Thursday, July 5, 2012

What's Your (Secret) Identity?

Growing up with Superman, Batman, and the other heroes, I thought I had a clear idea of what a secret identity was.  This was the disguise the heroes wore to hide their powers and function in the world as regular citizens.  Most superheroes wore masks, yet, their "secret" identity was unmasked.  Their masked (yet real) identity had amazing powers.  Their unmasked selves hid their powers.

This seems like a confusing message for a kid.  How do we learn who we are and what we stand for?  If we have special powers, should they stay hidden?  What is identity?  Do we all have double lives?

Masked or unmasked, identity is our definition of ourselves.  To be effective and consistent, we need an idea of ourselves.

We build our identity piece by piece as experiences sharpen our understanding of what we will or will not do.  Our identity develops
  • when we don't fit in
  • when we explore areas beyond our comfort zone
  • when we heed a call to go forward into an unknown future
  • when we find out we could do more than we thought we could
  • when we discover what we will or will not tolerate
  • when we take a stand
and in many other ways.  As we differentiate ourselves from others, we also must learn to merge empathically with others without losing ourselves or barraging others with our strong sense of self.

We define our identities bit by bit, experience by experience.  I suspect, as we enter the last periods of our lives, and our sons and daughters tell us to "rage, rage against the dying of the light," we reverse the process, losing ourselves piece by piece to merge easily back into the cosmos.

How did you discover who you were?  Do you have a secret identity?


  1. Secret Identities are an endlessly diverse source of commentary on the Human Condition. The reasons for and the types of Secret Identities have been explored to a fantastic degree in that most fantastic of literary characters - the Superhero.

    Why have a Secret Identity? For many superheros the answer is simple: it's to stay alive. If civilian identities of people like Spiderman or Dr. Midnight were discovered, given the number of powerful, evil people whom they've pissed off, they'd wake up the next morning with a cruise missile coming through their bedroom window. In the case of the hero from the TV series "The Flash" the hero happens to be a negro who put on a mask and adopted his nom de guerre in order to be heroic while avoiding the censure of society against someone who was, as he put it, "a black man in the 50s running around beating people up!" This is the most basic of Secret Identities and is often found in real life in the underworld in the form of "aliases" where it is also used to avoid death at the hands of criminals and societal censure.

    For others it is to preserve the lives of their loved ones. Green Lantern need not fear the cruise missle through the window as his Power Ring acts automatically to preserve his life. Yet the lives of everyone in his personal life would be forfeit or their liberty would be taken as they would constantly be taken hostage against his intervention in some diabolical scheme or other. This form of secret identity is found in the real world in anti-terrorist operations where people like S.A.S. troopers testify in court under names such as "Trooper #12" whilst wearing a mask: their uniquness of identity and relationship to the case legally certified by their superior officers.

    Besides the motive of deflecting inbound harm there are those who also do not wish to harm others. The Two-Gun Kid is the supreme gunslinger of his world: easily able to dispatch half a dozen antagonists before any of them can even draw their weapons. He fears that, were he easy to find, he would spend his days slaughtering young bucks seeking to make their reputations by taking his life as trophy so he dons his mask and uses another name when in battle for more substantial goals. Much of the drama and character exposition of the radio show character Marshall Matt Dillon revolved around what happens when such a refuge is not available to a person who is supremely lethal in their world. Who amongst us has not, so to speak, put their "light under a bushel" in order to, if not preserve lives, enhance and strengthen them? I myself have assumed the identity of bumbling "Uncle Don" who cannot detect the ostensibly stealthy approach of children and kittens.

  2. Nadreck's Identity Essay, continued:
    Beyond the outer world threat of death there is also the inner threat of insanity. The first superhero, Superman, maintains his identity of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent to maintain a place in society and to stay sane. He too, is hardly ever in any physical danger and is powerful enough to easily protect any or all of his associates. Indeed, knowing that they always have a *really* big Big Brother (in both the surveillance and superior force meanings of the word) his pals seem to revel in dangerous lifestyles. It is an extrapolation from this behaviour which forms part of his worst nightmare. He dreams that his identity is discovered and that tourists to Metropolis are constantly hurtling past his apartment window: camera in hand, ready to take that souvenir picture of their rescue by The Man Of Steel for the folks back home. All of the doorknobs which Clark Kent routinely uses at home or at work, as well as the call button for his floor in his highrise, are ripped out of their settings by collectors. He becomes as isolated from Humanity as he is from the inhabitants of his lost planet of origin - Krypton - and he effectively loses Earth as a home in any but the physical sense. No doubt many of the Superstar inhabitants of Planet Hollywood wish they had his luxury of melting into the background.

    Of course, alter egos are more closely associated with the flight towards, rather than the flight from, insanity. Here the fact of another identity is often a secret even from the other alter egos. Kindly Professor William McElroy is bopped on the head during a student protest and becomes the reincarnation of the evil King Tut: intent on once again bringing civilisation under his rule. Subsequent bops cause him to alternate between these identities. Neither of them know, nor wish to know, what goes on while the other is in charge: the other's lifestyle being either too boring or too risqué to think about. When Rhosyn "Rose" Forres goes to sleep she rises to stalk the city streets as the "Thorn" who seeks revenge for her policeman father's death at the hands of gangsters. Rose has no idea that Thorn even exists.

    The degree of self awareness (or should we say "*selves* awareness) varies from case to case just as it does in real life instances of Multiple Personality Disorder. When High School student Ronnie Raymond and Nobel prize-winning physicist Martin Stein are caught in a nuclear accident their bodies undergo fusion into Firestorm, the Nuclear Man. However, Stein was unconscious at the time and has no control over the amalgamated superhero: appearing as a disembodied head visible only to Ronnie/Firestorm. He provides sort of a "Director's commentary second audio track" to Firestorm's mental processes: which turns out to be quite handy as Ronnie knows nothing about the nuclear physics so important to someone made out of burning plasma. Whenever the two split back into their original bodies Stein has no memory of his time as super ego. Eventually Ronnie has to fill him in as to why Ronnie is always standing there whenever Stein comes out of one of his "spells" in a number of bizarre locations. The arrangement is quite unique and allows for a lot of psychological speculation. What happens when unconscious minds become conscious? Are they then unconscious of their unconsciousness? Can you get in an argument or a snit with other components of your mind?

  3. Nadreck's Identity Essay, part 3
    Also unique, although giving rise to questions more of a sociological nature, is the case of the eponymous Batman antagonist Two-Face. Although there are two distinct identities involved neither one of them is a secret from anyone. District Attorney Harvey Dent is attacked by gangsters: leaving one-half of his body and one-half of his mind scarred and disfigured. The two mental halves are both as present and active as are the two halves of his body. Believing, as a result of the traumatic disaster which shattered the illusions of his former existence, that life is ruled by chaotic chance and that notions of self-determination and choice are cruel lies, the halves decide whose inclinations will be followed by the toss of a coin which is disfigured on one side. If the disfigured side comes up then an evil deed is in order; if the unmarked side comes up a good deed is performed. He is the embodiment of the type, all too common in any bureaucracy, that refuses to take responsibility for any of their actions and transfers all responsibility to some set of rules. Thoreau's classification of those who serve the state comes to mind: "In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well." So too does the epigram "All that is necessary for evil men to triumph is that good men do nothing to oppose them."

    For all of that, Two-Face is to be commended for his even-handedness. More common are those who project all of their evil inclinations onto an exterior identity, usually personified by an evil ventriloquist's dummy, in order to place the blame there while taking credit for any good deeds or even any seeming resistance to the identity which is ostensibly bullying them into sordid acts.

    What is common in all of these cases is the creation of another self in reaction to a traumatic experience. In real life this is generally a complete process, rather like a snake shedding its skin, and the old self is only present as a vision in the rear-view mirror when we spare a wondering glance backwards at the person we used to be. In fiction, it is more convenient to freeze the process midway or to have all of the end points present at the same time in order to highlight the process or the possible results thereof. In the case of the heroes it's a case of having your cake and eating it too. They have lives of high adventure at the same time as having stable, staid lives as well. In the case of the damaged and deranged villains it is a case of being and being eaten too. They have fallen but will not admit, even to themselves, that things have changed.

  4. Nadreck's Identity Essay, part 4
    In real life I (or perhaps "we"!) are fascinated by the idea of fragmented and co-existing identities: multiple-personality disorder; becoming an avatar of an ideal with the donning of a mask or costume in "CosPlay" or religious ritual; or just the social masks that are in play in everyday hum-drum life. Science Fiction author Walter Jon Williams has posited that one path of future human advancement could be entirely psychological. We could gain conscious control over multiple personalities which are brought into play, not in response to the random events of war or crime, but in response to the needs of the moment. If "they" really are out to get you why not be a paranoid for the duration of the chase? If exploring why not have the autistic's gift of perception untainted by prejudicial prioritisation of sensory input? If we take control then our identities would no longer be hidden or shameful secrets but super identities! A heroic goal well worth striving for!

    (1) Unless otherwise noted the origins of these characters are in the world of comic books.

    (2) The original, mass produced secret identity. Soldiers in the French army were given systemically derived names in order to avoid the imprecision of the yet-to-be-rationalised civilian naming systems and also to separate the deeds of the bloody soldier from those of the solid citizen. This latter was also the case in several Native American cultures where warriors released their inhibitions towards murder and mayhem in frenzied rituals and then very conscientiously put them back in other rituals before returning to civilian life.