Books for the Unmaking and Remaking of Self
It seems I have always been shadowed by ‘identity questions.’
In high-school I was the quintessential ‘no-body’ until the end of my junior year, when I went on a Christian youth retreat. That weekend, kids I didn’t know talked to me.
Come Monday, they smiled at me in the halls and invited me to parties…
I’m in. Sign me up.
Unfortunately, the religious-network strategy for belonging did not translate to college, where the “fellowship community” advocated a Christian lifestyle that was anti- everything I intended to explore. By senior year I was struggling through a capstone honor’s thesis that, in retrospect, was a formal charting of my segue to a secular religiosity. Erich Fromm’s The Dogma of Christ and Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic were well-thumbed, and bridged me to new, psychologistic identity-structures. Priding myself for knowing I could not simply turn my back on the Catholicism that had been the wallpaper of my childhood, and my ‘salvation’ as an adolescent, I de-, and re-constructed my tether to the world.
Then eagerly took myself off for graduate study at the eclectic New School for Social Research.
There, I dove into reading lists that were steeped in a classical sociological tradition, keeping me comfortably within a modernist paradigm. As I prepared for oral exams, ‘cleverly’ layering Gilligan’s In a Different Voice over the male gaze that informed my stockpile of ‘knowledge,’ I encountered Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition. Unexpectedly, everything ‘solid melted into air’ and, on the verge of earning a doctorate, I felt uncertain and off-balance. How had I managed to side-step the “postmodern debate” raging around me?
Again, my dissertation (which was, for a number of reasons–not the least of which included motherhood–delayed for a decade), documented an identity crisis and re-negotiation of self.
The day-to-day demands of parenting had squarely placed me beyond a willingness to engage pure theory, and added a new dimension to my intellectual inquiries. Needing to tether constructs to the very concrete ‘realities’ of parenthood, I became increasingly suspect of postmodern ‘meaninglessness,’ (ostensibly epitomized by the ‘play of signifiers sliding into signifieds’). “Why, if ‘play’ epitomized meaninglessness in postmodern theories, was it the most meaningful thing my infant daughter could begin to do?” It took me years, however, to fully understand the answer I came up with to that question.
And it was yet another psychoanalyst, DW Winnicott, who illuminated the way out with his seminal Playing and Reality. Helping to position my questioning, this book allowed me to make sense of the multiple narratives—chaos, even– that best described my fractured outlook.
Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the events that unfolded on April 20th, 1999, when Columbine exploded into our living rooms, live, on national television.
Soon pundits and ‘experts’ were telling the world what we girls already knew—it’s hell in the hallways (and sometimes, I could have added, in the treacherous bosom of family).
How well I understood the shame of inadequacy, the pain of rejection,
and the rage that manages the shame, demanding respect in lieu of ‘belonging.’
Identifying with victims, aggressors, and bystanders, I sought refuge and understanding in the literature—and discovered a virtual void. Despite all the froth around ridicule and rejection, shame was barely given lip-service by most high-profile voices.
Knowing full well that humiliation and loss were part of this equation, I penned an essay on shame, grief, and ‘relational aggression’ (an article that eventually became my own book, Bullying: The Social Destruction of Self).
Journal after journal rejected the piece, with one sending along a reader’s suggestion that I look to Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller.
Reading Frank’s book brought a sense of relief, of ‘coming home.’
An early chapter dealt with issues bequeathed by the ‘postmodern condition’ before launching into identity crises and the quest for coherence in self-narratives. As I read, I was reminded of Winnicott, of the legitimacy of chaos. Arthur articulated the void, a mental space beyond resistance to loss, and championed engagement with pain, insisting on its creative capacities.
Most remarkably, he didn’t set out ‘new-agey’ ‘feel-good’ pap that seemed anathema to me (and, I knew, would be rejected out of hand by young people locked into bullying dynamics). Nor did Susan Brison, in her brutally honest Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self.
These books taught me about anti-narratives, and gave me to understand that books, themselves, contain no ideological edifices that will—or can–ultimately offer refuge. They helped de- and re-construct being; articulating un-learning as both pain and process. They are not the glittering array of scintillating texts I would have thought to sum myself with, but rather, the texts that facilitated the ongoing project of self.
Laura Martocci is a sociologist and the Founder and Director of the S.A.R.A. Project (Students Against Relational Aggression). Most recently, she was a faculty member and an Associate Dean at Wagner College. Her recent book Bullying: The Social Destruction of Self is published by Temple University Press.
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by ethermoon.