I finished reading The Vanishing Half By Brit Bennet last night. It’s a thought-provoking novel, the kind that prompts self-reflection. In the novel, twin sisters Stella and Desiree make very different choices about how they present themselves to the world. And while I can’t speak to the idea of “passing” that’s explored in Bennet’s writing, the turmoil that Stella experiences when she keeps her true identity hidden away in favour of moving through the world as a version of herself that’s more palatable to an inherently racist society forced me to think about my own identity in different ways. To question it. To reflect on whether I’m willing to be a Desiree, and to actually show the world who I am, or whether the safety and social acceptance that comes with being a Stella has lulled me into a comfortable complacency.
Further exploring this idea of identity, late last week, I devoured a bonus episode of Dani Shapiro’s podcast, Family Secrets, called “In Conversation with Dr. Rachel Yehuda.” In the episode, the main topic of conversation is epigenetics. Remember the nature vs. nurture debate from intro to psychology? Well, Yehuda doesn’t fall for the “vs.” part, suggesting the idea of nature and nurture instead. Yes, we are our genes, but epigenetics shows, very clearly, that we are also our experiences. In layman’s terms, the CDC’s definition of epigenetics explains that “epigenetics is the study of how your behaviours and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.” This means that the experiences of our ancestors can be present in our bodies. That thought is so beautiful and terrifying and unbelievable and yet totally obvious all at once that it elicits a physical reaction, causing goosebumps and shivers to run up my spine, then back down it again. This also means that we’re not only responsible for healing our own traumas, but those of the generations that came before us; that we’re not a single entity who can ever have complete self-determination, but rather that we’re one link in an incredibly long chain.
Together, this novel and this podcast have my mind churning, wondering about the essence of who I am, who you are, who we all are. If the experiences of our ancestors, as well as their genes, are present in our bodies, are we somehow disrespecting our connections and belonging in the chain by choosing to be someone else, like Stella does? Or is it morally incomprehensible to turn away from our potential or our desires or our dreams – from the whole wild and grand adventure of creating who we want to be – because of something raw, something cellular, something beyond our control? Do we always need to think about the people who came before us following our every move, watching our decisions, hanging over our shoulders like ghosts? I suspect it’s a question worth wrestling with. I suspect that it’s a great big mess of both.