Are we who we used to be?

One idea that drives me as a writer for children is that our childhood experiences and decisions determine our character as adults. I think “experiences” is well treated in literature, which has drawn a lot from Freudian ideas about trauma and triggers, and adults as living late reactions to what happened to them as kids. Less often are adults seen as the consequences of decisions, and this is what I want to preach: that children are architects of their own destinies.

Kurtis circa 1981 Kurtis Scaletta

But what if it’s all wrong? We’ve so absolutely accepted this “child is the [parent] of the [adult]” theory that we don’t question it. It’s one of those rare ideological principles that seems across political and religious differences, we frequently opine (for example) that a privileged childhood can makes a political candidate unable to “connect” with “regular people.” We agree that an abused childhood fosters an abusive adulthood. We owe our own character–good traits and bad–to the way were raised and the efforts of our parents.

This article doesn’t offer much besides questions, but I think they are intriguing questions. As every cell in our body is refreshed, do we disconnect from our childhood selves? For those of us (like me) who end up in new places with entirely new networks throughout our lives, is there enough continuity to explain our adult “self” with childhood experience?

For example, I have lived in Minnesota for nearly 20 years, and now, outside of fleeting facebook encounters, know few people from before I moved here. There are elements of my childhood self in my current self, of course, but the child I used to be is practically unknowable to me. I honestly don’t even know if Kurtis, age 11, would like the author “Kurtis Scaletta” who purportedly writes for children like him. Sometimes when I meet people who knew me as a child, but have not seen me for decades, they describe a child Kurtis I don’t remember or recognize.

I do think I am largely informed by the corrections I made in my 30s to mistakes I made in my 20s that were due to trauma suffered in my teens… so there’s a domino effect in play, but there is a lot to be said for the relationships I have had, the books I have read, and the decisions and experiences I have had since I turned 30… these things are of their own soil. My wife and son, my writing life and writing friends, have made me who I am, and most of those people weren’t in my life until five years ago (my wife, ten). Any one of a few major decisions could have led to a completely different life and a completely different Kurtis.

In a book the world has largely forgotten, Love Among the Mashed Potatoes, Gregory MacDonald (best known for the Fletch series), gives the advice via his columnist protagonist: you have until age thirty to forgive your parents; after that you have to begin forgiving yourself. It may be one of the best tidbits of wisdom I’ve gotten from a book, and as I get older I appreciate more and more what it means to forgive yourself and stop blaming your problems on a lousy childhood.

As a writer I will have to persist with the premise that children are laying the foundation for the selves they will build, but this article has given me something to think about.

7 thoughts on “Are we who we used to be?

  1. Maybe it’s just a matter of memory, Kurtis. Maybe if our ability to remember were stronger, like a dog’s sense of smell or an eagle’s vision–I mean, neurotically better-wired (and furthermore not lost as we age) maybe then we’s see that of course we are who we used to be, and that we’ve just changed in tiny increments along the way.

      • The older I get, the more difficulty I have distinguishing between memory and imagination; the less clear I am about where one ends and the other begins, though, of course, I continue to *treat* my memory as reality.

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