A.k.a.: Is Identity Proliferation Outstripping Population Growth?

by Cullenen Murphy

MY wife was absorbed in a crime story in the newspaper one Sunday morning when she paused to read this sentence aloud: “They also discovered that he had been leading a double life.” Her head rose from the newspaper. She said. “How?”

I knew what she meant: not How can someone leading a double life go undiscovered for a long period of time? but rather, How can anyone possibly lead two lives—give comfort to two spouses, pay two sets of bills, raise two sets of children? It is noteworthy that among fictional characters who lead double lives, a strikingly large proportion (think of Clark Kent and Diana Prince) have been endowed with

superpowers—a nod, I now understand, toward realism. Just to make it through a typical day almost everyone I know must resort to the practice known as time-stuffing: eating while dressing, dictating while driving, reading while walking or watching television. During telephone calls the soft clicks of a computer keyboard being struck now seem to be standard background noise. There are occasions when, upon being interrupted politely with the words “Is this a bad time?,” I must suppress a giddy, maniacal laugh, of the kind Herbert Lom descends into when Inspector Clouseau finally drives him over the edge.

In his book The Condition of Postmodernity the geographer David Harvey argues that Western civilization is in the grip of a condition he calls “time-space compression.” This condition, which is becoming more pronounced, is characterized by a speedup in the pace of life so unremitting that “the world sometimes seems to collapse inwards upon us.” My wife and I recently estimated that, far from being capable of leading double lives, we need about 37 percent less content in the lives we already have. A strong argument can be made for even deeper cuts—scaling back one’s affairs to accord with, say, the regime portrayed by John Cheever in one of his journals:

“My weekends went roughly like this. On Saturday mornings,

by (InMen I played touch football until the noon whistle blew, when I drank Martinis for an hour or so with friends. On Saturday afternoons, I played Baroque music on the piano or recorder with an ensemble group. On Saturday nights, my wife and I either entertained or were entertained by friends. Eight o’clock Sunday morning found me at the Communion rail, and the Sunday passed pleasantly, according to the season, in skiing, scrub hockey, swimming, football, or backgammon. This sport was occasionally interrupted by the fact that I drove the old Mack engine for the volunteer fire department and also bred black Labrador retrievers.”

Cheever at the time was in his forties, comfortable but by no means wealthy. He had young children, somewhere. Time-space compression was apparently well shy of its present point of advance. Here was a man with room in his life for another one—which, as we now know, he in fact had.

In reality, of course, people who live double lives almost always turn out to be bounders, and yet there is something horribly compelling about the impulse to which they have succumbed. Stephen Spender, in an essay on the poet Robert Bridges, uses the term “third person people” to describe those (like Bridges, in Spender’s view) whose outward behavior and inner self are exactly congruent—those, as Spender says, who

have no hidden “I” within a public husk of “he” or “she.” For most people, though, the alignment between first and third person is

never quite exact. Governor Mario Cuomo has on more than one occasion contrasted himself with a fictional WASP counterpart he derisively calls “Mark Conrad.” Is it farfetched to suppose that some small part of Cuomo might actually find Conrad’s life appealing? Everyone has at some point wondered idly what it would be like to be someone else. I suspect that most people, too, have given some thought to what name they might adopt if circumstances made it necessary— and have perhaps even fantasized about what such circumstances would be.

In Stephen King’s book The Dark Half the protagonist, a novelist who has long written under a pseudonym, tells an interviewer from People magazine, “Thinking about writing under a pseudonym was like thinking about being invisible. The more I played with the idea, the more I felt that I would be . . . well . . . reinventing myself.” Leading a true double life is an option only for the few, but the acquisition of a pseudonym offers some of the same rewards at a fraction of the cost. And although the fact has yet to be widely remarked even by anthroponymists, the scholars whose job it is to watch developments in the field of personal names,

America has during the past few years entered a golden age of pseudonyms. As recently as two decades ago the number of people who regularly made use of a fabricated name, whether for purposes of concealment, aesthetics, or enhanced personal expression, was relatively limited, consisting largely of criminals, authors, nuns, and thespians (but not including Trevor Howard or Fay Wray, surprisingly). Then came the citizens’-band radio, which in the 1970s prompted millions of ordinary people to invent “handles” for purposes of communication on the highway. The CB radio prepared the way for an even more pervasive technology—the interactive

computer network, many of whose services offer users the opportunity to give themselves pseudonyms. Both technologies have provided the cloak of anonymity, and Americans have shown that under such conditions they hardly need to be cajoled into donning new names—and, frequently, new personas to go with them. By several degrees of magnitude, more secondary identities are now in play than ever before in the nation’s history. They easily number in the millions.

This is uncharted territory, and it remains to be seen what the ramifications will be for the broader social psychology. For one thing, the expansion in the number of pseudonyms is occurring at the same time as a subtle but perhaps significant evolution in the way pseudonyms are employed. Formerly, the relationship between real name and pseudonym was like that between the two sides of a coin: if one was visible, the other was not. Increasingly, though, both identities are being deployed at once, as if to suggest that a person’s very being has undergone a kind of stock split. A book review in The New York Times carries the byline “Adam Smith,” and the biographical blurb reads, “Adam Smith, a pseudonym for George J. W. Goodman, is the author of The Money Game and The Roaring ‘80s.” Formulating the authorship of certain books has become less than straightforward: “By Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine.” “By Michael Crichton writing as Jeffery Hudson.” “By Anne Rice writing as Anne Rampling.”

Is this the future—wielding more than one identity openly and simultaneously? Will parents someday give children a pseudonym at birth (“It was her grandmother’s”) in addition to the other names they customarily bestow? Tricky issues of etiquette are sure to arise. How will dinner invitations specify which persona’s company is actually desired? Should Ruth Rendell be offended if asked to come as Barbara Vine?

Some will look askance at the proliferation of pseudonyms, seeing the potential for existential chaos. They may have a

point. Still, the belief that acts of self-creation are not only possible but in some sense what America is all about is one of the oldest strands running through our history. Historians and critics have for more than a century and a half invoked the idea of the American—pioneer in a vast Edenic frontier—as “the new Adam.” Surely something along these lines animated a recent Libyan immigrant I heard about on the radio—Bishir Zegman, his name sounded like—who upon being granted American citizenship changed his name to Clint Eastwood. It may be appropriate to see the widespread adoption of pseudonyms in much the same way—to see it almost as a form of immigration, one that in numerical terms happens now to dwarf the influx of corporeal immigrants. The motives that drive these new immigrants, these undocumented aliases, are familiar. There is the dream of opportunity, the desire to escape repression. Although pseudonymous entities may not enjoy all the benefits of citizenship, in some states they can legally obtain a driver’s license and take out a marriage license. As has been the case with previous waves of immigrants, some pseudonyms will end up inhabiting ghettoes (mostly in cyberspace) that are not well integrated into mainstream American life, speaking their own language, maintaining strange customs.

No doubt some people will end up being swallowed by their pseudonyms entirely, as people have been in the past, forsaking that spent husk of “he” or “she” for a newly invented “I. Recently there came in the mail a new book. Scram: Relocating Under a New Identity, written by a lawyer named James S. Martin, which offers practical tips on how to slip the tightening bonds of present circumstance in an irreversible and undiscoverable way. This is not, of course, something that I would actually do. But I must confess that now and then when I hear the words “Is this a bad time?” my eyes stray unbidden to Scram. A bad time? No, it’s not a bad time. In fact, it’s now or never.