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That Time You Completed You--Keeping it real in a culture of alter egos



The other day Fiona was making a video with three girlfriends. I think they were playing some make-believe version of "America’s Got Talent" or another star-searching competition show. One friend was the host, the other was the singer, and the third, a judge. Fiona was the director.

“Okay, now cut to the host,” I heard her say as I eavesdropped.

Then her friend boomed in a British voice, “That was sensational! You’re on to Hollywood!”

“Now cut to the singer’s expression,” Fiona called.

There went my girl, totally absorbed in a world of make-believe, that place locked in time where girls and boys can do and be whatever their heart’s desire. I was a master make-believer. Like Fiona, I called the cues in games my rat pack played. Often I wasn’t even pretending. I was a legitimate leader. I was an accepted director. I was who I was and all the other kids were who they were. No one really cared. We were just having fun.

Then we grew up and, as with all seasons, there came an end to our games. We stopped having fun when we started feeling stupid. Maybe I was “too bossy” or another girl was “full of herself”--character slams we believed as we got older and realized that we could avoid such drama if we downplayed our most abrupt traits. 

It’s been about thirty years since I played make-believe, and yet snug in my forties I see signs of it everywhere--from my own peers. This time, everyone’s pretending to pretend.

The other day I was without a plus-one at a luncheon where I watched a gorgeous, accomplished woman be bullied into saying that she didn’t mean something she’d said. 

“It was my alter ego,” she stammered, as several sets of mascara eyes stared her down. What she said was a harsh, albeit probably accurate, accusation of another acquaintance while at a costume party. “I was in costume. I was pretending,” she laughed. “I didn’t really mean it.”

An awkward silence swept the table, but eventually everyone went back to their salads and by the day’s end it was generally believed that an alter ego had temporarily controlled the accused and spoken for her.

I left feeling pleased that none of these women were my friends and also thinking that they were pretty stupid. An alter ego? C’mon!

Then I got to thinking about every slip of the tongue, foot in mouth, caught red-handed event in my life, and my subsequent escape routes: “I was drinking!” “I was joking!” “I was tired!” "I was in character!” And on and on. And, in most circumstances, it wasn’t a slip. I meant everything, but only from within the safety of a forgivable side of me, a handful of alter egos.

This might sound nuts, but jump on my crazy train for a moment and consider this. Like me, do you sometimes need a vehicle through which to gain confidence? Enter the alter ego, what science describes as a spin-off of our personality, a section we have yet to claim. The question is do these egos go unclaimed because we’re uncomfortable with that side of us or have cultural conditions told us to be uncomfortable?

I am a recovering people pleaser, still stuck in the first step where all I’ve done is admit I have a problem. But what would happen if tomorrow I sat straighter at the table, shared my ideas without explanation, critiqued those suggestions of others that I knew were weak, and said an unequivocal “no” to something I didn’t want to do? Eyebrows might be raised with a “What got in to her?” I changed the conditions. In return, I might laugh it off-- “That was the rosé talking,” or “I wasn’t serious.” This is adult make-believe at its finest, except that adult make-believe is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

If we pretend our desires aren’t real, are we ever complete? 

It seems that somewhere in our past, back when make-believe became unbelievable, we split into a million pieces--those elements that need no explanation and the tiny, powerful fragments that only emerge under alternative parameters. Some people make bank off of this split. Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report" was comedy genius, and a vehicle by which he comfortably steered through the political climate. Another example is Erika Girardi’s Erika Jayne, the sexy, confident, vixen on stage, an alternative Girardi slips into to live her fantasies. Both are forgiven for their edge because we say they are in character. It’s a win-win for them. 

But the rest of us don’t get off so easily.

Are you a boss in the office but a paper tiger at home? Are you confident on Instagram and a wallflower at a party? Are you a fun Vacation Dad or Vacation Mom two weeks a year, but the other fifty weeks a short-tempered grump? What about the provocative It Girl you portray within your social groups and carnival krewes who is the tight-lipped, high-collared lady-in-waiting when the corset comes off? And what about me? I am a writer under a pen name, paid to say it all--but only behind a screen. 

So I ask our collective, conflicted bunch this: What would it take to liberate our alter egos? 

It would take a willingness to hold our own in a society still uncomfortable with politics, sex, and confidence. It would mean looking beyond difference of opinion and finding commonality. Debates might end in handshakes. It would force an environment in which fashion and self-expression are chosen without hesitation. “People might stare” wouldn’t be a threat. And it would require flipping the switch from jealousy to admiration. Hating someone for pulling off what you won’t do yourself would be a thing of the past. Instead, their gumption would inspire you. 

Would such a utopian society even work? Turning the dial completely could have the opposite effect. 

Amy Schumer’s Instagram is considered irrefragable authenticity. She posts herself in postpartum underwear, pumping milk, and showing stomach rolls--owning every element of what women usually hide. She’s considered a breath of fresh air in a world where the Duchess of Cambridge emerges hours after giving birth in a blowout and heels. Schumer’s not alone. The trend is toward genuineness, and I am glad that my daughter will see more real bodies on television and magazines than I ever did. But I ask this: Why are we limiting “keeping it real” to stomach rolls? Why can’t “real” be relative to what makes a person feel the most like their complete self--even if their completeness makes you uncomfortable, whether stomach rolls or provocative clothing or holding to a personal belief? Shouldn’t the confidence it took for that person to go there be applauded or is your alter ego jealous?

So, in the end, perhaps alter egos are a necessary evil to overcome in order to discover ourselves. We all have an Amy Schumer side to us and a little Erika Jayne, just as we do a Colbert’s smartness, a boss side, a soft side, and an entire belief system. But it takes time, introspection, and a whole lot of self-love to reach the consciousness necessary to no longer need an alter ego to put our whole self out there. Maybe alter egos are the rehearsal before our grand opening when age, wisdom, and an enormous degree of no shits given permit us to finally be one whole person? I, for one, am looking forward to my entrance.

In the meantime, I know enough to know that I’m more authentic today than I was yesterday. Even the tiniest step gets me farther from where I started. I might have alter egos at times, but I’m still figuring myself out: what I like about me and what I lack, what I long for and what can I live without. And I suppose as long as my motivation is genuine, one day, this Annie, with all my working parts, will be fully integrated.

After Fiona’s friends left, I was grilling in the backyard and she was turning cartwheels. Eventually, she had me turning cartwheels, too.

“Okay, now we’re going to do them in unison. One, two, three.” And off we turned.

“Now, you count to two after I start and then you go so we can do them in sequence,” she said. 

And off we went turning again.

“And cut,” she said after my last turn. And I stopped.

She was never make-believing she was a director. My girl’s a born leader. If she’s lucky, she won’t pretend she’s not. 

Cartwheeling with Fiona

Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.

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