“Fuck the baby,” I shout, with glee from the toddler seat of the shopping cart my mom pushes. It’s my first sentence, announced with delight at San Diego’s most expensive grocery store, Jonathan’s. Nanny is taking my mom shopping, to celebrate our new life without Charlie, my father, who’s probably in prison by now.
“Fuck the baby,” I shout again. My mom and Nanny are quiet, squelching the laughter rumbling under their ribs. They give in a little and let the laughter splutter. Jonathan’s is huge, a chaos of clean light. The aisles are polished so severely that my sentence bounces off the jars and cans that line the shelves.
“Cathy, shut him up.”
“Me? Why me? Just find the Grey Poupon and let’s get out of here.”
“Because you’re his mother, for godssake.” A pair of women in their sixties, with penciled eyebrows, pearls, and pocketbooks round the corner. “Fuck the baby.” My mom reaches a hand over my mouth. The women have stopped rolling their carts to observe. I yelp a muffled four syllables. If you’ve heard me already, they’re unmistakable.
I don’t remember this, but I knew what I was doing, they’ll tell me later. I was conscious of their embarrassment, egged on by their blushing and laughing.
“Let’s get out of here,” Nanny says to my mom, and the laughter bursts again. The women with pocketbooks push their carts, careful to avert their eyes.
“Okay, we just need bread and a can of salmon,” my mom says, rolling the cart at top speed, hand still over my mouth.
“And a bottle of wine,” Nanny says. “I think he’s finished anyway. He wore himself out. Didn’t you, Unigagin?” she says, pointing a finger at me. (Unigagin is her nickname for everybody.) They collect the salmon, seven-grain, and Chianti, and head for checkout.
“You finished, Boog?” my mom asks.
“Fuck the baby.” All eyes are on us—women shopping, checkout clerks, the pharmacist thirty feet away. Nanny and my mom are beyond controlling themselves. The laughter shoves its way through their lungs and ribs, scratching their throats.
“Sssh. Jason, shush,” my mom says.
“For godssake, Jason.”
My mom’s hand is back on my mouth. Nanny has tightened her face and reached into her purse for her wallet. She presses her lips together as she pays, but the cashier’s stare lets her know her laughter is still visible.
The three of us are collaborators in this scene. We’ll pass the blame around later. I was just a baby. Who’d I learn the words from, anyway? I’ll say. Certainly not me, Nanny will say, not even convincing herself. Yeah right, my mom will chime in. Who was the one laughing? The truth is we all want the blame. We love this idea of ourselves, a trio of rabble-rousers enjoying the clean-lit luxury of Jonathan’s while raising our middle fingers to its propriety. If “fuck the baby” really was my first sentence—as my mom and Nanny will insist it was—it’s almost too good to be true. How could I, at eighteen months, have found a sentence wry enough to bundle the terrifying, liberating, and hilarious chaos of being raised by Southern California hippies during the 1970s, in a family that had just fallen from wealth and celebrity, trying to figure out how to live as the counterculture revolution evaporated like a dream?
When I moved to New York in 1993, I found myself telling people about my California hippie childhood. Geographical distance seemed to loosen my lips. I talked about the near abortion, living on a converted school bus, my heroin-addict father in prison. About growing up hippie and poor in the shadow of celebrity and wealth. About Ralph, my famous jockey Grandpa who squandered his fortune, about Nanny (or Midge), his wife, whose best friend was Betty Grable. About the drugs my elders swallowed and the addicts they became. I listed diagnoses of mental illness and described our endless moving from house to house, my mom’s many abusive boyfriends, her many marriages and divorces. “Why aren’t you more fucked up?” people kept asking me.
At first, I’d shrug. My family’s lore had done its job. While the sensational details are largely true, they’ve also been refined, through decades of retelling, to provoke questions like this. Of course, what people really meant was, “How did you survive?” and “Why do you seem so different from the people who raised you?” The first question is the one the lore is designed to elicit. Its answer casts us as unlikely heroes, survivors. The second is less self-serving, a version of an undeniable philosophical question that haunts us all: “How did I become me?”
However you phrase it, the question is hard to answer. You might say it started with that first sentence, my entry into language and the new relationships it made possible. You might say it started earlier, with my mother’s decision not to abort my fetus. You might say you have to understand California in the seventies, or the tenderness of both my mom and Nanny, or genetics and human physiology. You might have subject me to a battery of brain scans at various stages of childhood to chart the series of adaptations I made to my surroundings: shoot x-ray beams through my head and develop cross-sectional photos of the meat inside; slide me into a noisy fMRI and measure the oxygenation of cerebral blood flow; tape electrodes to my skull to see how it conducts electricity; saw through my skull and insert tiny electrodes that measure localized energy exchanges among particular neurons; inject me with radioactive materials so the PET can measure their emissions as they decay; and poise a halo of helium-soaked coils over my head to measure the faint magnetism of the electricity buzzing around in there. Even if this were possible, the yield of information would likely be modest. You might learn some things, and some of them might be telling. But despite what some of the neuroscientists think, neural networks and selfhood are not the same thing. They are fundamentally related, and their relationship is fascinating. But neurons alone do not explain self, and even if they might, we are not even close to knowing how.
In the meantime, here’s my plan. I can tell the story, with the benefit of my unforgiving memory and the brain science that’s beginning to offer new ways of understanding the development and experience of self.
(This is an excerpt from The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism, the memoir I’ve been working on.)