You Are Not Who You Think You Are

 Posted by on October 11, 2008 at 9:03 am  Characters
Oct 112008
 

I have always been fascinated with stories of people passing themselves off as someone else. I could never do that because it entailed so much lying and I’d feel incredibly guilty. Being an impostor takes a lot of balls. Not only because you can’t be timid but because, let’s face it, if you pass yourself off as something you’re not, you’re going to be tested again and again. Say you’re doctor when you’re not? You’re still going to have to do SOMETHING in the operating theater.

I admit it. I admire this element of Don Draper’s identity (or is it non-identity?); his ability to make himself over. His sense of agency, if you will, as if he were declaring, “No, I don’t like the story I’ve been given. I’m going to write my own.” Yes, I know that it is also an escapist act and as such there is more than a trace of cowardice. But still. I can’t help applauding it and wishing I could do the same. You see, Don, Dick Whitman, rather, is escaping an abusive childhood. And I own up that in doing so and obliterating all traces of his past self, there is a murderous element. Don killed Dick and he also contributed to Adam’s demise but he also killed, in one fell symbolic swoop, his abusive adoptive parents. There’s a thug inside of Don Draper, one who hungers for revenge.

But here’s the thing, there’s a part of Don Draper that is a little magical. Dick Whitman probably thinks that he could never have gotten as far as he did if he hadn’t divested himself of his identity and his abusive family. In a way, he’s probably right. In an abusive family, your abusers’ image of you overtakes your own sense of self. You might be spirited but the abuser labels you mouthy. In order to survive you have to remake that image and the first step is to disengage from the little world that has created the distortion.

The problem is that in destroying the past, Don hasn’t faced it. So he carries it inside him. He’s thousands of miles away from those “sorry people” but they live within him. He bought wholly into the story that he’s a whore’s son, dirty and unlovable. If he really didn’t believe himself to be despicable, he wouldn’t have to hide it, would he? He wouldn’t have had to kill Dick. Being illegitimate would be just another personal fact, like his height or whether he is a lefty or a righty. I happen to know a gentleman who was born out of wedlock in the 30s. Like Don, he rose from a humble background to great success. About his illegitimacy, he says he neither hid it nor advertised it. He was the only one in his family to have a happy and long-lasting marriage.

If he wants to be happy, he has to face who he really is. This seems obvious. The thing is: those very traits that he associates with being Don–sophistication, grace under pressure, classiness, keen intelligence, resourcefulness–, were all within Dick to begin with or he wouldn’t have been able to pull off his masquerade. He thinks he is impersonating someone yet he doesn’t understand that all those traits were part of Dick as well. If only he were honest with himself and others, he could really escape the past. He could stop being a Moebius strip of a human being and be himself.

And really, couldn’t we all say this about ourselves as well? What are the parts of ourselves that we’ve disowned because we can’t truly accept who we are, because we feel that those qualities make us less lovable, less sympathetic? I think this might be the reason why so many of us give Don a break in spite of his execrable behaviors. Because we recognize that being human has its dark side and we don’t want only the angels to be lovable–or there’d be no hope for us as well.

FacebookGoogle+RedditShare

  24 Responses to “You Are Not Who You Think You Are”

  1. Interesting. Before I noted that Pete reminded me of Matt Damon in The Departed, but in this respect, Don is more like him.

    The idea of inventing who you are, and pulling it off with skill and ease, the idea of the appareance vs. reality, one of Literature's oldest themes, is present in both characters. Like Colin Sullivan said, "It involves lying, and I'm pretty fucking good at that."

    If that didn't make sense, it's because I've been up all night.

  2. I love the idea that Don is magical. I mean, my goodness, born of that but that pretty, and charming, and skilled, and self-reliant/confident… We're all riveted, right?

  3. Can I just say you are a genius writer?

  4. Great work.

    I think you're right. I think we're attracted to the magical notion that we can erase our painful past along with the name that starts with it, and start fresh.

    And we root for Don because he believed in that magic, and it turns out, no, there's still pain.

  5. And yet, weirdly, there's still magic.

    Not like, the greatest magic. But like, Bert Cooper Who cares magic. Who saw that coming?

  6. "…Moebius strip of a human being…"

    Great description!

    I keep expecting Don Draper/Dick Whitman to shed his current persona and take on another since the New York City Don Draper has a basket load of problems and responsibilities.

    I wonder how many different towns he lived and worked in during the time period between getting out of the Army and marrying Betty. How many times did he change his persona? Did those changes coincide with a physical relocation?

    Over the three year timeline we've seen so far, Don/Dick has NEVER been shown having any personal nor professional acquaintances from the time period prior to joining Sterling-Cooper. It seems to imply that when he does do a change, he removes all previous people he interacted with from his life.

    …"If he wants to be happy, he has to face who he really is."….
    I'm not so sure that Don/Dick can ever be happy because there may be literally NO PERSON inside him only a collection of fictions and lies. Wouldn't that be the ultimate 'hiding in plain sight'?

  7. Excellent post and comments!

    I can really relate to how Dick had to physically escape his family and become Don, in order to become a productive human being. He couldn't just leave or move and still be Dick, because he would always have those people there in the background telling him that he was nothing, useless, "whore-child", etc. He had to completely disconnect from the negativity in order to have a chance in the world. I think that might be partly why Cooper would understand how a man could do that, and why he thought it was a so-what issue. Lots of successful people have remade themselves from the bottom up to become winners, so Pete looked like a total doofus complaining about it in that way.

    Now in what Don's done since getting his new persona, there are a lot of things that I could never condone (like hurting his brother who loved him so much, cheating on his wife), but I do understand his need to begin fresh. When someone is there taking all your chances to succeed away from you, you have to break free to make your own opportunities without their damaging interference.

    Now that you mention it, it does have a sort of magical or miraculous aspect to it, when you can excell in spite of extremely humble and negative beginnings. :-)

  8. I watch every week to see if he'll get caught — again. He was caught several times last season, and even confessed to Rachel, and it didn't matter. He remembered getting caught once this season, and it didn't matter. I guess that raises the question: in what context will it matter?

    I don't think Don would switch identities again in the sense of changing his name. But I could see him moving somewhere else — to Los Angeles to open an SC office there, or to London. Then, his transformation could be complete. He also could take Peggy and Sal with him, and they could create their own new identities as well.

  9. Enjoyed reading your viewpoint, thanks.

    I have something, probably very unpopular, to say…regarding: "Don killed Dick and he also contributed to Adam’s demise but he also killed, in one fell symbolic swoop, his abusive adoptive parents."

    Adam's demise. I know it was supposed to bother me, perhaps engender feelings that Don's false life has claimed another victim. But honestly, I just can't see it that way.

    Adam was a grown man and presumably as a 'legitimate' child he was treated differently from Don, maybe not better, but at least as a valid person. (no proof, but it stands to follow) He appears out of the ether and expects that Don is going to embrace and include him in his 'new' life.

    I find that beyond naive — perhaps a little 'touched' as they used to say.

    Well…anyway, I said it wouldn't be a popular opinion, but I think Adam was well on his way to suicide prior to re-meeting Don. Don's dismissal simply gave him the exclamation mark (!) he was looking for.

  10. Great post. Thanks for all the wonderful insight. It made me think of many things, two that really stood out. One is that abusive childhoods produce people who feel shame. They carry it with them throughout their lives. Don becoming Dick meant he could erase that shame (or at least, compartmentalize it so he wouldn't have to deal with it). But, as you pointed out, this abuse (and therefore the shame, the complicit nature of shame) lives within him. That would only serve to shape all his future choices — conscious or not.

    The other thing I thought of was that it's clear to me now that this show is about a lot of people who are not getting what they need. Betty mentions this about Glenn in S1 when she's talking to her therapist. She tells him that that boy "is not getting what he needs." But, truthfully, none of the main characters are getting (or have gotten) what they need.

    Clearly, Dick/Don never got what he needed from his stepparents. He's not getting it from Betty or any of his affairs (he came close with Rachel, but blew that one). Pete's never gotten what he needs from his family; he's not even getting it from Trudy. Peggy definitely never got what she needed from her family. As loving as her mother seems, there's been no evidence of a father anywhere. Betty never really got what she needed (or maybe she got more than she bargained for), even though she doesn't realize it yet. The list goes on.

    What's worse is that Sally and Bobby aren't getting what they need at all. Glenn is in even worse shape. Welcome to the '80s and all the therapy you can handle.

  11. Interesting posts. A couple of thoughts…
    Don/Dick didn't seem too polished when we saw the flashback of his car dealership days. Was there a mentor somewhere before SC that he admired and imitated?

    Also, when Betty had her little heart-to-heart with Francine, she told Francine she should take care of her kids. Excuse me, but Betty seems to have forgotten about her own kids.

    Sally b – I agree with you. Adam was so naive, it was irritating. Also sad.

  12. I suspect that the use of the Don Draper name had been a spur-of-the moment thing on Dick Whitman's part.

    Running from his past . . . or from his family had always been part of Dick's modus operandi ever since he was old enough to leave the Whitman farm. I believe that he joined the Army in the first place to escape from his family. I have always found it interesting that he had bothered to point out to Lt. Draper that he had volunteered for the Army. Unfortunately for Dick, he landed in a situation that proved to be just as bad as his past . . . namely serving as an Army private during the Korean War.

    Following the real Don Draper's death, I believe that Dick took the opportunity to use the dead man's identity in order to escape from Korea and the Army. All this came about when Lt. Draper revealed that he only had a few months left of Army service. Dick saw the opportunity to get out of the Army . . . and he took it. Because of this, the real Dick Whitman is guilty of desertion from the military via the use of someone else's identity. If anyone ever found out and reported this to the Army authorities, the real Dick would find himself in prison.

    My question is that once Dick finally escaped from the Army via Don Draper's identity, why did he continue to use the stolen identity? Why not simply create a new one?

  13. Hey Rosie…you've got me thinking — about the spur-of-the-moment thing.

    How old was Dick Whitman when the real Don Draper became…er…unrecognizable? Certainly old enough (looking) to serve and pass for an officer.

    Perhaps I'm biased by my own viewpoint, but by 14-ish years I had a pretty solid record of having tested-the-waters of what a teen can 'get-away-with'…my inclination is to say that it was not the first time that Dick Whitman had employed the ability to fool/distract/dis-inform others. (p.s. I wasn't evil, just mischievous)

    Seems like a …Spur-of-THAT-moment, perhaps more calculated (experienced) than previously thought.

    I doubt we'll see the writers dive 'at-length' into Don/Dick's childhood — he's far too interesting in the present. But I would like to know why he said "Good" when Adam told him 'the mother' had died of stomach cancer.

    Maybe I'm mistaking the dialog, correct me if I'm wrong…it's been a while since I've seen that episode.

    cheers :)

  14. @sally_b: the "mother" Adam's referring to in that scene is his own birth mother, Dick/Don's stepmother. She's the one who mistreated him and labeled him the "whore-child." He wasn't going to waste any sympathy on that woman.

  15. Don/Dick didn’t seem too polished when we saw the flashback of his car dealership days. Was there a mentor somewhere before SC that he admired and imitated?

    @ #11 PR:

    I've wondered about this, as well. There was even discussion on the original AMC board, half-jokingly of course, about Don being a "protege" or "companion" (heh) of some rich, older woman — especially since that's how Don seems to get all his knowledge. He likes using women as a sounding board, but also asks questions of them and gets their advice. The first time we see him with Midge he's doing it. He did it with Rachel, Bobbi to a certain extent, and even Peggy. He doesn't seem to do this with men. With men, he just "is" — they ask questions of him and seek his advice.

    It just occurred to me that maybe Betty was his mentor — that she (perhaps unknowingly) facilitated his complete transformation from Dick Whitman to Don Draper. She was well brought-up in a main-line Philadelphia family, spent time modeling in New York and Europe, and knew firsthand how men of power and influence dressed and behaved. I could see her relishing her role as a young wife, buying Don the right clothes and teaching him the social graces that would lead to better opportunities. She probably even introduced him to the "right people" who could help him get a start — or at least point him in the right direction. Of course, the horrible irony is that once he became suave and sophisticated, and the Don Draper package was complete, he began to take her for granted, treating her as if she were just another prop in his life drama. That's certainly in keeping with many of the My Fair Lady/Pygmalion/Frankenstein themes so inherent in Mad Men — especially the point where the "creation" overwhelms the "creator," becoming this unstoppable force that alters the lives of both characters forever.

  16. All interesting thoughts, but I take exception to one aspect.

    While it is a lot of women, the series opens with Don seeking feedback from a man. And in The Wheel, Don asks Harry (manpanty clad) for his thoughts on the product. (I just watched that scene yesterday; it is so amazing.)

  17. First: Wow. I'm so thankful and surprised by all the compliments. That always surprises me.

    "Adam’s demise. I know it was supposed to bother me, perhaps engender feelings that Don’s false life has claimed another victim. But honestly, I just can’t see it that way.

    Adam was a grown man and presumably as a ‘legitimate’ child he was treated differently from Don, maybe not better, but at least as a valid person. (no proof, but it stands to follow) He appears out of the ether and expects that Don is going to embrace and include him in his ‘new’ life.

    I find that beyond naive — perhaps a little ‘touched’ as they used to say. "

    Actually, sally_b, I totally agree with this. Dick was engaging in magical thinking and placing an unfair burden on Don, really. He could only live with the idea of Don on his (Dick's) own terms. That doesn't embrace the person Don is or has become at all, and that really is the beginning of true intimacy, isn't it? Accepting the person before you for who s/he really is and not for your own fantasy of him/her.

    "One is that abusive childhoods produce people who feel shame. They carry it with them throughout their lives. Don becoming Dick meant he could erase that shame (or at least, compartmentalize it so he wouldn’t have to deal with it). But, as you pointed out, this abuse (and therefore the shame, the complicit nature of shame) lives within him. That would only serve to shape all his future choices — conscious or not."

    Yes. Absolutely. I have a whole lot to say about the theme of abuse and facing it but I don't know where to start.

  18. MarlyK: I don't know where to start either. As Don would say: "It's huge."

  19. I suspect that Adam was badly abused. His mother had extra reason to hate Dick, but Archie was Dick's biological father. He was mean as hell to the hobo. I suspect he was always mean, always drunk, always violent.

    Adam had the look of someone utterly beaten by life. He didn't have Dick's intelligence or resource, didn't have Dick's creativity; he found no way out. And probably the only way out he had was a fantasy of Dick out there somewhere.

    When that fantasy came true, only to fail, it was too much for him.

  20. Also, losing an older sibling is one of the most devastating emotional hits a child can take. They say worse, in some ways, than losing a parent, because it reflects on your own mortality. And let's face it, even if Dick was annoyed by his little brother and was not always wonderful to him, he probably was pretty kind to him overall (he does have that core decency thing). Adam probably hero-worshiped the crap out of Dick.

    And. It's possible that Dick defended the little guy ("I grew up tall", he said to Don, in an attempt to justify Don's lack of acknowledgment that it was him.) Remember, Don said to Betty that Bobby wasn't half as bad as he was. That line has rolled around in my head, with so many possible truths behind it.

    AND… Adam saw Dick on the train. You think Dick/Don is magical to us? How 'bout to the little brother who knows. KNOWS!!! That Dick is out there. And of all the newspapers in all the trashcans in all the buildings, he walked into Adam's. And THEN Don crushed him.

    I'm just saying.

  21. Wiener and MM, the writing is so phenomenal, covering the full range of all that's really terrifying to and in human nature. The stories so intricate with all the twists and turns, secrets told and kept, and how each of the characters will react to each other and whats happening around them. Its almost Shakespeare Macbeth melded with Misummers night dream. and like Puk said

    If we shadows have offended,
    Think but this, and all is mended,
    That you have but slumber'd here
    While these visions did appear.

  22. Interesting. It wouldn't surprise me if Adam were abused. However I can only think of evidence that he was the favored chile … in the Mother's Day flashback he's called "Adam. The first son." (even though he's not)

    Anyway, this is a brilliant post and thread. Totally loving these comments. I'd only add, MarlyK, that the theme you discuss at the top is the largest metaphor of the series: America's propensity for reinvention, and the effects such reinvention has on our culture.

    On one hand, it is totally, thoroughly American to change your identity. Shed the old and create something new. We do it with cities, businesses, industries, heroes … anything you can name. But what does that wrought?

    In Don Draper, we're witnessing everything that happens, good and bad, as a result of instantaneous change. He wills himself a new identity, personality, history, image. He's self-made, smart, and all the rest.

    But, as mentioned above, he also doesn't reflect, grow or learn about himself in any substantive way. He's stunted, without any means to address his upbringing.

    But this is America's story too, isn't it?

  23. "How old was Dick Whitman when the real Don Draper became…er…unrecognizable? Certainly old enough (looking) to serve and pass for an officer.

    Perhaps I’m biased by my own viewpoint, but by 14-ish years I had a pretty solid record of having tested-the-waters of what a teen can ‘get-away-with’…my inclination is to say that it was not the first time that Dick Whitman had employed the ability to fool/distract/dis-inform others. (p.s. I wasn’t evil, just mischievous)

    Seems like a …Spur-of-THAT-moment, perhaps more calculated (experienced) than previously thought."

    Dick was at least ten before the Depression ended, which meant that he was in his early or mid 20s when he assumed Lt. Draper's identity during that first year of the Korean War.

    If Dick's plan to assume Draper's identity was that calculated, it would mean Dick had deliberately killed Draper.

  24. Consider the (paraphrased) remarks of another darkly handsome man who spent most of his adult life running away from the unhappy past of his childhood as Archie Leach from Bristol, England:

    "I spent most of my adult life pretending to be Cary Grant, until finally, I became him".

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

css.php