Walt Whitman claimed that he contained multitudes and we all assumed that he was speaking metaphorically -- that he didn’t have some kind of multiple personality disorder -- but maybe the truth was neither. Certainly the counseling work of people like Dick Schwartz, a founder of Internal Family Systems Therapy suggests that Walt had “parts” or “modes” or “roles” he could put to the front of his consciousness to suit the occasion. Same as the rest of us do. Few of us actually have the consistency of personality we pretend to -- all of us are different on formal occasions, or under stress, or a bit high either chemically or situationally.
When I work on my “Bone Chalice” project, which is about designing liturgical experiences that will evoke intense experience of meaning without any dogma or institution (most of us call that spirituality or the Sacred but one expert suggests that "performance art is liturgy for the unchurched"), I’m forced to think about what the “individual” human consciousness really is. I’m trying to integrate the following list of issues and more. What IS a person?
1. The unformed child
2. The forming child
3. The child who is traumatized or abused and copes by forming a separate identity or maybe several. (This can be labeled “dissociation” but it's not all that “dissociation” can be.)
4. The adult who has separate personalities in different situations. (ie: at a party, at the store, playing an instrument, doing housework. I’m big on jokes at the checkout counter, but not at home.)
5. The adult who has split off internally into separate “named” people who are not necessarily aware of each other and often quite different. This is the formal “multi-personality” person: Sybil and Eve and all that. More usual is an internal “no go” area that one doesn’t think about. A cancelled identity. We could say "repressed."
6. The person, adult or not, who while reading or watching a movie “becomes” the character in the story.
7. An actor who takes on a character as a professional occupation.
8. A person hypnotized and told to take on a different personality, maybe an earlier version of themselves. Maybe a chicken.
Because a person is one physical body, we tend to believe that each contains only one personality, but this is plainly not true. But this is a separate issue than the idea that the brain sorts sensory information at separate matrixes of neurons. We should not think that one little spot in the brain contains one identity and another little spot contains another one. Rather, it’s my belief that a brain is like one of those desk-sized light boards or sound boards of switches that manage electronic equipment for stage lighting or for recording music. That is, the differences of personality are different calibrational mixes of resources available to all the personalities. The only obvious limits would be curtailed sensory input (deaf or blind) or limited ability to respond (paralysis or missing limbs). Personality belongs in the academic discipline of Performance Arts because personality IS a performance, not an entity. It is what the entity can perform.
Therapy or acting training are thus so closely allied because both aim to expand the ability to perform identities. Performing identity in a technical way by imitating a walk or a way of dressing is not the same thing as the internal creation of a persona, which is the true origin of performance subtle enough to signal authenticity to the onlooker. This internal creation is best handled through the use of metaphor because it is an economical and natural way to carry “thick” meaning.
Now I’m going to make some flat statements that are really meant to be working hypotheses so they can be measured against established therapeutic counseling and acting training. I’m going to include my ideas about maturation and social pressure.
I. PERSONA FORMATION
I propose that just as the earliest years form the matrix in the brain for sensing and organizing thought categories, the years of the adrenarchy (6 to maybe 10) are normally the period in which identity forms: the sense of who one is, how others can be expected to treat one, and what powers one has to affect others. Abuse or neglect in these years are deeply distorting.
I propose that when the persona forms, there is a “platform persona” which is the “location” of that dashboard of possible responses, their calibration and cross-actions. Maybe: 10% pride, 20% aggression, a trace of testosterone, a shot of adrenaline, and 50% protection” -- the result: a big brother. This is sort of like those joke “recipes” for personality or love or success: (99% perspiration, 1% inspiration.) But there is a certain consistency to the patterns that is what we recognize as the person we know.
The Presentation Persona is the face one wears in public, whether meek or bold, animated or stoic, and so on. It tends to be the aspect of ourselves that will get us what we want, whether polite, aloof, pitiful or seductive.
The Parasitical Persona sounds kind of nasty but needn’t be. It’s a kind of borrowed identity or one that comes from one’s relationship to another person, maybe a parent or a partner. One likes to be what one’s loved one wants to present or needs to depend upon. We all begin as parasitical growths in mothers. The Dionysis myth is about Zeus allowing his son to be a parasitical fetus in the flesh of his leg.
You could invent more kinds of personas. So there are two tasks for the client or actor: one is to understand one’s own “personality board” as used unconsciously and habitually. The other is to expand or reconsider for future growth.
II. PERSONA PROJECTION
Transformation of oneself into a new identity can be an occupational necessity, as for a surgeon or a soldier, as well as the stock in trade of the actor. Social expectations will suppress the hostile minister, the wild child.
The Trickster is a cross-cultural character who embodies the ability to change from one identity to another. Sometimes Tricksters bring a way of escape from an intolerable situation and sometimes they are simply con-men, swindlers. It’s not the end result of transformation but the means of achieving it that is managed by the persona control board.
Personal conversion can be quite a good thing for the party concerned as well as for others, maybe for society in general. But it can be confusing as in the stories like the old man who wants to be taken across a river but must be gripped and borne even as he changes into a leopard, a frog, a flame. Proteus. Sometimes a loved one goes through terrifying changes like that and then we have to hang on to them.
III. PERSONA TRANSCENDENCE
Maybe this is the ground of saints and heroes, when people exceed themselves and all expectations, possibly because of extraordinary circumstances but possibly because of suddenly discovered and activated inner potential. Or simply intense motivation. Often it is released by the arts, but it could be kindled by any acquisition of skills and insights: science, law, human relationship as in originating religion.
These are thoughts just forming, still crude and tentative.