Is that where it came from? I’ve always said it is. But I could be wrong.
You weren’t actually expecting an answer to the question of how you got to be you, were you? Better minds than mine have been working on this for awhile. But it does make a storyteller humble to consider these things. We are all, I suppose, unreliable narrators.