In Citizen Kane, the 1947 film based on newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, written, directed by and starring Orson Welles, there’s a scene where a young Charles Foster Kane, fledgling newspaper publisher, is having a conversation with his former guardian, Mr. Thatcher, the hard-nosed business man who’s essentially raised him. Thatcher accuses Kane of profligate spending and of not running the newspaper in question, The Enquirer, in a profitable manner. Kane responds, “What you don’t realize is you’re talking to two people.” He goes on to inform Thatcher about the “two people” that make up Charles Foster Kane, and how each will do as he pleases: both the free-wheeling rags-to-riches kid expelled from many posh schools, and the sober, strait-laced owner of The Enquirer, who knows his worth down to the exact dollar.
I think of this quote often, especially in connection with my fictional worlds, most recently that of Poser and Cracker, the first two novels in my neo-noir series, Eucalyptus Lane (Outcast Press). There’s a “doubling” that continues to emerge among my characters, or “people,” as one of my creative writing professors used to say. Some of the masks worn by the people in the first novel, Poser, are also worn in the second, Cracker, where it’s revealed that the main character, Ambrose, was born under the astrological sign of Gemini, the twins, reinforcing the double life that he leads. One side of himself lives in Palo Alto, California where he aspires toward a conventional life as a family man in a lush suburban setting, and the other in San Francisco, where he’s determined to succeed by any means necessary, even if that means placing himself at risk, and committing multiple crimes to achieve his goals.
This kind of doubling plays out across all forms of story-telling. For example, in one of my favorite short stories, “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”, Joyce Carol Oates writes “everything about Connie had two sides to it.” Connie is a moody teen at home, and a beautiful, flirtatious young woman who draws the wrong guy’s—or possibly the devil’s--attention in town. In my favorite play, A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche’s portrayal of a proper Southern belle from Mississippi runs up against her actual sordid past, the one she fled to New Orleans to escape. Literary doubling occurs multiple times in The Importance of Being Earnest, one example being how Jack Worthing lives a serious life in the country and plays the libertine Ernest when he goes to London. In one of my TV favorite shows, Breaking Bad, Walter White weaves a perilous path between one identity as a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher and another as a bad-ass meth kingpin. The list goes on and on, fictional identities splitting like paramecia.
In my own life, I often have a difficult time navigating between my quirky, eccentric writing self and that of my day-to-day teaching job. I don’t always think of in-person teaching as giving a performance, but when I walk out of the classroom, like walking off a stage, I realize how much of teaching is performative. Sometimes I look at my resume, a winding, somewhat unconventional road map that, while accurate, falls short of representing the actual territory of my career to this point: the twists and turns, ups and downs, the things that take up little space on the page but that really made all the difference going forward. Recently, I’ve begun to see pathways to the merging of my two selves, which might lead to a more integrated “authentic” existence, or, perhaps to further multiplicity in unforeseen ways.
Since the people in my books contain facets of myself and others I know or wish to know, I sense this potential melding occurring in their lives, along with the same concerns, such as, was this the real me all along? Where do I go from here? For some, the convergence of disparate selves and identities may lead to greater happiness and understanding, and for others, to further separation and confusion, where double lives may not be enough, creating a need for ever more masks.
I suppose for most of us, the side we show to the world versus the side we see as our true selves doesn’t mean we aren’t sincere, or authentic, or “real.” It’s just another aspect of what we have to do to get through each day. As American humorist Garrison Keillor has said, “No matter who we are, we all have a backstage view of ourselves.” The messy backstage of our own humanity reminds us that the abstract aspect of “finding oneself” is no easy task, and that if we can’t find our one true self, we’ll just have to accept that it often takes “two people” to get through life, and sometimes, maybe even more.