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Identifying Identity

R_Massey's picture

            It is arguable that the journey of life is one enriched with self-discovery. Being such a cognitive species, humans have always sought reason in the world and purpose in life. I find this to be proven that much more through Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride. In this work, Clare takes the reader on a journey through time. He opens up about his insecurities, doubts, and clarity in his being. The only word that comes to mind, in the case of what Clare was telling the reader and looking for in his life, is identity.The word “identity” came about in the English language in the late 1600’s, around the time of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. It comes from the Latin word “idem,” which translates to “same.” Finding definition by relating to the surrounding environment is exactly what Eli Clare made out to do. Through Clare’s work we see how he identified himself, the world identified him, and how he related to the world through his personal identification.

            “I am the backpacker…I am the activist…I am the socialist…I am the adult…I am the writer who wants to make sense,” (Eli Clare, 21-22). As dynamic as any person could be, Clare makes a point to find similarities in these differing, non-related labels. He does not confine himself to one simple idea because he knows he is not one. Clare reveals that there is no one way to be identified through the way that he finds clarity in a multitude of identifiers. His struggle to find who he was in a world that attempted to tell him who he was not easy. Clare never hides his struggles from the reader but utilizes pathos to pull the reader in deeper. “The singular body, the reclaimed body, the body that knows itself and the world, the stone and the heat that warms it: my body has never been singular,” (Clare, 159). The beauty in Clare’s discovery is that it does not simply apply to him and his body. Thought the world would try to put him in a box and declare that to be all to the story, Clare fought to understand the parts of himself that no one else would. The parts we would rather hide away because they do not fit into what society would want of us. Society’s impact on individual identities is almost appalling. It suffocates individuality with inane labels that demean and belittle. Clare is no exception to this rule and has several battles to come above it.

            The world, with its black and white mindset, does not leave room for individuals to dip their fit into multiple identifiers. It fears those that see their potential and go after it. Clare was seen as a disabled redneck, and girl. Never truly comfortable in the skin that society gave him, he sought other objects to relate to. He sought a world outside of the one he was born into, and this took leaving the only home he had known. “I lived a kind of exile, knowing I needed the anonymity of a small city halfway across the country to protect me…” (Clare, 36). Clare realized something that most people fail to do. He realized that he could not discover himself in the world that had already decided who he was. The place that he was in would not let him break free from chrysalis that held his true self within. This is important because, in finding his identity, he realized the place and environment he was in was a significant factor. Clare realized that his growth was being greatly disrupted by staying a town where he would always be known as “Bob’s kid,” (Clare, 36).

Upon escaping his own past, he found a whole new type of obstruction. The world that knew nothing of him but what they could see. The world that labeled almost quicker than the world prior to suffice for its need for certainty and simplicity. “We are truly the genderless, asexual undesirables in the mind’s eye of the nondisabled world,” (Clare, 138). Confined in different ways by the different worlds he placed himself in, Clare’s life is a constant battle for definition. His life is a constant battle for inclusion into the words he feel suit him best by the world that believes it controls who can be identified by them. In doing this, Clare used his personal identification to approach the world around him and welcome it to discover who he truly came to be.

            In the home of Clare’s youth, he is introduced to a title to identify as. This title was not one of endearment or love. “I scoff at handicapped, a word I grew up believing my parents had invented specifically to describe me, my parents who were deeply ashamed of my cerebral palsy and desperately wanted to find a cure,” (Clare, 83). Never thinking of the impact that this label would have on their child, Clare’s parents labeled their child in such a way. The first people we learn and want love from are those that take care of us as children. Clare did not have this. He did not have a safety net to fall on when he realized that he was not what the world and his parents told him he was. It was not until adulthood and many other experiences and interactions that  Clare truly found words to fit his personal view of himself. “Yes, we are different; we are outsiders; we do not fit the dominant culture’s definition of normal. Queer celebrates thatdifference rather hiding or denying it,” (Clare, 113). This embrace of an identity that separated Clare from the “dominant culture” is one of the many steps Clare takes in his stride for pride. Finding that he was constantly discovering himself, Clare still found a way to identify himself. A label that he could agree to and felt comfortable with. Though the story he tells does not manifest in a way that leaves for much interpretation, but I know that the climax of the story is the slow process of self-awareness that Clare goes through. The process we all venture through in our lives and take its entirety to complete.

            Clare’s insights into himself sheds light onto a universal truth. The idea that identity is what determines the directions of our life. We are ever-changing but ingrained with certain constants that make us who we are. Clare learned more and himself and found words to fit. He did not accept the words of others but simply took them into consideration. He did not allow himself to fall victim to the world and its words that build a jail cell around so many of us. It is Clare’s defiance that make his story worth telling and reading.