Kerry & Noël Dawkins (originally written in 2011, added to our site in 2017 with minor edits)
(Authors’ note: this essay was written before the publication of the DSM-V, which changes some of the language referred to trans people and multiples. There have definitely been improvements since the DSM-IV was replaced!)
In Western society, there exists a cultural ‘truism’ that the mind and body are inextricably linked. For instance, in De Rerum Natura, the Roman philosopher Lucretius talks of the ‘wedlock of body and spirit, conjoined and coalesced’ (Martin and Barresi 2007) and sees the body and soul as one, permanently entangled. This cultural standpoint is expressed not only in philosophy, but in psychology and psychiatry, which use these cultural truisms to label those whose self-concepts diverge from their physical configurations, or social constructions of their bodies, as aberrations in need of cure, correction or sublimation of those divergent identities.
For transgender people, and for those whose perceptions of ‘self’ involve many, rather than one, selves, monistic conceptualisations of self, in which the mind is seen as being necessarily congruous with the body, cannot adequately account for the ways in which people conceptualise their identities. For many people, the body as a corporeal, standalone entity is not the medium by which their personhood is conceptualised. Identity, rather, is a function of one’s subjective understanding of oneself that is independent of, or equally important as, physical configuration. The relationship between mind and body should be viewed as something that is variable and occasionally incongruent, rather than the strict one-to-one correspondence that is ingrained in Western cultural consciousness (Hofstadter 2007).
Many of these people have expressed the decoupling of mind and body through the means of autoethnographic literature: works that subvert, challenge, and reinterpret a dominant cultural paradigm from the view of those who have traditionally been marginalised by those dominant cultural paradigms (Pratt 1991). Academic discourse regarding the nature of self and identity, as well as autoethnographic literature written by people who experience discontinuity between social definitions of the body and their own identities, illustrate how people’s experiences can be used to modify discourse about the conceptualisation of minds and bodies, particularly regarding these two communities.
Core-Selves, Leitmotivs and Strange Loops
William Caspary (1988), in his essay ‘The Concept of a Core-Self’, defines selfhood as consisting of self-regulation, growth, emotion, work, and love, and as something that begins to define itself in childhood, with greater refinement in adulthood. He writes, ‘The adult core-self …contains values, purposes, and projects. It contains capacities for mature love, and for righteous indignation, for loyalties and commitments’. Caspary’s core-self ‘is a social self that is expressive of the culture in which it was formed and has intentions towards other people and the community’.
For Caspary, the self is a combination of a stable mental construct that remains throughout the lifespan; a dynamically changing process that develops over time; and a socially constructed entity that is influenced by the customs, mores, and relationships to which people are exposed throughout their lifetimes.
In I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter (2007) conceptualises selfhood as being non-contiguous: rather than a solid, Platonic form, his metaphor is of numerous symbols interacting and looping onto each other in the brain. The self, to him, is an epiphenomenon; he describes the concept of an ‘I’ thus: ‘…your typical human brain perceives its very own ‘I’ as a pusher and a mover, never entertaining the idea that its star player might merely be a useful shorthand standing for a myriad of infinitesimal entities and the invisible transactions taking place among them…’.
While Hofstadter’s and Caspary’s views of self appear radically different on the surface, with Hofstadter appearing to treat the ‘I’ as non-existent, in reality, they do illuminate similar mental processes. Hofstadter’s ‘strange loop’ concept introduces the idea that recursive behaviour, or mental leitmotivs, occur throughout the lifespan. This is similar to Caspary’s conceptualisation of the self as something that evolves over the lifespan, but retains its core qualities. The self throughout the lifespan is a collection of variations upon a theme, constantly looping upon itself and returning to older ideas as it continues to grow and develop.
Hofstadter (2007) writes, ‘[…] distinct identities still exist even in a situation with profoundly intertwined loops, because the perceptual hardware of a given system directly feeds only that system. It may have indirect effects on all sorts of other systems, and those effects may even be very important, but any perceptual hardware is associated first and foremost with the system into which it feeds directly […]’. He also describes personhood as being ‘a point of view’, establishing consciousness and selfhood as something that is perceptual, rather than merely a matter of physical manifestation.
Gender and Selfhood
The formation of self, and the interpretation thereof, are instrumental to people’s understanding of their gender identity. In general, transgender identities can be viewed as self-concepts that reinterpret the confines of the body and the self that those bodies contain. When we refer to the body, we refer to it in two senses: the physical, functional entity, as well as the social construction of the body. The social construction of the body is the way in which people’s bodies are viewed by others: for instance, if a trans woman is still perceived as male in society, the social construction of her body is male. Transgender people’s identities come from their internal, subjective interpretations of themselves, rather than just their bodies. This is not to say that transgender identity and transition are philosophical exercises in and of themselves; rather, they are examples of the difficulty that arises from defining people’s identities by their bodies alone.
Because transgender identities challenge the received wisdom regarding the contiguity of body and mind, their minds and bodies have been medicalised, reinterpreting self-perceptions as psychiatric disorders, symptomatic of disturbances in one’s thinking, rather than a valid definition of self. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM- IV, classifies it as ‘Gender Identity Disorder’.
To cement the concept that transgender identity is not truly a part of one’s self, the language used within the DSM-IV to refer to transgender people corresponds to their assigned sex, rather than their identified gender: ‘For some males [sic] who present later in life (often following marriage), the individual’s sexual activity with a woman is accompanied by the fantasy of being lesbian lovers, or that his [sic] partner is a man and he [sic] is a woman’ (APA, 2010). Transgender women, for example, are routinely referred to as ‘males with gender identity disorder’. Transgender people who do not identify with the binary sex opposite to the one to which they were assigned are not mentioned in the DSM-IV: their experiences are rendered invisible, upholding the cultural mythology that the gender binary is an absolute, rather than a conceptualisation of gender that is related to corporeal definitions of self, without considering mental self-schemas. The physical container, rather than the core-self, is the determiner for identity according to the medical view of transgender identity.
The concept of the unitary mind and body presents transgender identity as an unwanted variation from that norm: it becomes a pathology to be cured, tested, and treated, rather than a reinterpretation of the body and its relationship to the self that it contains.
Transgender people can separate the body from their individual identities, and view their self-schema as something that exists in and of itself, rather than something that is determined by the shape of their body—or the way in which that body is perceived in society—as an essential definer of the self that it contains. In the case of a transgender woman, that self-perception may be conceptualised as: ‘My self-schema is that of a woman; therefore, I am a woman’, as opposed to ‘My body appears male to society in general (or I was born with an XY chromosome, or I was born with genitalia considered ‘male’); therefore, I am a man’.
This does not mean that all transgender people experience significant dysphoria regarding the physical body; rather, we mean to say that transgender people experience their self-schemas in a way that varies from constructions of the body, whether they be physical, social, or both. It is the power of self-definition, as opposed to allowing bodies – both physical entities and socially constructed entities – to determine the way in which they perceive themselves and move about the world.
For some transgender people, the emergence of a self-schema that reflects their current gender identity is present from an early age. For instance, Julia Serano (2007) describes her understanding of her female self-schema as a continually unfolding, initially subconscious process: she writes that ‘During this time [early childhood], I experienced numerous manifestations of my female subconscious sex: I had dreams in which adults would tell me I was a girl; I would draw pictures of little boys with needles going into their penises, imagining that the medicine would make that organ disappear[…]’.
Similarly to Serano, Max Wolf Valerio (2006), a transgender man, experiences a similar early conceptualisation of his identity. He views himself as being essentially male from a young age, and feels that his female-assigned body does not adequately correspond with the mind which it contains. ‘The problem was that the woman’s body in question was mine. And I couldn’t conceive of my body as really being a woman’s body. I knew it was, technically, but that fact had no basis in reality for me emotionally’.
Caspary’s rubric of selfhood is at work here: transgender people’s conceptualisations of their genders are stable; become more sophisticated during adulthood; and they are influenced by socialisation and relationships. To use Julia Serano as an example, she conceptualises herself as female throughout her lifespan. Her understanding of her femaleness becomes more refined during her adulthood, which leads her to undergo medical transition to make it more congruent with her self-perception, and her idea of femaleness is influenced by the American society in which she lives.
Ghosts in the Machine
Transgender identity is not the only self-schema in which the mind is viewed as being non-contiguous with the body. For those who subjectively experience multiple selves within a single brain structure, the non-contiguity is particularly apparent. Like transgender identity, multiplicity has been medicalised, characterising as ‘Dissociative Identity Disorder’, in which a single person – that is, the ‘primary identity’ – experiences themselves as various aspects or personalities, with these ‘personalities’ being created through extreme psychological trauma. The DSM-IV considers it ‘a failure to integrate various aspects of identity, memory, and consciousness’ (APA 2005). The implication is that the existence of several selves cannot happen without there being severe disturbance; they cannot exist in a healthy or natural form. This model of multiplicity promotes the idea that the separate identities within the brain are incomplete, fragmentary parasitic offshoots of an original person, rather than wholly realised people on their own.
According to the Guidelines for Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder in Adults, by the International Society for Study of Dissociation (2005), ‘…some members of the Guidelines Task Force recommend that clinicians avoid using terms such as ‘people,’ ‘persons,’ or other terms that might convey or reinforce a belief that the alternate identities are truly separate individuals’. Similarly to transphobic people who challenge the existence of transgender identity as a real phenomenon, the Task Force members categorically deny that personhood can truly exist for multiples: for the transphobic determinists, the body defines personhood by means of genitalia; for the Task Force members, the body defines personhood by its number. As with transgender people, the body, as a physical unit, is the criterion for personhood, rather than the consciousness that proceeds from it.
Alternative views, primarily espoused by activists organised via the Internet, repudiate this medicalisation of identity as a universal experience of multiplicity, and posit that there can be multiple legitimate ‘prime movers’ within a brain, as opposed to a fragmented, single ‘prime mover’. Groups of people sharing a body are commonly referred to as ‘systems’. Many of these systems have produced autoethnographic works in which they describe their self-concepts as being valid, and propose an alternative concept of multiplicity that does not exist of the medicalisation and invalidation of their bodies and identities.
As opposed to viewing themselves as single persons with defective, disordered brains, they affirm their own personhood and identities as separate people, worthy of respect, recognition, and selfhood. According to Caspary’s rubric of selfhood, each member of a multiple system can be interpreted as ‘core selves’ in their own right. Even the DSM-IV, which broadly pathologises multiplicity, concurs; the diagnostic criteria include: ‘[…t]he presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states (each with its [sic] own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and self )’ (American Psychiatric Association, 2010). Multiplicity consists of many ‘strange loops’ or ‘core-selves’ within a brain, working in concert, each with their own personal leitmotiv.
Members of multiple systems perceive themselves as people, experiencing the same range of emotions, thoughts, and other mental trappings of personhood that embodied people do. As opposed to occupying physical space, they occupy cognitive, philosophical space. Embodiment, in and of itself, does not serve as the criterion for personhood: rather, it is sentience and self-perception that serve to define what a ‘person’ is. As with transgender people, it is not solely the shape of the body that determines the person: the thoughts, experiences, and self-perceptions are instrumental in creating the cognitive and philosophical boundaries between persons. The shape of a life, not the shape of skin, bone, and blood on their own.
Like transgender people, these people reinterpret the confines of the body as a social and physical construct, and propound the idea that personhood can truly exist for them, as opposed to being essentially a single person by virtue of occupying a single physical brain. is form of self-conceptualisation can be interpreted thus: ‘I exist as a separate person because I have the mental faculties of one and perceive myself as being distinct from the other entities that exist within this brain’, as opposed to ‘I cannot be a person, at least in any material sense, because I lack an independent physical space that can contain me.’
In his zine, FTMPD, Rogan Lee writes about his experiences as a member of a multiple collective: ‘I spent three years believing that I wasn’t a real person. Maybe you don’t realize how fucked up you can get believing that. You know the big questions: “Who am I?” “Why do I matter?” “Why am I here?” Well, if you don’t think you’re a real person, the answers are, “You’re nobody,” “you don’t,” and “you’re not here at all, you just think you are.” Later, he writes: ‘I only went sane when I stopped trying to scientifically prove that I was a human being and decided to assume I was until given further notice. Suddenly, life had meaning. I could love, I could live. I was real, human, alive.’ In their ‘Myths’ article (2010), members of the Amorpha system write, ‘How can one assume that everyone is born with a single original personality […] when no one can even say what, in fact, the thing called ‘personality’ or ‘self ’ really is?’.
Multiples also lack ‘cultural permission’ to present as themselves, and contend with similar social constructions of the body: they must create an illusion of being a single, contiguous self. In his article ‘Our Multiple Closet’, Matthew Rockwell, of the Rhymershouse system, discusses his system’s experience of hiding their identity, and how it affected the way in which they dealt with each other and the rest of the world:
The hours turned into days. We grew tired of looking at the odd wallpaper and the shelves full of folded clothes. We grew tired of being in such close quarters and not getting to leave the closet. The only time we could leave the closet was when we went to the parties hiding behind the person everybody knew. Oh we could all pretend to be that person. In our case the person was a facade. Someone took the name to make it easier to hide. But that person wasn't born here with us.
But we didn’t pretend so much at first. Pretending felt dishonest. It felt wrong. We didn't like adopting the habits of that fake identity. It was like wearing a hot, itchy mask. The mask was nobody's real face. It felt stiff and clunky. Surely the others would notice us! But nobody ever did. They didn’t know, or didn’t care that we were just people under a mask (Rockwell 2011).
Lee, Rockwell and the Amorpha system question the psychiatric paradigm’s claims that personhood requires physical embodiment to define it. Lee describes his grappling with existential questions, Rockwell discusses the suppression that he and his system-mates experienced in great detail, and Amorpha members call into question the cultural truism that there must be one, and only one, original personality. In addition, there are shades of Caspary’s selfhood rubric in these autoethnographic works; in his writing, Lee comes to recognise his selfhood, and is able to experience self-regulation, growth, emotion, work and love.
The Perils of Restrictive Conceptualisations of Self
Enforcing monistic, restrictive ideas of identity is a facile way of viewing the way in which selves develop an construct themselves, and applies a strict reductionist standard to the definitions of identity, self, and person. It oversimplifies the complexity of human thought and self-perception; the varieties of social and mental experience are reduced to two-dimensional, pale imitations of that which could be, and are classified, dissected and redefined in ways that marginalise, rather than affirm.
It places philosophical considerations of self in the domain of medicine: as opposed to being valid questions of existence and interpretations thereof, these considerations become madness, delusion, perversions of the vaunted social order, and it creates a social hierarchy in which cisgender and neurotypical people are considered superior to others, and everything that falls outside those definitions is therefore inferior and in need of being cured, corrected, or ‘morally mandated out of existence’, pace Janice Raymond. It manufactures monsters, folk devils, pariahs. While the inclusion of transgender identity in the DSM does facilitate care for people with severe body dysphoria, the language used within it is deeply invalidating of the selves that inhabit transgender bodies, and places their identity sharply in the domain of medicalised monism.
In particular, medical models of identity and selfhood—that is, ones that disregard people’s self-schemas—that privilege the physical body over the conscious self, and nudge people into uncomfortable, ill-fitting social roles in order to secure social acceptance for themselves: for instance Matthew Rockwell, Julia Serano, and Rogan Lee’s experiences. Creating social equity and catalysing change involves reinterpreting the confines of the body, and its significance in determining the validity of someone’s self-schemas. It is about rewriting mythologised notions of the self, and allowing wider definitions of what shape an identity can take; about redrawing boundaries between body and mind; and creating spaces in which self-determination and the recognition of different mental configurations can take place.
- American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
- Amorpha System (2010). “Myths.” Collective Phenomenon. 2010. Web. 3 May 2011.
- Caspary, WR (1988). ‘The Concept of a Core Self’. The Book of the Self: Person, Pretext and Process. Polly Young-Eisendrath, ed. New York, New York: New York University, 1988. 366-81.
- Hofstadter, D (2007). I Am a Strange Loop. New York, New York: Basic Books.
- International Society for Study of Dissociation (2005). ‘Guidelines for Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder in Adults’. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation 6.4 (2005). 69-149.
- Lee, LB. FTMPD: An Alter Boy Zine. Healthy Multiplicity, n.d. Web. 3 May 2011.
- Martin, R and Barresi, J (2007). The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity. New York, New York: Columbia.
Pratt, ML (1991). ‘Arts of the Contact Zone’. Profession 91. New York, New York: Modern Language Association.
- Rockwell, M (2011). ‘Our Multiple Closet’. Cartaala, n.d. Web. 19 May 2011.
- Serano, J (2007). Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley, California: Seal Press.
- Valerio, MW (2006). The Testosterone Files: My Physical and Hormonal Transition From Female to Male. Berkeley, California: Seal Press.