I had a bit of renown by senior year of college at Tufts University. Having organized with Environmental Consciousness Outreach the three previous years, my co-conspirator and I saw there was a real lack of cohesion and clear message to the environmental efforts on campus and we launched an initiative to merge several organizations under the umbrella of Tufts Sustainability Collective, through which we’d have access to more funds, more lobbying power, and be able to boast about many awesome projects.
My pet project was all things local food, including replanting the Tufts Victory Garden, working with a couple of graduate students to develop and teach a sustainable agriculture course for undergrads, coordinating local food events with the campus dining service, and planting apple trees outside the library in collaboration with the Boston Tree Party.
I was pretty busy with those efforts, as you might imagine, so I didn’t dive too deep into the campaign to start a bike share on campus, another of the Sustainability Collective’s projects. I took up small tasks here and there, attended the meetings every once in a while, and cheered on my friends. When Tufts Bikes got the stamp of approval, we had a launch party. And what better way to celebrate than as a massive puppet?
Equally dear to me as my local food activism during my time in the Boston area was my participation in Honk! Fest, a festival of activist street bands. Each year marching bands from all over the world come to Somerville, Massachusetts to parade into Harvard Square. To break up the bands and add local color to the parade, community groups alternate with the horns. The group I helped found and organize - Endangered Species with Lipstick - is a political satire improvisational dance troupe in the comparsa tradition of Latin America. Every year we chose a theme, made dozens of stock costumes so folks could join us on a whim, and danced our faces off for four miles. It was always a religious experience.
This is how I knew that Boston had a free puppet library. These are not your standard hand puppets, but full-body beings that you wear by strapping on a back pack, which is hidden under the creature’s clothes. Rods go from the hands of the puppet down through the costume to sit in your hands, so you can operate the giant arms above your head, peeking out through gauze somewhere in the whereabouts of the being’s belly.
I was absolutely delighted to surprise my friends by showing up inside of one of these giant puppets. I knew from Honk! just how much festive flare they add. I did not at all expect the mind fuck that was coming to a party of people I knew well, and have them not only not recognize me, but also be really pretty creeped out by my presence. The costume entirely disguised my identity and my friends had no idea who was in there.
At first I felt almost offended when my friends looked at me suspiciously and backed away. I had put in a lot of effort to show up in this costume and they were acting like they didn’t even know me, much less appreciate me. It took a good ten minutes before I realized they really truly had no idea it was me, did not even suspect it might be me. My identity was wholly masked by the costume.
All right then! Freedom rushed through me, flushing the cheeks no one could see. I milked their fears, creeping into conversations uninvited, sharing information only an insider would know, speaking in a witchy nasal voice, clapping my giant hands, wrapping a colossal arm around whoever stood next to me. It was good fun for a while.
But their uneasiness didn’t settle and it started to wear on me, as did being seen as a strange and very likely predatory person. The freedom I felt deflated and loneliness took its place. As I rode the elevator away from the party I was struck by the confusing and profound realizations that came from what I thought was a silly, harmless, and meaningless adventure. I learned that my friends interact with me not on any deep level, but based on how I look, the costume I wear, how I present myself. I had been myself inside that costume, but went entirely unrecognized as me. And I was all too eager to take up who they thought I was, and feed it back to them. This hit a chord of a wound so deep and so buried its muffled resonance just registered as unease and a sadness I couldn’t name. It unsettled me.
Perhaps it was the moment a seed was planted in my being, a question that had no right to go away, “Who am I?”
I learned something profound that day about the power and the risk of the persona. The persona is a facet of the human psyche identified by Carl Jung. The origin of the word is Greek, meaning mask, and named the physical masks that actors wore while performing. Beyond the stage, the persona is what we put on to face the world. We make concessions in our behavior so we appear relatively normal in the social settings in which we find ourselves; we are what people expect us to be. Like in my experience, this shifts shape depending on context. Your work persona differs from the persona you present at a party.
The persona is a necessary thing, offering belonging and also protection, but things go awry when its role is heavy handed or unconscious. We can become overly concerned with playing the role others expect of us and lose touch with an authentic sense of ourselves, like I did at the bike share launch. That was not a conscious choice on my part, but a habitual and automatic process simply amplified by the puppet. The experience brought to light a foundational psychological adaptation, a primary way I survived childhood.
This adaptation cast a spell on my psyche. I’ve written a bit about this before — that we become entranced by some perspective, which colors our world. Most often these perspectives are unconscious, meaning we take them to be non-negotiable absolutes, such that we rarely consider them.
Our psyches do a lot to adapt to our parents and families. They develop a whole set of rules. Parts form to protect other parts, who were hurt by abandonment or smothered overbearingly. A whole system emerges to keep some stability in the psychic world, even amidst trauma. And of course the nervous system also adapts, finding a default groove, whether that is fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. All of that becomes our primary orientation, the way we are organized, how we understand ourselves. It is a powerful spell we are under.
It is also an important spell. We have very limited power as children. Either we adapt to the outside world, especially our parents, or we die. I see the persona as doing this heavy lifting, making whatever concessions and adaptations are necessary so we can fit in to our families.
At the very least, this is the nature of my adaptation to my family, and how I survived my own childhood. I had a lot of parts working for my persona: parts that dissociated me when things were too intense and I’d have needed emotional support were I truly there, parts that kept me from sharing how I truly felt because it was unsafe to, parts that disguised my needs and preferences so I could just go along with what was offered to me.
For example, I used to take great pride in being able to eat everything. I’d roll my eyes at all the faddish restrictive diets. I was the easy one. The easy one. That is certainly the archetype I embodied in my family. My psychologically and emotionally under-resourced parents could not keep up with my dramatic and needy siblings. I learned, quickly and unconsciously, that there was no capacity for me to have needs, preferences, or particularities. I became who my family system needed me to be.
This is actually true for every one of us. It is just most people don’t ever come to know that, and live our whole lives under the spell of our persona, under the spell of whatever strategies were needed to get by in our family. Our whole identity is masked by the puppet of those strategies.
If we’re lucky, we have experiences that wake us up to the incongruence between our insides and our outsides and we come to know ourselves before we learned who we were supposed to be. It can take a lot to break the spell. I let down that big puppet from my shoulders many years ago, but I am still working to remove the mask my psyche built.