Identity as revealed in adolescent networks of relationships and involvements — a paper written for Dr. Garza, my Adolescent Psychology professor, in 2002 as I was completing academic requirements for teaching certification in Texas.
I was born in the springtime, an illegitimate child of the war years. I burst upon the scene, kicking-red and screaming-wet, just about a month before the Allies’ great and wonderful invasion of Europe, the invasion that heralded the beginning of the end for the Nazis. Thus, I was a good year or two ahead of the post war baby boom.
Having run away from home while still in her teens, mom stayed with a great-aunt of mine during the last few weeks of her pregnancy with me. This was in Antioch, California. Shortly after I was born, my grandma (bless her heart) came all the way from the Land of Zion on a passenger train to rescue us. All was forgiven.
Mom married six different men during her lifetime, divorcing all but the last. All of them were heavy drinkers, as was mom, more into relationships with booze than into relationships with other people. But before divorcing her fifth husband, a man named Sherman (Sherm), she had two daughters by him in quick succession. Candance (Candy) came first. Two years later Dawn Marie (Dawnie) was born. Sherm, a career Air Force enlisted man, was present for neither birth. He was always assigned elsewhere, away at some distant Air Force base, coming home to cohabit on leave for three or four weeks once each year.
Mom and I, for years off and on, lived in Utah, on Sunset Avenue in South Salt Lake City with her parents, my grandma and grandpa. Mom made many attempts to break away, to take and keep a husband or to live independently so that she could more easily live her party girl lifestyle. But, until I was twelve years old, we invariably came back together to live with grandma and grandpa. Then, in 1956, mom finally broke away for good. She got grandma and grandpa to cosign with Sherm for VA loan. They also gave her enough money to add to her own meager savings for the closing costs and essential items of furniture. Most of what she did not have or have given to her, appliances and such, she charged.
The house she bought was on Blair Street, only about a mile and a half away, an easy walk from grandma and grandpa’s. But it was away. As soon as we moved in I assumed the role of Man of the House and became responsible for the yard work, as well as many household chores, and caring for my little sisters when mom was not at home — when she was working nights as a waitress or on a date. Yes, she dated while still married to Sherm. It bothered me, but I kept my mouth shut about it.
I had always hoped that one of mom’s husbands would adopt me – call me his son. But none of them did. Sherm came the closest, and for years I called him dad, even bore his last name, Hendrickson, until I was twelve and figured out that his name wasn’t really mine after all.
As a teen I was very willful – rebellious one might say. So, when it became clear to me that mom’s last husband, Clarence (everybody called him “Sarg”), was not going to be a father to me, I left the house on Blair Street to come home to my grandparents alone. I was fifteen. Feeling welcome and accepted, there I stayed.
From the time that I was a toddler, or so my mother and grandparents told me, I was big — physically mature — for my age. Accordingly, I preferred the company of older boys and, indeed, challenged myself against the standards they set. None of these boys, by the way, ever called me the name that their parents used when referring to me, leastwise, not to my face. My Uncle Paul, six years my senior and a member of the same household, would have stomped them good had they dared. He was more like a big brother to me than an uncle. He was my protector, my champion, and I loved him like a true brother. But I heard the name used often enough in adult conversations not meant for me to overhear. Bastard! The sound of the word alone, even when heard out of context, branded my soul.
Most of the families in our neighborhood were Mormon, either by cultural extraction, as were we, “Jack Mormons” people used to call us, or full-fledged, practicing, “holier-than-thou”, Latter Day Saints. And all of us were Caucasian, mostly of Scandinavian descent. Hispanics, “Mexicans”, few in ratio to the rest of us in the valley, all lived over on the west side of town. The only African-Americans I saw as a child were the porters who helped us with our luggage when mom and I traveled on the train, and the men who polished shoes in the Broadway Shoe Repair shop uptown. I remember stealing a peek inside this shop every now and again when I was just a little guy and wondering whether their dark skin was a consequence of working with so much shoe polish or some punishment for something bad they had done when they were young like me. The shoe shop was just around the corner from the bus stop where mom and I stood when waiting to return home from a café lunch and an afternoon double feature movie — our weekend ritual when I was small and an only child.
There were rumors of a Japanese family, “Japs”, who were suppose to live somewhere within a half mile or so of us, but I never encountered any of them until I entered high school. By then, the wartime stigma that prevailed with people of this race had passed. Curiously, I was never aware of any stigma associated with the Germans and Italians that lived in our neighborhood.
Nobody was poor, nobody that I personally knew of anyway. And nobody was wealthy either; we all wore jeans or overalls and regular, “low quarter”, leather shoes or cheap rubber soled canvas shoes. We didn’t call them tennis shoes then because nobody played tennis. That was a game for rich kids. No, our canvas shoes were simply referred to as “sneakers”. If one played basketball in school or at the church ward house on “Mutual” nights (always Wednesday after suppertime), a different, better quality shoe was used. And basketball players never wore their game shoes anywhere but on the court.
We had no reason to envy the other guy because we were a very homogeneous lot. Everybody’s dad, in my case “grandpa”, drove an old car, either a Chevy or a Ford, and no one’s parents were doctors or lawyers; all the professional families lived up on the Eastside avenues or on Highland Drive in one of the newer housing developments that overlooked the rest of us in the valley below.
We had no TV when I was young; nobody did, not until I was about seven or eight years old. The Joneses were the first to get one, and I remember how gracious they were to let us kids come inside, two or three at a time, to gawk at this modern marvel for a few minutes each night the first week that they had it. Mrs. Jones gave us each a sugar cookie the first night we came, and I was greatly impressed.
The contraption, their TV, generated a circular, black and white picture that was nine inches in diameter. The picture was a bit fuzzy, and one had to watch it reflected in a mirror that lined the underside of the contraption’s lid. The picture tube was so long that the only practical way to employ it in a home was to stand it on-end in a four-foot tall cabinet. But there was no denying the wonder of it. Wow! Neither was there any appreciation for the impact it would make on society in the years to follow.
There wasn’t much in the way of TV programming at first. So it was another year after that before people on our street started buying them. But after the buying finally started, it seemed like everybody had an antennae on their roof in the span of just a few short weeks. I think this took place during the early 50’s, and grandma and grandpa were one of the last couples on the block to give in and buy one. This occasioned, as I recall, one of the first times that I ever felt like a second-class citizen.
Everyone was expected to at least graduate from high school, then learn a trade or go to work on “The Copper” (Kennecott Copper Corporation) or in the Geneva Steel plant south of us, little more than this. Because of World War II and the GI-Bill that followed, sentiment was growing in some families for young people to go to college. But it had not influenced our family’s plans yet, not really. Before the war in Utah, a high school education was only the standard for boys; many girls dropped out early to help out at home, marry if they were “in the family way”, or take a job to help the family out financially. And so it was for both my mom and her younger sister, Colleen. Although grandma frequently spoke of her dream that her son, Paul, my uncle, would someday go to college, nobody dreamed of this for me and, certainly, no money was ever set-aside for either of us to go beyond a free, public education. So I vacillated between wanting to grow up to be a soldier or a fighter pilot like John Wayne or a cowboy like Roy Rodgers. But by the time I was old enough to realize that soldiering was a hazardous occupation and that real cowboys were mighty scarce and dirt poor, unless of course they rode wild horses and mean bulls in rodeos, I had no idea at all of what I wanted to do with my life.
It is against this social and historical background that I grew up, entered into early interpersonal relationships, adopted traditions, established values, and dreamed of an adventurous future. College, not being considered a necessity, serious goal setting didn’t come until later – much later.
The Process of Becoming
According to Cynthia Lightfoot in her book, “The Culture of Adolescent Risk-Taking,” relationships and “social context” are vital to adolescent identity formulation, and risks are the means by which they seek identity. “Stated in the broadest of terms,” she writes, “teenagers consider their risks to stand as declarations of identity, as badges of peer group membership, and seek risks actively for their capacity to challenge, educate, and restructure the status quo…” (Lightfoot, page 57). With this I agree. But, I also believe that the lack of relationship, what we are not and do not want to be, and the risks that we take as teens outside of a social context, has a lot to do with who we eventually become. I herein hope to illustrate and justify this belief.
I made few friends among my classmates when growing up; most associations were fleeting. So I understand now why others, especially in high school, considered me to be “snobbish”. Three or four classmates do stand out in my memory as being significant. But, outside of the nuclear family, the interpersonal relationships that I sought and nurtured were mostly with neighborhood boys who were three to four years older than myself. This, of course, was before I discovered the opposite sex.
As older adolescents, the guys in my neighborhood accepted me into their crowd out of habit. I was like an apprentice, a younger brother that they had to tolerate. After all, I had been hanging around them for years. But they usually excluded me from risk-taking activities, no doubt, because they were unsure as to whether I could be truly trusted not to snitch. These risk-taking activities included things like steeling hub caps from teachers’ cars, vandalizing abandoned properties, and shoplifting. Being Mormons, the use of alcohol and other drugs was not something they were into. Nor was I – not until later.
The older boys included me in risk-taking activities on only three occasions that I can recall. Once I was enlisted to be a lookout while other boys, under the cover of darkness, would be siphoning gasoline from construction yard equipment. I was, maybe, nine or ten at the time. Anyway, I stayed at my post for what seemed like hours, finally realizing that I had been duped. I went home mad as a wet hornet that night believing that the whole affair, like some modern equivalent of an old fashioned Snipe Hunt, had been staged just to play a trick on me. The next day I confronted my friends and confirmed this to be true. However, not being willing to risk alienation, I accepted the humor in the situation, quickly learning to laugh with the others rather than allow myself to be laughed at.
It was summertime and we were sleeping out behind Jackie Seal’s house one night. Was I eleven? I’m not sure. Anyway, Jackie’s backyard had thick bushes on one side, a garage on other, and a vacant field in the back. Also, his mom was hard of hearing so we could play with our flashlights and make noise all we wanted without concern that our activities would be observed. We all had brought snacks and drinks with us, and somebody had brought along some “girly” magazines to pass around. After a time, however, we got bored. That’s when somebody suggested that we should go over to the Frito Lay distributorship, about a half-mile distant on the other side of State Street, and steal a case of Fritos corn chips from the shipping dock. I felt honored to be included in this, a real adventure this time. But to this day I can hardly look at a bag of Fritos without getting a bellyache.
I fell asleep under the stars hours later that night, pleased with myself. My stomach was churning and my mouth was dry from eating so many Fritos. But I was content because I knew that I was finally a trusted member of the gang.
Another time, I think it was the same summer as the great Fritos adventure, Lee Butler, the older boy next door, invited me to join him in a joy-ride adventure. The object of the adventure was an old brickyard pickup truck left on a regular basis after closing with the keys in the ignition. We started the truck with no trouble and, while I sat “shotgun”, Lee drove it around and around the yard’s many stacks of brick, cement and cinder block. Occasionally Lee scraped the truck’s already badly bent fenders, whether on purpose or not I did not know.
I realized, after a time, that I was only there to serve as an audience for Lee when, after asking him over and over again for my turn at the wheel, he told me to be patient. I never got my turn because right after that a yard guard yelled at us. Bailing out of the truck, it’s motor still going, we ran in two different directions. We got away, but only for a little while.
My mom woke me up the next morning earlier than usual. A policeman was in the front room waiting for me. Lee, it turned out, had been at the brickyard before and had already been identified by the guard. The guard, therefore, had chosen to follow after him, then, with Lee’s home address confirmed, he had given it to the police.
Since nobody was hurt and there were no serious damages done, charges were never filed. But my life of crime, at least for that summer, came to a sudden halt. This was also the end of my group risk-taking. After having proved myself worthy of the group’s trust, the group, represented by Lee’s treachery, proved itself unworthy of reciprocity. So all my subsequent risk-taking as an adolescent was to be done alone or with others who could not disappoint me.
All my teachers, up to the sixth grade, were women. Then came into my life a male role model outside the family unit who deserved my respect. Mr. Wasden was his name. He was tall and athletic, a Swede with an authentic Viking look about him. He was more than just smart too. I recognized in him certain degree of wisdom that was… unsettling. He seemed to be able to see right through me. So, I worshipped him in the way that only a fatherless young man can idolize an adult male. Grandpa was a good man, a decent man. But Mr. Wasden was a scholar.
Whenever Mr. Wasden would catch me or another student with a lame excuse for being unprepared in his class he would quote the following first line from Hamlet, spoken by Polonius as he sends Laertes off to Paris: This above all: to thine own self be true. Mr. Wasden never had to say anything more or quote the rest because, instinctively, we all knew what this meant. And Lightfoot says it beautifully, quoting in part from Trilling’s, Sincerity and Authenticity, “Being true to oneself is not an end but a means of not being false to others…” (Lightfoot, page 161).
It seems to me now that I spent a lot of time and energy trying to find myself in others when I was younger. I affected to assimilate the speech and mannerisms of one of my mother’s better drinking friends, a man named Bill Wilkins. Bill was a product of the mid-west, growing up on an Ohio farm during the depression. So he was nothing at all like the other available adult male role models in my life. He was different, definitely not Mormon, and I too wanted to be different. But I learned just how different Bill really was when he started dropping clues to me that his sexual orientation wasn’t the same as mine. The light bulb went on over my head when I was about sixteen, and I was very disappointed. But Bill was still “in the closet,” as they say, so I kept his secret.
Although I loved my grandpa greatly, there were things about him that bothered me. He was not a practicing Mormon, but his beliefs about other races and cultures definitely had the imprint of Mormon culture. True, I learned a great deal from him about doing things, and about how doing things well can sometimes be its own best reward. But I did not want to be like him. He was very patient and tolerant with me. He encouraged me to develop my artistic talents and my bent for making things. But, he lacked… sophistication… worldliness. So I turned my attention to my uncle.
By the time I had left the house on Blair Street to come home to grandma and grandpa’s for good, Paul, my uncle, had already moved back in. This was soon after he and his first wife, Eleanor, had broken up.
Paul and I became thick again; our brother-to-brother relationship picked right up where it had left off when he and Eleanor had married. I became his welcome shadow, and the shadow wanted to be the object of its projection. He let me drive his car (when he was with me), wear his clothes and, so long as he was with me, play with his other toys too, his gun collection, his record collection, and his growing collection of Playboy magazines. When he was not with me I became him by illicitly playing with (possessing) his toys. And his most wonderful toy was out in grandpa’s garage – a beautifully restored motorcycle, a 1955 Indian. It called to me.
Paul had previously given me rides on his motorcycle, showing me how to start it, how to shift the gears, and explaining how to lean into turns and how to maintain balance at slower speeds. He never let me ride it by myself though; it was still too new a toy to him. Nevertheless, perhaps because of this, it called to me. So, one beautiful spring day I failed to make it all the way on foot to school. I turned around and headed back home, knowing that no one would be there when I returned.
I didn’t plan it; the idea just kind of took root. For a little while that day I would be my uncle. I would ride his precious toy.
The extra key to the garage was hanging right there above and to the right of the telephone. It was there with the rest of the household spare keys, including a spare key to the motorcycle. It was a family thing to do, to hang extra keys there, so that everybody would know where to find a key in the event one’s personal keys were lost. So it was easy, too easy.
Brrroooom, Brroooom, Brroom! Wow, I had it started — just like Paul had showed me to start it. I held in the clutch lever with my left hand while working the throttle twist-grip with my right hand. Then I leaned a bit to the right taking the bike’s weight off the kickstand.
Brrrooom, Brrooom, Brrooom. Was that the sound of the motorcycle or was it the sound of my heart?
I pushed the gear pedal all the way down with my left foot, just like Paul had showed me, then I slowly let out the clutch lever while, ever-so-slowly, increased the RPMs. Forward we rolled, slowly, the bike, Paul and me. We only intended to ride to the end of the street and back again. But when we came to the end of the street, stopping at the intersection like the seasoned rider we were, I ceased to be there. I became Paul. And I giggled, or tried to, the way Paul always giggled when he was tickled by something.
I rode down 2d East all the way to Claybourne Avenue. There I hung a left. Up Claybourne, shifting into second gear, then to third, then back down to first, coming to a stop at 5th East using engine compression. Here I came back to consciousness for a moment, thinking, “Do I really want to do this? Is it worth the risk?” Then Paul answered, “Yes — hell yes!”
By the time I regained control and decided that I had pushed my luck all that I cared to, I was at the very end of Big Cottonwood Canyon road, nearly fifty miles from where I had started. Paul, the Paul I had become, was gone and I was scared. I thought about all the things that might have gone wrong during that most exhilarating of experiences, and I realized how lucky I had been.
“Was I really such a bad person to just take something like this without permission?” I thought, “Nah, Paul would have done the same thing himself.”
Because I knew that Paul was, indeed, capable of doing such a thing, I no longer wanted to be Paul. Now I only wanted to be myself again and to pretend that this had never happened. So I started back, riding very cautiously, keenly aware of the responsibility I had taken on.
After refilling the motorcycle’s gas tank, which cost me about fifteen cents as I recall, I returned Paul’s toy to the garage, incredibly, without incident. I parked the motorcycle just like I had found it and closed the garage door behind me, returning the keys to the hook where I had found them. And that’s where the adventure ended. Paul never learned about my treacherous assumption of his person, my commandeering of his beloved toy, and I never told anyone else about it either until now. But, in my silence and deception on the matter, I think I learned something very important about myself. I really didn’t want to be someone else.
Years after the motorcycle adventure I had another liberating experience. I should have left the identity crisis of adolescence behind by this time, claiming adulthood through the moments of commitment as described by Knowles (Knowles, pages 131 – 134). But I had not. I was stuck in the various fallen modes of fidelity experiencing a psychosocial moratorium such as identified by Erikson (Erikson, page 156). I was sexually mature in a physical sense, to be sure. But I was retarded in my capacity for intimacy and readiness for parenthood or meaningful career commitments owing to my unfulfilled need to be recognized as a person worthy of respect. The fact that I could not legitimately claim a father’s name still haunted me. Then I saw a movie called “The Professionals”. It was a turn-of-the-century western with lots of big name actors. The plot was that a rich American rancher had hired several soldiers of fortune to rescue his wife from a Mexican revolutionary general. The general, he said, had kidnapped her. In the end we learn that the wife had not been kidnapped at all, that her husband had been abusive and that she had run away to be with her childhood sweetheart, the Mexican general. The Professionals, on learning this, forgo their bounty and release the woman back into the custody of her lover. Held at bay by gunpoint while the reunited couple ride off into the desert, the husband calls one of the soldiers, a character played by Lee Marvin, a bastard. In response Marvin answers, “Yes, sir, that is a fact. In my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, are a self-made man.”
I left the theater after seeing this movie understanding something important about who society says to us we are and who we say we are to society. I now knew that being fatherless was an undeniable fact, a fact that I could do nothing about. But I also knew that it was a fact that really didn’t matter. I could be a bastard, yes, but only if I chose to act like one. At that point I was free of my self-imposed disgrace, free at last to experience fidelity, free at last to identify with worthy aspects of others’ identities and shun the aspects I did not want to assume.
In later years, when I was mature enough to sit through Shakespeare’s famous play and listen to the strange-sounding, Elizabethan lines, I heard the rest of Mr. Wasden’s quote: And it doth follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.
I’d been right in my interpretation of Mr. Wasden’s quote. Only then, sitting there in my sixth grade desk, second seat from the last in the second row from the left, I’d had no idea how right I was and no idea why. I’d had no idea of how significant and relevant the meaning was to my becoming.
Mr. Wasden taught me more than I’m sure he knew. But it took me years of more becoming before I could glean the full meaning of Shakespeare’s prose. I understood on the return leg of my motorcycle adventure. But I never really made the connection until recently, and I thank Cynthia Lightfoot for reminding me of this truth, for putting it in context with the concept of knowing oneself and of being oneself. “…and in this regard,” she writes, “Polonius raises being a self to a higher plane. In uttering these immortal words, in fact, Polonius steps above his own small-minded, ineffectual, used up old man of a self, and adjures us to be something more heroic (Lightfoot, pages 160 – 161).”
Uncle Paul is gone now. His paralyzed body finally failed him after lying immobile for seven years, his paralysis the result of a broken neck he had suffered in an auto accident. Since he’d been driving when he’d had no business driving, drunk when his “borrowed” pickup truck rolled off an embankment, the accident had been his fault, but not his fault alone. Minutes before the accident he had said goodnight to his sister, my mother, after spending most of the day drinking with her, highball after highball, at her kitchen table. I know this because a month before mom died herself, she acknowledged this to me — shared her guilt and pain with me.
Sleeping in a camper on the back of the pickup when the accident happened were Paul’s two sons by his second marriage, my nephews, Joey and David. Fortunately, they survived the accident and recovered fully from their injuries.
Yes, had the situation been reversed, I truly believe that Paul would have driven my motorcycle. But that does not justify what I did. I sincerely regret now that I never told him about the day that I became him, the day that I took what was not mine so that I could be someone I was not.
Lightfoot, C. (1997), The Culture of Adolescent Risk-Taking. New York, NY and London: The Guilford Press.
Trilling, L. (1971), Sincerity and Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Knowles, R. (1986), Fidelity. In Human Development and Human Possibility: Erikson in the Light of Heidegger. New York, NY: University Press of America.
Erikson, E. (1978), Identity Youth and Crisis. New York, NY and London: W. W. Norton & Company.