The Myth of One True Self

Portrait, Anais Nin

Portrait, Anais Nin

This post contains a nude image so I have the pleasure of telling you it’s  NSFW.

A few months ago, Ella Dawson wrote a post about sexual harassment. It’s an excellent piece and she makes a lot of good points, but the quote that stayed with me is this:

“It is easy to find me on Facebook, and my Twitter feed is lively and seems unpolished, even though it is heavily curated. It is easy to feel like you know me.”

I thought of that quote earlier this week as I followed a discussion on a Facebook page about masks and writing erotica. I was going to comment on the thread, but my response got longer as it went farther afield so, rather than hijack the thread, I’m writing this.

Masks are a useful metaphor, one we often use to simplify complicated things – like personalities. But there’s a trap in the metaphor. Take Batman for example. Which is Bruce Wayne’s true self? The billionaire or the masked avenger? Every modern franchise touches on that question in some way, but there is no definitive answer, because Bruce Wayne doesn’t have one true self. He has two, and he performs both with equal “trueness” depending on the situation.

The mask metaphor is seductive in its simplicity, but whether you use a mask (like a pseudonym / alternate identity) to explore your life / art more freely, or whether you feel that you find yourself in the wearing of a mask , the metaphor implies that we have one fundamentally true “self” over which less true “masks” can be laid.

It’s a really attractive idea, but it discounts two things:

1. Identities aren’t static, nor are they mutually exclusive. I became a mother when my daughter was born, but that didn’t erase my other identities (writer, wife, lover, friend, etc.), nor did it make those selves any less true. I can write frankly and graphically about sex and still be a engaged, stable parent. I perform all of my selves with equal truth (sometimes simultaneously) depending on which context I’m in. No one truth is truer than the others.

2. Identity is behavioral. It’s something we perform for ourselves and for others. We engage our identities in a lot of different ways, but they all boil down to our behavior in different contexts. As our context changes, so does our behavior. Different facets of our personalties (i.e.: different selves) engage. It’s why a lover can “bring out the best in you”, or so called “nice people” can be jerks to waiters.

We give people access to different facets, or selves, through the actions and reactions we perform. But access to one facet doesn’t equal access all, nor does it mean that the facets we’re privy to are “truer” than those we aren’t. It also doesn’t mean that the hidden facets are any more authentic than those we see.

Part of what makes masks (and the implication one true self) seductive, is that the removing of a mask creates intimacy. While a private revelation is legitimately intimate, it’s important to remember that “unmasking” is a performance too. Despite the seductive intimacy, removing a mask simply means revealing something that was previously hidden. It doesn’t mean that the revealed thing is any “truer” than the things you consciously expose.

Which takes me back to Ella’s quote and the idea of curated truths.

Every time I dissect myself in an essay, I reveal something of who I am. That’s a choice I make because the intimacy it creates is important to me. I want to connect with the reader, and the only way to do that is to open myself up. But this doesn’t mean that the truths I expose in an essay, even the raw, difficult ones, aren’t fully curated. Every single facet I reveal gets exposed to support the narrative I need to communicate.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Malin Daguerretype

This is a picture of me. I was going to use it for Sinful Sunday’s vintage prompt, but I didn’t end up posting it (I just wasn’t ready). That said, the experience of choosing and editing the image was interesting. As a writer, I wrestle with the impulse to control how I’m read, and I had the same impulse with the photo – the impulse to pin down the selves (i.e.: facets, identities, narratives, masks) it reveals.

So, to make my point about unmasking, here are some of the true selves that I considered revealing in the abandoned post.

1. Emotionally Unguarded Me: This is a test shot. I didn’t realize it was being taken, so what you’re seeing is what I often look like when I’m not paying attention – distracted, preoccupied and a little bit sad. This is me at rest. Me at rest is a little intense.

2. Overly Concerned, Serious Me: I’ve never participated in Sinful Sunday (though I want to) and I rarely post photographs of my face online. There’s a good reason for that, but it makes me sound like an asshole. When I was younger, I was dismissed in academic or professional contexts because of the way I look. I learned to downplay my appearance so people would take me seriously. Posting a nude of myself, especially in the context of my work, is uncomfortable because it goes against that grain.

3. Me With Hang-Ups: As I worked with this image, I kept trying to crop out my face or my breasts, but no matter what I did, it always looked wrong. For some reason, the fact that this picture reveals how small my breasts are bothered me more when my face was in the shot. Likewise, the relative vulnerability on my face bothered me less when my breasts weren’t visible. Apparently, one at a time was okay, but face + breasts revealed too much…. Heh, heh. Looks like the joke’s on me.

Which brings me to the self I’m revealing (in addition to the others) in this post….

4. The Me Who Says Fuck It: Because what the hell, why not. I’ve just “unmasked” myself by using the un-cropped nude and revealing my mixed feelings about this image. In doing so, I’ve revealed more than my tits and my face. I’ve given you a glimpse of my inner life. It’s an honest glimpse but, like all the other glimpses cataloged in this blog, it’s a curated one. I selected the details and framed them to illustrate the myth of the one true self and support the post’s narrative.

The unmasking I just performed revealed true things, but it did not reveal everything. There is no single, definitive me to reveal, which means that there is nothing to shield me from misinterpretation. You could take what you’ve read and say that I’m full of shit. Or pretentious as fuck. Or a small breasted basket case. Or an ego driven slut. Or, or, or… Because I can’t hand you my one true self, there will always be a gap between what the world sees, and the whole of who I am.

It’s that gap that we try to fill, through communication and curation. We all try to control our narratives, whether we’re writing a post or chatting with a friend (“I’m great! Prison isn’t so bad after all!”). We curate ourselves to reveal the facets that will help us connect, while downplaying those that may compromise us within a given context.

In the end, we all wear masks – multiple masks – that serve or reveal our various true selves. For some of us, the lines that mark our identities are thick and bold. For others, the lines are blurred. But for all off us, the truth lies deep in the aggregate, not in the threads we pull.

36 comments

  1. Wonderful post, Malin! I wore a mask most of my life, hiding behind the proper, reserved, quiet worker-bee I was told I should be. Then everything changed and I found myself without anyone or anything to hide from. So I became Sessha…me without the mask. Sessha writes, and talks to people, and is utterly fearless, everything the other me is not. I still haven’t conquered my camera phobia, one step at a time. Masks can let us experience, but the can also shield us from experiencing anything of value.

    1. Thank you, Sessha. I love masks and how we use them – we literally make them into whatever we need, so much so that they can reflect as much as they shield. I’m really glad you liked the post.

  2. FFS, I didn’t even manage to make the bloody comment make sense!! :-/

    Should have read “can’t think anything more articulate *than* the eloquence of these words”. xxx

  3. What a thought provoking post. Ironically, last night as I was doing a free writing brain dump, I wrote a lot about the incongruity between who I think I am versus who I want to be versus who I am as NDG. Your mask analogy is absolutely perfect. I’m going to be exploring this more in my journaling. Some thing might even make it to the blog. 🙂 Your photo is gorgeous!

    1. Thank you! It makes me really happy to hear that you’re going to explore all of this more in your journaling! It’s such a deep, murky rabbit hole of a subject.. I hope some of it makes it to your blog and, if it does, I really look forward to reading it! xx

  4. You’ve come to the heart of the matter Malin.

    Thank you for your wise words, as always:
    ‘…”unmasking” is a performance too. Despite the seductive intimacy, removing a mask simply means revealing something that was previously hidden. It doesn’t mean that the revealed thing is any “truer” than the things you consciously expose.’

    I agree, we are many things, in various combinations, and in various roles, and we change as our lives change. In this way, we never stop learning about ourselves (and others).

    Thank you for your intimacy and generosity.

  5. This is absolutely wonderful! Your thoughts on masks and how they are still us (or can be) is something I’ve been trying to articulate in my head for awhile. So thank you for saying the words 🙂 What resonated most with me, though, is the fact that you posted a (stunning, beautiful, deep photo of yourself) and articulated that even still that is not all of you. I shouldn’t paraphrase as you said it best. But it’s one of the things I like best about Sinful Sunday. A new way at to explore myself but a reminder that it’s only a facet.

    All that jumble to say I really loved your thoughts on this!

    1. Thank you, Maria! It was my chickening out on Sinful Sunday a few weeks ago that planted the seed for this, I suspect. I love that meme, and I have so much respect for it. There are people (like you) who post such beautiful, honest images every week and it humbles me, all the more so when I think that each images reveals just a fraction of the person in it. xxx

    1. Thank you, Charlie – that is lovely of you to say. Something I didn’t say in the post is that I actually love the background of that photo best. There are books all over this house – I’m surrounded and it makes me very happy. I’d live in a small library if I could 🙂

  6. Ok, this is one of the most profound things I’ve ever read. Let’s see if I can age any of your other followers. Without Googling, who wrote, and sings the song with the following lyrics?

    “Well we all have a face that we hide away forever, and we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone. Some are satin, some are steel, some are silk, and some are leather. They’re the faces of the stranger but we love to try them on.

    “Well, we all fall in love, but we disregard the danger. Though we share so many secrets, there are some we never tell. Why were you so surprised that you never saw the stranger. Did you ever let your lover see the stranger in yourself?”

    1. My parents were really into this singer – and my 7-year-old self seemingly absorbed song-lyrics like a sponge :), as I am surprising *myself* by knowing this one … Billy Joel?

  7. I was going to write a post about the different masks we wear but you have done a much better job in articulating what I was thinking than I ever could.
    Thank you for showing us the picture of you “unmasked” you are absolutely beautiful.

    1. Thank you, Charlie. I wrestled with this one – there’s a lot to say. I’d actually love to read your thoughts on it if you ever decide to write the post (just throwing that out there 😉 )

  8. It’s obvious to me that this intricate piece allows us to think through the seductive complexity of masks.

    I agree unreservedly that there’s nothing to shield you, or any one of us, from misinterpretation and that we try filling that gap through communication. The space of communication is also often loaded with subtext, often at odds with the smallest (bodily) gestures, which problematize that curation, which often reveal more than we had intended, which bring to the fore another mask or truth.

    In that instance, the one thing that eludes our control is reading and interpretation – people will read, analyse, understand, pigeonhole, reduce, embrace, reject, deride accordingly, as a result of their own masks, truths, insecurities and strengths. Social media bears that out every single day, even more so than real life since it’s repeatedly regarded as a space for uncensored thought – and thoughtlessness.

    When I look upon your intensely beautiful self-portrait, I see and read many qualities, truths, masks. I don’t read sadness in your expression but rather the concentration you speak of and also its opposite: a dreamy distraction where your mind and thoughts are travelling to another space and plane, reinforced by the dappled light in the image and its vintage sepia tones. I see the beauty of your lines and curves, a body so similar to my own (with the same hang-ups about breast size), a woman thinking through the complexity of the display of her body and the way this kind of exhibition can and often does lead others to diminish or judge the capacities of her mind and the gravity of her intellectual and creative endeavours (another instance that mirrors my own), a reading now influenced by your thoughts. I read and see and filter through your experience as well as my own.

    Thank you for this truly inspiring post. Like others before me, it has articulated much of my own thought process of late in regard to my alternate persona and mask.

    (Apologies for my long-winded response…)

    ~M

    1. Thank you, M. And no apologies necessary for a long response – I love long responses. I love hearing what other people think about this sort of thing.

      You teased out a really good point in your comment too, one that I wish I’d had the space to explore more deeply. The issue of misinterpretation and how it problematizes the curation of the self is an issue that could use its own post, especially as you so rightly noted, social media almost seems to breed misinterpretation. We live in a reductionist society and, while that makes certain things quite a lot easier by creating a sort of short hand (us vs. other) it disregards the natural complexity of being human. Thank you for bringing that up, and for the loveliness of your comment. I really appreciate all of it.

  9. As an erotic author (just one of my true selves), I think carefully about everything I reveal. My life circumstances are such that a loss of my anonymity could be catastrophic. So each blog post and tweet (and comment) have to be curated.

    It gets tiresome. I’d love to share my writing self with more people. I’d love to go out in public and shout, “Yes, that’s me, I’m the one who wrote those lovely smutty books.” Unmasking is too dangerous.

    Thanks for a truly thought-provoking post. And I agree- I see all the selves you mention in the nude shot, but I think it’s lovely.

  10. It’s interesting that you are verbalizing what Anais Nin mentions over and over in so many ways–but it’s a realization we must experience for ourselves before we “get it,” and in my opinion you have. And the photo evokes the ethereal beauty of Anais’s body and spirit.

    1. Thank you so much. That’s lovely of you to say and I greatly appreciate it. There is so much in life that you have to experience for yourself to understand – it makes us all pioneers in a way, even when we’re walking a path already cleared by others.

  11. This is the most uncomfortable-for-me essay I’ve read from you. There is a LOT to chew on here. As someone who’s always been very compartmentalized, to the point of developing multiple personas with different names, birthdates and appearances, I’ve been trying to integrate and be one person.

    But you hit it on the head with “Because I can’t hand you my one true self, there will always be a gap between what the world sees, and the whole of who I am.” Truth. And that gap is where some relationships mutate or die.

    1. Thank you, Valerie. I’m not sure if this will help with the uncomfortableness, but this essay was one of the hardest for me to write. I wanted to pin down so much and, in the end, it’s impossible to pin down any of it. Personalities, identities selves..they are all so fluid, even in people who have a very strong, singular sense of themselves. For people like us, who have more compartmentalized or even fractured (as I always experienced it, esp when I was younger) selves, it gets very difficult to form any basis for understanding yourself. Or, at least, that’s how it has been for me. I feel like I’ll never have a full grasp on myself, no matter how far down the rabbit hole I go.

      And you’re absolutely right about the gap between what the world sees and the whole of yourself – that is exactly where some relationships thrive or fail to and die. It feels like it comes down to trusting your partner and yourself, even when everything isn’t or can’t be a clear known.

      1. Such a resonant articulation, but even moreso with your above comment.

        “Personalities, identities selves..they are all so fluid, even in people who have a very strong, singular sense of themselves. For people like us, who have more compartmentalized or even fractured (as I always experienced it, esp when I was younger) selves, it gets very difficult to form any basis for understanding yourself. Or, at least, that’s how it has been for me. I feel like I’ll never have a full grasp on myself, no matter how far down the rabbit hole I go.”

        For me this slipped right beneath the skin. I feel some of those with a strong, singular sense of themselves have more (hidden) facets, more masks…

        The loss of the (final?) mask—that intimacy—really unearths the deep fear of vulnerability. There is nothing left to hide, or hide behind. In the right environment it can be beautiful, powerful, liberating, and in the wrong, well…

        Seems my thoughts will be occupied for awhile. Thank you.

        1. Thanks, Sacha. I think that final point you made, about intimacy and vulnerability, is a very important one. Stripping down the selves that come easily, especially publicly, and getting down to those you protect is a huge act of trust. As you said, if it’s with the right person, it’s one of the most intimate things in the world. With the wrong person though, it can be so dangerous.. Thank you for bringing it up. You’ve given me another angle to mull. I think it’s pretty fundamental to the whole idea of intimacy and fear and the impulse to protect ourselves.

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