Three tales of identity

Here are three articles that explore the difference between how we represent ourselves and who we really are.

First up, this amazing article by Kiese Laymon on Gawker about growing up black in the south.

This isn’t an essay or simply a woe-is-we narrative about how hard it is to be a black boy in America. This is a lame attempt at remembering the contours of slow death and life in America for one black American teenager under Central Mississippi skies. I wish I could get my Yoda on right now and surmise all this shit into a clean sociopolitical pull-quote that shows supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation, but I don’t want to lie.

I want to say and mean that remembering starts not with predictable punditry, or bullshit blogs, or slick art that really ask nothing of us; I want to say that it starts with all of us willing ourselves to remember, tell and accept those complicated, muffled truths of our lives and deaths and the lives and deaths of folks all around us over and over again.

Then I want to say and mean that I am who my Grandma thinks I am.

I am not.

I’m a walking regret, a truth-teller, a liar, a survivor, a frowning ellipsis, a witness, a dreamer, a teacher, a student, a joker, a writer whose eyes stay red, and I’m a child of this nation.

Next, this Radiolab short (centered around this excellent Tom Junod article in Esquire) looks at a group of blowhard geriatric “terrorists”. RadioLab’s description sums it up well:

Things can get really murky when you try to fix a clear line between empty threats and concrete criminal plans. And that uncertainty is precisely what makes this story feel so unnerving on the one hand, and weirdly ridiculous on the other.

We begin with Tom Junod, a writer for Esquire, who tells us about a headline story that caught his eye back in November, 2011. As Tom explains, four men had been caught on tape trying to buy explosives to blow up federal office buildings in Atlanta, Georgia. But what struck Tom most wasn’t what the men were plotting–it was something unusual about the men themselves: they were senior citizens, all over 60, and they’d been caught after meeting (among other places) at neighborhood chains like Waffle House and Shoney’s.

We’re left wondering how seriously to take these guys–are they really would-be terrorists, or just trash-talking senior citizens? US Attorney Sally Yates weighs in, and Dina Temple-Raston, counterterrorism correspondent for NPR, tries to help us get our bearings, but in the end, we’re left with an unsettling question: does catching men like this really make us feel any safer?

I’ve linked to the Tom Junod article before and I’ll repeat this: even if you don’t read the whole article, scroll through to the pictures and read the captions.

Finally, student Adam Wheeler was caught lying on a Rhodes Scholar application, was later proven to be a pathological liar in all manners, and got kicked out of Harvard. The real scandal is how long it took them to figure it out; it’s a doozy:

As a junior, Wheeler had submitted a (plagiarized) research paper with the unassuming title “The Mapping of an Ideological Demesne: Space, Place, and Text from More to Marvell.” The paper was nominated for Harvard’s prestigious Thomas T. Hoopes prize—and it won. By the time he was a senior, Wheeler was peddling an even rosier view of his years at fairest Harvard. On his Rhodes application, he claimed to have a 4.0 average. He did not. His résumé said he had coauthored four books with a Harvard English professor. The professor he listed did not coauthor books with undergraduates, and college students, even at Harvard, typically do not have four advanced books in their oeuvre by senior year. Wheeler also wrote that he was fluent in Old Persian, Classical Armenian, and “Old English.” Down here on Planet Earth, the only reason you would select such a trifecta is to signal to your readers that you are fucking with them, and are not really fluent in any foreign languages. At Harvard, they loved it.

An investigation into Wheeler’s initial application to Harvard proved, even more gobsmackingly, that the High Lords of America’s most prestigious university couldn’t smell bullshit if they were walking in a pasture half an hour past feeding time and felt a squish under their boots. Wheeler billed himself as a graduate of the Phillips Andover Academy who had scored a perfect 1,600 on his SATs. In reality, he had been an above-average student at Caesar Rodney High School in rural Delaware, where his parents, Richard (a former shop teacher) and his wife, Lee, now own an interior design firm. He scored a 1,160 and a 1,220 in his two stabs at the SATs.

But when Wheeler later applied for a job and said that he attended Harvard – a fact! – Harvard took him to court:

So there was a certain grim fitness to the high Victorian melodrama of Middlesex Assistant District Attorney John C. Verner seeking maximum punishment for the lying schoolboy. It’s one thing to despoil retirement funds, lay waste to the mortgage sector, plunge countries to the brink of bankruptcy, and reduce the life expectancy of a whole people, but the American republic plainly will not stand for the trespass of writing “Harvard” on a job application—even if the young applicant in question needed that job in order to pay off some of the $45,000 and change in fines arising from the previous year’s prosecution.

“Despite everything that has happened to Mr. Wheeler prior to being put on probation, he still continues to do what he has been doing: falsifying résumés, lying, and stealing,” Verner pontificated, the winds of profound moral certitude puffing his every word. “Mr. Wheeler is not going to stop doing what he’s doing”—saying he went to Harvard—“unless he’s sentenced. He has to be punished.”

Superior Court Justice Diane M. Kottmyer obliged. Wheeler was not mentally ill, she allowed, but “simply has a character flaw that makes him dishonest.” Sending him to a mental facility would only feed “his sense of himself as a person who can do these things and get away with them without repercussions.” And so Adam Wheeler was sentenced to one year in prison, for saying, truthfully, that he went to Harvard.

Am I doing it wrong?

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