Throughout the memoir, the young Jack’s abusive stepfather, Dwight, often accuses his stepson of duplicity and deception, or being a “performer.” This is true, to a certain extent; Jack is a born performer who adopts different personas depending on what any given social situation necessitates. He’s not the only one in the family, though; in their own ways, Dwight, Jack’s mother Rosemary, and even his step-siblings are all “performing” for one another almost constantly. As the story progresses, these deceptions and confusions of identity snowball and become impossible to ignore. The truth of who each character really is and what they truly desire shines through in the end, revealing the depths of their deceptions once and for all. Throughout the memoir, Wolff argues that the personas and performances individuals put on to convince each other that they are the perfect husband, the devoted wife, or the studious child—just to name a few stock identities—will eventually crumble, leaving the truth bare for all to see.
Wolff opens his memoir with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde: “The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered.” In many ways, the memoir is an exploration of the various “poses” Jack and those around him adopt or assume in order to try and figure out the truth of themselves, or to convince those around them that they already know what that truth is. Though Dwight is the first to accuse Jack of being a “performer,” it is Dwight who performed his way into Rosemary’s life by adopting the pose of a considerate, unintimidating, “puppyish” man. While Dwight is courting Rosemary, only Jack is able to “detect [the] effort” Dwight is putting in to appearing this way. As Rosemary debates whether or not she wants to marry Dwight, her suitor comes up with an idea: she should send Jack to live with Dwight and his three children, Skipper, Norma, and Pearl, to see if they all get along, while Rosemary deliberates back in Seattle. Rosemary agrees to the somewhat harebrained scheme, but soon after Jack moves in, he realizes that Dwight is a malignant alcoholic. As Dwight drunkenly drives Jack home one evening, he asks Jack if he is a “hotshot,” and accuses him of being a “performer” and a “liar.” Jack is forced to be compliant and act polite as Dwight sizes him up as a lazy smart aleck and forcing him into activities and tasks both menial (shucking hundreds of chestnuts encased in stinky, barbed shells) and character-building, such as joining the Boy Scouts and taking on a paper route—two arenas which require further “performances” from Jack as he negotiates the social aspect of his new town and his new life.
Though Dwight’s attempts at manipulating Jack are cruel, there is a nugget of truth in his harsh words—Jack is indeed a performer, capable of convincing his mother, his teachers, and his classmates that he is several different people at once, depending on the situation. Jack and his friends—who often lie or tell stories to one another to make themselves seem cooler or older than they are—are obsessed with image, and carry combs around so that they can painstakingly style their hair in the coolest fashions, even though the older Wolff recalls how ridiculous they must have looked emulating older, tougher “Greaser” boys. Jack’s most difficult performance, though, is of the person Dwight is trying to make him into. Ultimately, Jack finds himself unable to fully live up to the performances Dwight’s mandated activities require; he shirks his paper route duties and gets himself in trouble at school when he falls in with a group of rough kids, despite Dwight’s best efforts to make Jack’s whole life about scouting. After Rosemary finally moves to town and marries Dwight, Jack’s hatred of the man intensifies. Jack, who has spent the last several years trying on different identities, names, and “poses,” now at last has a way of defining himself: “All of Dwight's complaints against me had the aim of giving me a definition of myself,” Wolff writes. “They succeeded, but not in the way he wished. I defined myself by opposition to him.” None of Dwight’s accusations are able to “hurt” Jack because he hates Dwight so violently and has such a low opinion of him; Jack also increases his rebellious behavior directly in opposition to Dwight’s attempts at manipulating or “posing” Jack himself.
The memoir’s tertiary characters, too, adopt poses and performances of their own to try and make their own lives a little bit easier. Rosemary settles again and again into the familiar role of a submissive housewife—even though the early pages of the memoir make it clear that she is fiercely independent and desperate for a better life. Dwight’s abuses of her are “more boring than dangerous,” as she must face his repetitious indictments of her failure to respect him more often than she must face any real physical threat. Still, the emotional aspect of the abuse wears on, and Rosemary retreats further and further into her performance of a woman unable to take control of her own circumstances until that’s exactly what she is. Even this performance, though, crumbles when Dwight violently attacks Jack while Jack is still recovering from an accident in shop class. When Rosemary sees Dwight kicking Jack while he’s down, so to speak, she abandons the performance she’d been playing at in pursuit of stability, love, and the “traditional” family life she always thought she should have.
As Tobias Wolff reflects on his youth—much of which was spent “performing” for others and adopting the roles they thrust upon him—it becomes clear that the writer himself still struggles to understand just how his younger self and those around him used one another to create false versions of themselves and embody preconceived notions of what it meant to be a man, a wife, or a boy. All of Jack’s own personas—Boy Scout, tough guy, dutiful son, troublemaker, greaser, prep school student—have fallen away by the end of the text, and yet the older Wolff reflects on how even as his adolescence came to an end, he was still desperate for a way to define himself based on the world around him rather than who he felt he was, or could be, on the inside.
Identity and Performance ThemeTracker
Identity and Performance Quotes in This Boy’s Life
I was subject to fits of feeling myself unworthy, somehow deeply at fault. It didn't take much to bring this sensation to life, along with the certainty that everybody but my mother saw through me and did not like what they saw. There was no reason for me to have this feeling. I thought I'd left it back in Florida, together with my fear of fighting and my shyness with girls, but here it was, come to meet me.
Roy stored his ammunition in a metal box he kept hidden in the closet. As with everything else hidden in the apartment, I knew exactly where to find it. There was a layer of loose .22 rounds on the bottom of the box under shells of bigger caliber, dropped there by the handful the way men drop pennies on their dressers at night. I took some and put them in a hiding place of my own. With these I started loading up the rifle. Hammer cocked, a round in the chamber, finger resting lightly on the trigger, I drew a bead on whoever walked by—women pushing strollers, children, garbage collectors laughing and calling to each other, anyone—and as they passed under my window I sometimes had to bite my lip to keep from laughing in the ecstasy of my power over them, and at their absurd and innocent belief that they were safe.
Though I avoided the apartment, I could not shake the idea that sooner or later I would get the rifle out again. All my images of myself as I wished to be were images of myself armed. Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me. This much I understand now. But the man can give no help to the boy, not in this matter nor in those that follow. The boy moves always out of reach.
At the end of every show the local station gave an address for Mousketeer Mail. I had begun writing Annette. At first I described myself in pretty much the same terms as I had in my letters to Alice, who was now very much past tense, with the difference that instead or owning a ranch my father, Cap'n Wolff, now owned a fleet of fishing boats. I was first mate, myself, and a pretty fair hand at reeling in the big ones. I gave Annette some very detailed descriptions of my contests with the friskier fellows I ran up against. I also invited her to consider the fun to be had in visiting Seattle. I told her we had lots of room. I did not tell her that I was eleven years old.
I got back some chipper official responses encouraging me to start an Annette fan club. In other words, to organize my competition. Fat chance. But when I upped the ante in my letters to her, they stopped sending me anything at all. The Disney Studio must have had a kind of secret service that monitored Mousketeer Mail for inappropriate sentiments and declarations. When my name went off the mailing list, it probably went onto some other list. But Alice had taught me about coyness. I kept writing Annette and began to
imagine a terrible accident in front of her house that would almost but not quite kill me, leaving me dependent on her care and sympathy, which in time would tum to admiration, love . . .
I listened from the living room. My mother argued at first but Marian overwhelmed her. This time, by God, she was going to make my mother see the light. Marian didn't have all the goods on me, but she had enough to keep her going for a while and she put her heart into it, hitting every note she knew in the song of my malfeasance.
It went on and on. I reheated upstairs to the bedroom and waited for my mother, rehearsing answers to the charges Marian had made against me. But when my mother came into the room she said nothing. She sat for a while on the edge of her bed, rubbing her eyes; then, moving slowly, she undressed to her slip and went into the bathroom and drew herself a bath, and lay in the water for a long time as she sometimes did when she got chilled coming home at night in a cold rain.
I had my answers ready but there were no questions. After my mother finished her bath she lay down and read, then fixed us dinner and read some more. She turned in early. Answers kept coming to me in the dark, proofs of my blamelessness that I knew to be false but could not stop myself from devising.
I wanted to do what Dwight expected me to do, but I couldn't. I stood where I was and stared at the beaver. Dwight came up beside me. "That pelt's worth fifty dollars, bare minimum." He added, "Don't tell me you're
afraid of the damned thing."
"Then pick it up." He watched me. "It's dead, for Christ's sake. It's just meat. Are you afraid of hamburger? Look." He bent down and gripped the tail in one hand and lifted the beaver off the ground. He tried to make this appear effortless but I could see he was surprised and strained by the beaver's weight. A stream of blood ran out of its nose, then stopped. A few drops fell on Dwight's shoes before he jerked the body away. Holding the beaver in front of him with both hands, Dwight carried it to the open trunk and let go. It landed hard. "There," he said, and wiped his hands on his pant leg.
Now I saw her only when Dwight agreed to drive me down with him. He usually had reasons for leaving me behind, the paper route or schoolwork or something I had done wrong that week. But he had to bring me sometimes, and then he never let me out of his sight. He stuck close by and acted jovial. He smiled at me and put his hand on my shoulder and made frequent reference to fun things we'd done together. And I played along. Watching myself with revulsion, aghast at my own falsity yet somehow helpless to stop it, I simpered back at him and laughed when he invited me to laugh and confirmed all his lying implications that we were pals and our life together a good one. Dwight did this whenever it suited his purpose, and I never let him down.
[The piano] was just a piece of furniture, so dark in all this whiteness that it seemed to be pulsing. You really couldn't look anywhere else.
I agreed that it stood out.
We went to work on it. Using fine bristles so our brush strokes wouldn't show, we painted the bench, the pedestal, the fluted columns that rose from the pedestal to the keyboard. We painted the carved scrollwork. We painted the elaborate inlaid picture above the keyboard, a picture of a girl with braided yellow hair leaning out of her gabled window to listen to a redbird on a branch. We painted the lustrous cabinet. We even painted the foot pedals. Finally, because the antique yellow of the ivory looked wrong to Dwight against the new white, we very carefully painted the keys, all except the black ones, of course.
I also missed my father. My mother never complained to me about him, but sometimes Dwight would make sarcastic comments about Daddy Warbucks and lord High-and-Mighty. He meant to impugn my father for being rich and living far away and having nothing to do with me, but all these qualities, even the last, perhaps especially the last, made my father fascinating. He had the advantage always enjoyed by the inconstant parent, of not being there to be found imperfect. I could see him as I wanted to see him. I could give him sterling qualities and imagine good reasons, even romantic reasons, why he had taken no interest, why he had never written to me, why he seemed to have forgotten I existed. I made excuses for him long after I should have known better.
Whenever I was told to think about something, my mind became a desert. But this time I had no need of thought, because the answer was already there. I was my mother's son. I could not be anyone else's. When I was younger and having trouble learning to write, she sat me down at the kitchen table and covered my hand with hers and moved it through the alphabet for several nights running, and then through words and sentences until the motions assumed their own life, partly hers and partly mine. I could not, cannot, put pen to paper without having her with me. Nor swim, nor sing. I could imagine leaving her. I knew I would, someday. But to call someone else my mother was impossible.
We climbed up into the attic and worked our way down to where I'd put the boxes. It was cramped and musty. From below I could hear faint voices singing. Dwight led the way, probing the darkness with a flashlight. When he found the boxes he stopped and held the beam on them. Mold covered the cardboard sides and rose from the tops of the boxes like dough swelling out of a breadpan. Its surface, dark and solid-looking, gullied and creased like cauliflower, glistened in the light. Dwight played the beam over the boxes, then turned it on the basin where the beaver, also forgotten these two years past, had been left to cure. Only a pulp remained. This too was covered with mold, but a different kind than the one that had gotten the chestnuts. This mold was white and transparent, a network of gossamer filaments that had flowered to a height of two feet or so above the basin. It was like cotton candy but more loosely spun. And as Dwight played the light over it I saw something strange. The mold had no features, of course, but its outline somehow suggested the shape of the beaver it had consumed: a vague cloud-picture of a beaver crouching in the air.
Arthur's disappointment was more combative. He refused to accept as final the proposition that Cal and Mrs. Gayle were his real parents. He told me, and I contrived to believe, that he was adopted, and that his real family was descended from Scottish liege men who had followed Bonnie Prince Charlie into exile in France. I read the same novels Arthur read, but managed not to notice the correspondences between their plots and his. And Arthur in tum did not question the stories I told him. I told him that my family was descended from Prussian aristocrats--"Junkers," I said, pronouncing the word with pedantic accuracy—whose estates had been seized after the war. I got the idea for this narrative from a book called The Prussians. It was full of pictures of Crusaders, kings, castles, splendid hussars riding to the attack at Waterloo, cold-eyed Von Richthofen standing beside his triplane.
Arthur was a great storyteller. He talked himself into reveries where every word rang with truth. He repeated ancient conversations. He rendered the creak of oars in their oarlocks. He spoke in the honest brogue of the crofter, the despicable whine of the traitor. In Arthur's voice the mist rose above the loch and the pipes skirled; bold deeds were done, high words of troth plighted, and I believed them all.
I was his perfect witness and he was mine. We listened without objection to stories of usurped nobility that grew in preposterous intricacy with every telling. But we did not feel as if anything we said was a lie. We both believed that the real lie was told by our present unworthy circumstances.
I brought home good grades at first. They were a fraud—l copied other kids' homework on the bus down from Chinook and studied for tests in the hallways as I walked from class to class. After the first marking period I didn't bother to do that much. I stopped studying altogether. Then I was given C's instead of A's, yet no one at home ever knew that my grades had fallen. The report cards were made out, incredibly enough, in pencil, and I owned some pencils myself.
All I had to do was go to class, and sometimes even that seemed too much. I had fallen in with some notorious older boys from Concrete who took me on as a curiosity when they discovered that I'd never been drunk and still had my cherry. I was grateful for their interest. I wanted distinction, and the respectable forms of it seemed to be eluding me. If I couldn't have it as a citizen I would have it as an outlaw.
I declined to say I was a football star, but I did invent a swimming team for Concrete High. The coach wrote a fine letter for me, and so did my teachers and the principal. They didn't gush. They wrote plainly about a gifted, upright boy who had already in his own quiet way exhausted the resources of his school and community. They had done what they could for him. Now they hoped that others would carry on the good work.
I wrote without heat or hyperbole, in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself. These were their letters. And on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me I saw, at last, my own face.
We had been close. Whatever it is that makes closeness possible between people also puts them in the way of hard feelings if that closeness ends. Arthur and I were moving apart, and had been ever since we started high school. Arthur was trying to be a citizen. He stayed out of trouble and earned high grades. He played bass guitar with the Deltones, a pretty good band for which I had once tried out as drummer and been haughtily dismissed. The guys he ran around with at Concrete were all straight-arrows and strivers, what few of them there were in our class. He even had a girlfriend. And yet, knowing him as I did, I saw all this respectability as a performance, and a strained performance at that.
After I got up [Arthur] rushed me, and without calculation I sidestepped and threw him an uppercut. It stopped him cold. He just stood there, shaking his head. I hit him again and the bell rang.
I caught him with that uppercut twice more during the final round, but neither of them rocked him like that first one. That first one was a beaut. I launched it from my toes and put everything I had into it, and it shivered his timbers. I could feel it travel through him in one pure line. I could feel it hurt him. And when it landed, and my old friend's head snapped back so terribly, I felt a surge of pride and connection; connection not to him but to Dwight. I was distinctly aware of Dwight in that bellowing mass all around me. I could feel his exultation at the blow I'd struck, feel his own pride in it, see him smiling down at me with recognition, and pleasure, and something like love.
Everyone liked Chuck. Sober, he was friendly and calm and openhanded. When I admired a sweater of his he gave it to me, and later he gave me a Buddy Holly album we used to sing along with. Chuck liked to sing when he wasn't in church. It was hard to believe, seeing him in the light of day, that he had spent the previous night throwing himself against a tree. That was why the Bolgers had so much trouble coming to terms with his wildness. They saw nothing of it. He lingered over meals in the main house, talked with his father about the store, helped his mother with the dishes. His little sisters fawned on him like spaniels. Chuck seemed for all the world a boy at home with himself, and at these times he was. It wasn't an act. So when the other Chuck, the bad Chuck, did something, it always caught the Bolgers on their blind side and knocked them flat.
Mrs. Howard arranged the scarf so it hung casually between the lapels of the overcoat. She glanced at me again and then stepped back so that I was alone before the mirror. The elegant stranger in the glass regarded me with a doubtful, almost haunted oppression. Now that he had been called into existence, he seemed to be looking for some sign of what lay in store for him.
He studied me as if I held the answer.
Luckily for him, he was no judge of men. If he had seen the fissures in my character he might have known what he was in for. He might have known that he was headed for all kinds of trouble, and, knowing this, he might have lost heart before the game even got started.
But he saw nothing to alarm him. He took a step forward, stuck his hands in his pocket, threw back his shoulders and cocked his head. There was a dash of swagger in his pose, something of the stage cavalier, but his smile was friendly and hopeful.