There’s a sense in which I’ve always struggled to remember who I am. Not the obvious sense, let me say at once. I know my name, address, age, job title and bank account details. I can list the organizations of which I am a member. I could give you my email address or enter my password on the LinkedIn login page without having to look it up. I know the names and approximate current location of my ex-wife and children. While I may not remember my passport number, I know exactly where the passport itself is at this moment, and could easily check the number if I needed to. I know who the Prime Minister is, even if I’d have difficulty explaining why. I’m not suffering from memory loss, any more than the next guy.
These things I remember give me a sense of identity which remains reassuring even if, in recent years, I have become intermittently conscious that it is a fabrication. It’s a story, the main details of which are true and verifiable, while the fabric which links them, though by no means rigid or permanent, remains largely intact under the pressure of competing, incompatible but ordinarily less significant facts. This story is important to me but it’s gradually become harder and harder for me to ignore or deny the truth that it’s not my only story, maybe not even my most important one.
There’s a type of narrative which comes up again and again in popular culture, about a character who has lost his or her memory in a traumatic event and starts to suspect that the person he or she can’t remember being was actually a real son of a bitch. You recognize the trope. It’s the premise for films (The Bourne Identity, The Long Kiss Goodnight and the Liam Neeson film Unknown); books (Bourne again, Hors de moi, the basis for the film Unknown); and graphic novels (XIII, which also, inevitably, was filmed). I love these stories. I love the plots which tell the story straight just as much as those which introduce a variant — for example, the amnesiac central character doesn’t suspect until the end that his unremembered behaviour had been unconscionable (Memento, Total Recall).
It’s not hard to divine why these stories have such appeal. Which of us wouldn’t love to forget what a callous, vicious jerk we’ve been? But that’s not the whole story, is it? Imagine yourself as the central character in one of these tales. As you discover more about who you used to be you begin to enjoy your brutality, your violations of civilized norms, while plausibly being able to disclaim responsibility for them. Blame belongs not to your conscious self but to its buried (and therefore dead) predecessor. It’s as if your moral reset button has been pressed, making you newly innocent, but the malign effects of your actions have not been erased, they remain as real as they ever were. It’s a beautiful position to be in. And the wonderful thing is that we’re all in it nearly all the time, if we could only get ourselves to acknowledge the fact and embrace its implications.
For those of us who are not sociopaths, it’s only when we’re presented with concrete evidence of our bad behaviour, behaviour which up to that point has somehow eluded our recollection, that we can actually begin to derive enjoyment from our cruelty and indifference to the sensibilities of others. You need to be oblivious to your hurtful actions at the time they’re taking place if you’re going to take a purely innocent pleasure in them later. The sense of innocence is dependent on your not being aware what you’re doing until some time after you’ve done it.
I’ll admit that, when I recognized this pattern to my — to most people’s — behaviour, I couldn’t help wondering if there wasn’t some way to find a shortcut. If somebody is going to be injured in any case and I’m ultimately going to feel guiltless of any wrongdoing, why shouldn’t I act in full awareness, confident that nobody will be any worse off because I’m anticipating my enjoyment instead of unconsciously deferring it? Rather than forget the time my daughter’s school play is scheduled to start, what if quite deliberately I just didn’t go? I wouldn’t be able in good conscience to tell her that I’d made an unfortunate mistake — but would the absence of a lamely sincere excuse make her feel any worse? Nothing would be any different, except the way I felt about myself. The net amount of happiness in the world would have been increased, even if none of the extra portion would have been added to my daughter’s share. Additional wellbeing can never be distributed evenly, that’s how things are. It doesn’t follow that we should never strive to add to the amount of wellbeing in the world, even where we ourselves are the only direct beneficiaries.
Tempting as this prospect was, I regretfully found that I couldn’t bring myself to act on it, certainly not where my daughter was concerned. “I’m not the kind of person who intentionally inflicts hurt on another, particularly not if the other person hasn’t deserved it.” That’s one of the stories I tell myself about myself and I was both pleased and disappointed to discover that I couldn’t free myself from the power of the narrative just by recognizing that it’s only a story. Stories have a real grip on us, a grip which may be loosened but not completely broken by our acceptance that they are not strictly factual. We tell ourselves these stories because it’s important to us to believe two things about ourselves: first, that we’re not bad people and, second, that we are in control of our own actions. If these things are true, it must follow that we don’t hurt other people either out of malevolence or because we have no choice. Yet, people are injured in one sense or other all the time and it can’t always be the result of well intentioned, unconstrained behaviour.
It’s true that some people are sociopaths but, again, not enough to explain all the hurt that we humans cause each other. It follows, I believe, that we habitually conceal from ourselves the import of our everyday actions and that our far-from-perfect memories are complicit in the concealment. And that’s what I mean when I say that I’ve struggled to remember who I am. My self-awareness insists that I’m the punctual, sympathetic and solicitous type of father who would never intentionally miss his daughter’s school play, but I’m equally the organized, competent type who is not at the mercy of last minute work delays and who makes allowances for unpredictably dense traffic. So when I do in fact miss it, it must be an aberration, an inexplicable event, something for which no coherent excuse may be offered. More than that, it’s something I’m not prepared to dwell on, since that might require that I try to reconcile two conflicting stories, the one about my benevolence and the one about my competence. It was nothing; it kind of happened, but not really. Why is she making such a big deal of it?
So that’s one of my stories about myself, now. I’m the guy who won’t disappoint his daughter — either of my children. I’ll turn up for events and birthdays, making sure that the only surprises I have for them are pleasant ones. I learned to be this guy from the one time I wasn’t, when Laura’s triumphant performance of the Spirit of the Forest went unwitnessed by me. That wasn’t going to happen again.
Of course I’m aware of the potential pitfalls of making your children the basis of your self-defining narrative. That’s another common trope in popular culture, and I have to say that it’s one that I find a lot less sympathetic than the amnesiac assassin. It’s the one that says the protection and well-being of our families, and particularly our children, is the justification for all kinds of otherwise atrocious behaviour. It’s Jack Bauer on the way to kill Senator David Palmer with a sniper’s rifle. It’s every story you’ve ever seen about organized crime, where the mobsters’ motive is to provide for their families, send their children to college, give them a better life. It’s Walter White, right up to the moment he admits that he killed all those people and ruined all those lives because he enjoyed it. Of course, he still made sure that his family was looked after. It’s the inside man, coerced into cooperating with the armed robbers while his wife and children are bound and gagged at home. It’s the driver who parks the truck containing the bomb. Our duty to our families compels us — allows us — to do truly terrible things.
It may not be coincidence that both of the tropes I’ve discussed were at the centre of films starring Liam Neeson which came out within a few years of each other. I’ve already mentioned Unknown where he played a killer who had lost his memory and all too briefly believed himself to be a humanitarian doctor. In Taken he played a father who used the abduction of his daughter to justify all sorts of destruction and mayhem, including torture, betrayal and threats to innocent bystanders. Taken is a genuinely distasteful film and I mention it at all only because it was much more commercially successful than the comparatively sympathetic and ingenious Unknown. And to make it clear that I am aware of the limits of my auto-narrative: I will look after my children, protect them and do whatever I can to make their lives better — but not at all costs. I’m not going to plant a bomb in a busy centre or risk the life of an innocent person. How far am I prepared to go? That’s not part of the story so far. I know that there’s a line I’m not prepared to cross and that I’ll recognize it when I see it. That’s enough.
An interesting variant on the second trope is the example of Keyser Sóze, a near-mythological character in the 1995 film, The Usual Suspects. Sóze is reputed to have slaughtered his own family, precisely so that he wouldn’t be vulnerable to threats and coercion. But even after that, he continued his career as a brutal and merciless gangster. What was his motivation now, when he no longer had a family to provide for or to defend? How was it that, by removing his own vulnerability, he hadn’t also removed his raison d’être? Perhaps he was now driven by a rage for revenge, by “look what you made me do?” Is that really a sufficiently sustainable urge to drive a man to build a criminal empire? I find that hard to imagine. Of course, part of the appeal for the audience, is the wish to believe the implausibility — that people will follow through on their desire for revenge, that they won’t be worn down or distracted, that they can maintain a focus on the objective over a prolonged period. We value that in our fictions because we see so little evidence of it in real life.
I don’t believe it, though. I think Keyser Sóze continued to build his terrifying empire even when he hadn’t got a family to make it worthwhile because, even more than Walter White, he enjoyed it. If I had to guess at his personality from the clues presented on screen, I’d say he was a narcissistic sadist who delighted as much in his own ingenuity and resourcefulness as he did in the suffering he inflicted. And that being so, it’s an easy inference that he wiped out his family, not primarily to eliminate a vulnerability but because it gave him pleasure, including a pleasure in his own flair for the unexpected, devastating move. Of course, I haven’t forgotten that we’re talking about a fictional character here, and one not all that clearly drawn. We wouldn’t expect the same consistency of personality and susceptibility to rational analysis from a real live human being.
My point, I think, is that Walter White, Keyser Sóze and the undeflectable father in Taken are presented as characters the audience can identify with, but their real-life counterparts, if they exist, would be exceptionally untypical individuals. To the extent that these characters teach us about ourselves, what we learn from them is misleading.
I’ve probably given you the wrong impression. Contrary to what you may have deduced so far, it’s not my habit to engage in prolonged analysis of the character-types in popular films and fiction. Today is a highly unusual day in many ways. I haven’t been sacked — not yet. That’s not why I’m at leisure to sit in a coffee-shop at 10.42 on a Thursday, asking myself what would Liam Neeson do. What’s actually happened is I’ve been told to take a few hours to “consider my position”. I’ve tried that and what I’ve concluded is that my position itself is actually quite simple; the great imponderable is the identity of the person holding it. Hence my query — what would Liam Neeson do? The answer, of course, is it depends on which role he’s playing, the protagonist of Unknown or that of Taken. I don’t identify with the latter in the slightest, so naturally I’m inclined towards the former.
I’ve always believed the time would come when I’d regret the decision to send Laura and Daniel to fee-paying religious-run schools. It was Karen who pushed for it, obviously. I’d been mildly surprised when she’d insisted on having Laura baptized; a few years later, when Daniel came along, I accepted it as the natural course of things. I’d assumed that Karen had merely been keeping her spiritual options open, but it was now clear that she’d already had school enrollment in mind. Bacon wasn’t telling the whole story when he said that he who hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune. Not only do we give the hostages but we take on extra commitments in the form of school fees, music lessons, expensive instruments for example, all of which make hostage recovery so much harder. The managing partner, Malcolm, hadn’t been slow to remind me of these commitments before he’d sent me off to consider my position, though he must have known that no reminder had been necessary.
So, which Liam am I? Taken Liam would put his children’s wellbeing first, which in my context means that I’d go back to work, sign the blasted certificate and to hell with probity, ethics and my sense of myself as one of the good guys. Unknown Liam would ruefully acknowledge that his past behaviour had been blameworthy, draw a line under it and refuse to compromise his integrity further. But does Unknown Liam have a family to think about? If he does, we’re not told about them. It seems likely that he doesn’t, though until he recovered his memory he believed that the character played by January Jones was his wife. Suppose he had children and that his stubborn rectitude was threatening their safety, or at least his capacity to continue to pay their school fees? Would he act any differently? I like to think he wouldn’t. I’d like to believe that, like me, he’s fed up of plots which present parenthood as a licence to break every civilized rule, to rain down suffering and destruction without limit on anyone who is not lucky enough to be one’s own offspring.
My course is clear, then. I have to tell Malcolm that I’m not willing to put my name to that certificate, to protect the firm by committing fraud. There’s a good chance he won’t take any action against me, not directly. I won’t be protected as a whistle-blower, because I’m not going to blow the whistle. My argument isn’t with the clients. If I were to be sacked, the onus would be on me to claim for unfair dismissal and I’d be slow to do that for the same reason: it would subject the clients to unwanted publicity. So I won’t be making a claim.
On the other hand, Malcolm doesn’t know that and I like to think I’m a good bluffer. There’d be nothing to stop me from taking them right to the door of the tribunal. Malcolm wouldn’t take the risk of a hearing, even if he was eighty percent sure I wasn’t prepared to go through with it. Eighty percent with a margin for error. OK, so I’m not about to be sacked. Probably not. But what kind of environment would I have to work in afterwards? If I know anything about myself, I know I wouldn’t survive very long in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust, resentment and coldly self-righteous hostility. Even if they didn’t sack me, I wouldn’t be keeping my job.
I don’t dislike that job, haven’t for a long time felt that it either stretched me beyond my capabilities or that it had become so routine that it bored me. It has been as close to a perfect fit as I have any right to expect. So why should the prospect of throwing it away induce in me a feeling of mild excitement mingled with relief? I must admit that that bothers me. I’ve been telling myself that if I refuse to sign the certificate I’ll be acting unimpeachably: placing professional duty, honesty and incorruptibility above my own material comfort and (even) my family. But what if that’s not the whole picture? Could it be that my motives are mixed?
If we view them objectively, we learn from Breaking Bad, Taken, The Godfather and its natural offspring that the rationale of protecting and looking after our families is just the disguise for a pleasurable savagery which would otherwise be plainly seen as barbaric. So far, so good. If we value our children more highly than the rest of humanity merely because they have the good fortune to share our genes, we lay the conditions for a society in which nobody is safe. But — again — that isn’t the whole story, is it?
From Keyser Sóze we learn the converse: we may try to make sure that our children cannot be used to force us to act against our will but in that very attempt we may voluntarily do worse things than we could ever be coerced into. We run the risk of revenging ourselves on those very same children for having made us feel that we ever might be vulnerable, and to what extent. So was that it? Was my resolution to stand up to Malcolm motivated not simply by the obvious ethical principle, but also by a desire to punish my kids (and Karen, to be sure)? And, if that’s true, does it make any difference? Everybody’s motives are mixed — if the fact that we were doing them largely for the wrong reasons were enough to turn our good deeds into bad, very little good would ever be done.
I notice that I’ve been referring interchangeably to “children” and “family” and that I just mentioned Karen’s name almost incidentally. Perhaps I haven’t been looking closely enough at Karen’s position in relation to all this. The thing I always tell people about my ex-wife is that I don’t remember asking her out for the first time, though there’s no doubt, in my mind or elsewhere, that this event occurred. I have a very clear recall, on the other hand, of her account of my asking her out, which she repeated to friends and acquaintances several times in my presence over the subsequent five years. It often happens that we remember having remembered something instead of having a direct memory of the thing itself. In the case of my first approach to Karen, what I remember is her having remembered it. At least, that way, our memories don’t contradict each other.
Many people will tell you that your memories are essential to the way you experience your “self”. If Bishop Berkeley was right and to be is to be seen, memories can be regarded as a kind of self-perception which validates and defines the existence of each of us as a distinct individual. The person whose memory is completely lost no longer has a real existence (as far as she herself is concerned) because she herself is no longer there to perceive herself. It’s a seductive idea but (as I hope will be starting to become clear) it’s one that I believe to be dangerously misleading. Our self-perception, even at its best, is not clear-sighted and mediated only by direct memory. On the contrary, what we like think of as memory is highly mediated, through memories of memories, other peoples recounted memories, diaries and journals, and other aids. Our supposed self-perception is at best distorted and perhaps utterly delusional. It is not accurate.
Our sense of who we are is based, not on our own reliable memories but rather on narratives, on stories, tales and sketches. You see the implications of that? It makes no sense whatever to describe something as inaccurate unless there is something else, some ideal state of correspondence to the truth, from which it deviates. The very concept of inaccuracy presupposes at least the possibility of accuracy. Without truth there can be no falsehood. It follows that our “selves” have a real being (even if it’s only as an ideal) entirely independent of what we think about them (or even whether we think about them at all). And in turn it follows that we may be inclined to invest too much importance in memory as both evidence and constitutor of our selfhood. For reasons you can easily guess at, I find that recognition comforting.
So, whatever misgivings I might have, I couldn’t see any justification for allowing myself to bend to Malcolm’s will. Ultimately, if any bending was to be done, the will in question would have to be my own. And there was my answer. As between two conflicting stories about the kind of person I am — good father, bad ex-husband — only my will could decide which narrative, if either, is the authentic one. Finally, my “self” is constituted not by my memory but by my will. All those attempts to remember who I am have simply been wasted effort — what I’ve always needed to do has not been to remember but to decide. I think of it as like training a branch in a new direction, pulling and forcing it into the desired shape and path. And if, one day, I find it impossible to keep my hold on the branch, if I let it go and watch it spring back into something close to its former state, that won’t change who I am. It will mean nothing more than that I’ll have forgotten yet another story I used to tell about myself.