Dani Shapiro
November 14, 2007

Different Selves

Something about being on the road is turning me into a daily blogger. Well, at least I’m blogging two days in a row, which is a record for me. I’m writing from Boca Raton, where yesterday I spoke to nearly five hundred women at a country club luncheon, as part of National Jewish Book Month. Now, I figured that a few of the guests would probably know me slightly, given the amazing reach of Jewish geography (we are a people who love nothing more than establishing a connection, no matter how slim) and the fact that my Aunt Roz, a big golfer, had lived in Boca. But what I hadn’t counted on was the huge overlap between the tri-state area and Boca, as if, at a certain age (retirement) the entire Jewish population migrated south to this very particular place.

Yesterday I learned the difference between “snowbirds” — an expression I had heard before, meaning those retirees who go south for the winter — and “snowflakes”. Snowflakes are those who flit back and forth, like…well, like snowflakes.

But I digress. At the luncheon, I had women coming up to me right and left hugging me. Women who had known my mother. One woman who had actually visited my mother in the hospital after my parents’ car accident. Another woman who had been a neighbor of ours in Hillside, New Jersey. Still another, whose son went to high school with me. It was a lovely feeling, being embraced by these women as their collective daughter, or long-lost niece, as one of their own. Whenever I meet someone who knew my parents, it always makes me feel warm inside, slightly more connected to the earth.

So when I got up to speak, instead of my customary terror–especially in front of a crowd of that size–I felt bolstered. Supported. The crowd was with me. I gave my talk, made them laugh, made them cry. I felt that thing that perhaps comedians or dramatic actors feel regularly, but for a literary writer is rare indeed: I was in control of the room. After I finished, people started asking questions. A microphone was passed around. After the seventh or eighth question, the microphone was handed to a thin, blonde woman with bangs. She stood up and smiled at me.

“I don’t know if you remember me, Dani. I was a close friend of your mother’s.”

And then she said her name. Which I won’t repeat since this isn’t a nice story about her. Still smiling, she went on:

“You seem very changed to me. Like a completely different person. And I’m just wondering why you seem so very different. Something changed you. You’re so different,” she went on somewhat redundantly.

“And I’m also wondering if you regret what you wrote in the past. If you wish you could have softened some of what you wrote in your earlier books.”

She sat down, looking for all the world like a thin, blonde cat who swallowed the canary. And I–for once in my life–had a comeback. Usually, in a situation where I’m being dissed, I think of what I should have said, oh, a few hours later. But as she was speaking, something occurred to me:

“Lovely to see you, X,” I said. “You know, as you were speaking, I realized that you never once saw me without my mother. The few times I was in your presence, of course my mother was with us. And I was a very different person around my mother than I was in any other aspect of my life.”

Around the room, I saw nodding. Agreement. And continued support from the hundreds and hundreds of my benign, surrogate mothers in the audience. Later, I discovered that I had struck a chord. Many of us feel like we’re different people in different situations. (Particularly around our mothers, where we may regress, revert into being their daughters and nothing else.) But many of the women at the luncheon found themselves musing about this. In work situations, with our husbands, our children, our friends, we can seem like we’re being different people. Does this mean we’re acting in some way fraudulent? That we’re creating false selves? I don’t think so.

In my case, I didn’t like the person I became around my mother. I was shut down, angry, withdrawn, withholding. I was these things because I needed to protect myself from her, and I didn’t know any other way. But the person on that podium yesterday is the same person as the glum, miserable woman I was around my mother until her death. We are all made up of many different selves.