In Search of Identity
The summer of 2016 is one I would love to forget, and never will. As an aspiring dancer, I had recently recovered from a series of injuries and was attending the summer intensive at the School of Pennsylvania Ballet. In addition to my excitement about the program, I was also rooming with one of my best friends. She came from a lives-in-a-brownstone type New York family, and I knew she was a bit of a preoccupied socialite. But she had always been a deeply caring friend, a great listener, and there for me when I needed her. As soon as we arrived at the program, she started making a friend group for us: two other girls and two guys, all very connected in the dance world. We got close fast, watching Pitch Perfect in our rooms together after class and exploring all the cute brunch spots Philly had to offer.
There was no single incident that changed things but rather a series of subtle events. I was the only one from our friend group placed in a lower level, and so they started making plans for after-class activities without me. It was natural, I told myself, I can’t expect them to not talk about things just because I’m not there. But it hurt all the same when I was constantly the only one out of the loop and with no say in “our” plans. They would have conversations about their classes and other students in their level. Again, it was natural, but I felt left out, especially by my best friend, who I had expected to at least try to include me. Her socialite tendencies were coming out, and now it seemed I wasn’t cool enough to be worth her time. They joked around and teased each other, playfully fought to sit next to each other. No one ever wanted to sit next to me. I told myself I was either imagining it or was just paranoid about being liked. I tried everything I could to fit in; I modeled my outfits after theirs, started watching their favorite TV shows in order to follow their conversations, listened to all their favorite music, and frequently referenced inside jokes. It didn’t help.
On our beach day, all five of them disappeared for over an hour, leaving me on the Jersey sand, watching the bags and empty French fry bowls and turning red from equal parts heat, embarrassment, and anger. I had no idea where they were, and when they might be back. They hadn’t asked me to come, or even asked me to watch the sandy towels. They were just gone. By the time I was about to become a puddle of sweat, they returned; no apologies, no explanations, nothing. I had to ask to finally find out they had gone for a walk to take dance pictures further down the beach. Had they ever thought to see if I wanted to come? Had they even noticed I wasn’t there? Surely this couldn’t be natural. By the end of the summer, I felt inadequate, invisible, and betrayed. I was overwhelmed with self-doubt and was trying so hard to fit in that I didn’t know what I wanted or needed for myself anymore.
As a life-long congregant in the church of books, I took refuge in the stacks at The Strand bookstore after returning home to New York City. Avoiding the soup-like air of the basement level I usually frequented, I climbed the stairs to the second floor. It was there, in a dead-end row of dusty shelves that I discovered An Abundance of Katherines by John Green. I picked it up because I had read and enjoyed several of his other books, including Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, and so, while I knew nothing about this book in particular, it seemed reasonable to assume I might enjoy it as well. I was more right than I knew. From the moment I started reading, crammed in a corner of the row and surrounded by busy book-buyers, I couldn’t put it down. What I found in this book was a description of the confusion, pain, and loss of identity I was going through in clearer words than I could have shaped myself.
The main character of An Abundance of Katherines, and the one with which I most closely identified, is a socially awkward teenage prodigy named Colin who has just graduated from high school and worries that whatever genius he had as a child is disappearing. After his nineteenth girlfriend named Katherine breaks up with him, he goes on a road trip with his best friend, which begins as way to move on from his breakup as well as a search for a stroke of brilliance, “a eureka moment,” as he calls it, and becomes a discovery of meaning and identity.
While I was as far from being a prodigy as a pointe shoe from a plum, I can relate to Colin’s worries about losing his talent and with it his sense of self. At the ripe old age of seventeen, I felt helplessly past my prime and feared that I would never be good enough to continue dancing and develop a career. And once feelings like these led me to take a break from dancing, I found myself adrift without the life raft of my identity as a dancer.
If some pages of the book were as clarifying as a kaleidoscope coming into focus, others were like the kaleidoscope hitting me on the head. “The thing about chameleoning your way through life is that it gets to where nothing is real.” This quote comes near the end of the book from Lindsey Lee Wells, aspiring paramedic and Colin’s eventual girlfriend, referring to her own social habits and the resulting self-erasure as well as Colin’s. This point in the book is an emotional climax, as the characters open up and share their innermost thoughts and reflections, things they’ve never shared with anyone else. By “chameleoning” she means the all-too-frequent act of changing ourselves to suit the expectations or desires of others. I had spent the entire summer, and if I’m honest, my entire life, trying to fit in to whatever group was around me. This can be subtle, like agreeing with a friend’s statement to be polite or uncontroversial, or more obvious, like my tendency to take on the fashion habits of those closest to me. On the surface, this isn’t such a terrible thing, but finding myself suddenly alone on shifting ground, I realized that I didn’t even know how many of my beliefs and habits were really mine and how many were just hand-me-downs from others.
My other kaleidoscope-to-the-head moment came in reading the following, “Because you’re only thinking they-might-not-like-me-they-might-not-like-me, and guess what? When you act like that, no one likes you.” Also spoken by Lindsey to Colin, the first sentence could be a summary of what went through my head on a daily basis all summer, and the second sentence answered my unspoken question. It might not seem like much, but these two sentences completely turned around the way I approached friendships. In the two years since Philly, I’ve spent a lot of time on my own, and I’ve had to learn for myself what makes me happy. I like cooking, watching The Office and Friends, working out at the gym, and my fashion taste is a combination of European, athletic, and 90’s inspired. Going into college, I’m consciously making sure that I stay true to myself, and don’t get sucked into my old patterns of constantly copying others. I have to be me. That’s all I can control. And if someone doesn’t like me as my honest self, then that is not a person I need in my life.
By the time I first read this book, I knew that my summer friends were not the people I wanted to spend my time with. It took time to heal from the experiences of that summer. It’s still something I’m working on, but as I felt more confident in myself, I found myself able to ask “What was I looking for in a friend? What kind of person did I want to be around?” Returning to Katherine helped me define answers to those questions. “That’s who you really like. The people you can think out loud in front of.” This quote is so short and so simple, and yet it presents an irrefutable conclusion. “The people you can think out loud in front of” are the people you can trust, who care about you and your ideas, and who don’t make you worry that what you’re saying sounds stupid. They accept you for you; no “chameleoning” necessary.
Seeing the feelings of Green’s characters explored on paper, in words more eloquent than I could possibly have written or even thought, helped me clarify my own feelings about my identity and true friendship. I was able to come to terms with them and understand that I was not alone. Reading An Abundance of Katherines was an important step for me in healing from a damaging experience, gaining some perspective on that experience, and allowing myself to move on.