I might have been eleven or twelve when I picked up a book about the children who had discovered Paleolithic paintings on the wall of the Altamira cave in Cantabria, Spain. About the same time, I’d read a book about fox-hunting from the point of view of the fox, and, in an equally unlikely impulse, picked up a book about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, uncovered by Bedouin shepherds in the West Bank of the Jordan River.
I remember absolutely none of the fine points of any of the three books and have no idea why they came to me as they did, but what remains, and with considerable impact even now, are the descriptions of being trapped in falling rubble, held down by crumbling walls of earth, in the case of the fox, hunted so expertly that the only refuge was in burrowing into soft earth. In each instance, much attention was paid to the experience of suffocation, with particular attention to the sensation of dirt forced into one’s mouth.
There is a particular variety of panic that arrives with the realization of inevitable, inescapable, terminal entrapment. I have feared and continue to fear many things, but the merest suggestion if entrapment sends me to ugly, labored panting. I stay out of caves and have declined the invitation to play fox and hounds, but these jolly memories inevitably came back to me as I watched the excellent adaptation of John le Carre’s Night Manager and currently in watching Amazon’s original series, Sneaky Pete. In both cases, the central character has to assume an identity, become an imposter, in order to avoid, well, nasty consequences. I suppose most successful portrayals of espionage involve imposture at some level; it certainly makes watching The Americans an excruciating experience.
And yet, I can’t turn away.
So, there’s something about watching the imposter balance on the edge of discovery that remains compelling viewing, even though I have to walk out of the room from time to time, or zip through on fast forward to escape the intensity of eventual unmasking.None of which is intended as a suggestion of programs; there are a number of sites that provide much more current information, most notably David Bianculli’s excellent TV Worth Watching, and over the years I’ve learned that my enthusiasms are not always welcomed. It does occur to me, however, that it is worth thinking for a bit about what it is about the imposter’s dilemma that captivates us (me).
The central character in Sneaky Pete assumes the identity of a long-lost grandson in order to escape the consequences of a number of unfortunate decisions. He’s an accomplished confidence man with a gift for reading people quickly, quickly enough that he grasps tendrils of conversations, glimpses of old photos, and is able to construct just enough credibility to keep himself from discovery, so far. Unfortunately, his grandmother, the matriarch of the family, seems to have an equally fine-tuned ability to sniff out deception, and his nemesis, a slick underworld lord played by Bryan Cranston, is also sharp enough to read a con before it is played. Is Pete sneaky enough to whiffle his way through all of this? Is the family all that it appears to be? Then again, are any of us?
No need to go into that plot any further as the premise alone brings up more than enough to consider. For a start, every family (in the case of The Night Manager, it’s a crime family) has its own codes, its own passwords, and its own secrets. The thing about secrets is that they have power even when unacknowledged. To put it another way, when a secret is revealed, it’s rarely entirely a surprise; at some level, it has been part of the fabric of the family all along. To further complicate the conversation, what’s the difference between kinship and family? The genetic blueprint may be interesting, but, even in a family in which DNA is of the purest strain, aren’t there some who share an affinity and some who don’t? Some folks are cautious, predictable, generally unlikely to chuck it all and start over somewhere else, and some chafe as each day resembles the last. Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, it doesn’t matter; some daughters completely understand their mothers or fathers, or siblings, and can engage with them as they are, some can’t, and the same wobbly course holds true across the range of parents and children. Sure, particular life experiences affect relationships, but there are some sets of signals or postures, or attitudes that click with one and not with another.
What’s the difference, then, between pretending to be a long-lost member of a family and feeling like an imposter in the family in which we were raised?
Taking on the more dramatic issue and using a stagey question, are we not all players on a stage, taking cues where we can, stumbling into entrances and looking for a good line as we exit? We can’t walk into a room full of strangers without playing a role of one kind or another. I can imitate a congenial party guest for twenty or thirty minutes, but when the mask starts to slip, I know it’s time to find someone with whom I can be authentic, or time to go home. OK, so low-grade panic in a room full of strangers, how much worse playing a part that depends upon my convincing someone that I am what I am not? That I can do what I cannot?
Sources tell me that treatment centers worldwide contend with what is now known as The Imposter Syndrome, the deep-seated belief that achievement, success, position, riches, reputation – all of it – undeserved, false, fake. Discovery is a moment away. All will be revealed. Beneath the constant anxiety of being discovered as an imposter is the panic I described earlier.
It may be that we are not what we seem, and then, it may be, that despite doubts and fears, we mostly are. One of the people I most admire was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in her sophomore year at Wellesley, recruited by the State Department, and later became a pioneer in bringing Scandinavian design to the US, introducing Marimekko fabric, Henningsen lamps, Jacobsen chairs, and Orrefors glassware in her very successful design store, a columnist on design for the Miami Herald and the San Francisco Chronicle, and the originator of a design Foundation that still bears her name. And yet, as the daughter of the owner of a conventional furniture store in Georgia, she felt she was an imposter. A brilliant woman of impressive style and bearing, she felt herself a lumpy, awkward imposter.
In what may appear a divergent observation, I think the fascination kids have with dinosaurs,sharks, monsters, ghosts, and all sorts of things that go bump in the night derives from a need to master panic that arrives with encountering big, strong, dangerous things beyond our capacity to control. As a child I think I hoped I’d be ok if I knew EVERYTHING about monsters and mummies; I don’t remember if I hoped to escape them, or impress them, but at the very least they’d know I took them seriously.
How can we turn away from sneaks like Pete, or Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine in The Night Manager, Matt Damon as The Talented Mr. Ripley, Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Amanda Bynes in She’s The Man, or Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire?
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans? That one makes me feel like a fox going to ground as the hunt grows nearer by the second; I begin to feel the walls of earth closing in.