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.