When I discover who I am, I’ll be free


I had no desire to destroy myself even if it destroyed the machine

I fell to plotting ways of short-circuiting the machine. Perhaps if I shifted my body about so that the two nodes would come together – No, not only was there no room but it might electrocute me. I shuddered. Whoever else I was, I was no Samson. I had no desire to destroy myself even if it destroyed the machine; I wanted freedom, not destruction. It was exhausting, for no matter what the scheme I conceived, there was one constant flaw – myself. There was no getting around it. I could no more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the two things are involved with each other. When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.

It was as though my thoughts of escape had alerted them. I looked up to see two agitated physicians and a nurse, and thought, It’s too late now, and lay in a veil of sweat watching them manipulate the controls. I was braced for the usual shock, but nothing happened. Instead I saw their hands at the lid, loosening the bolts, and before I could react they had opened the lid and pulled me erect.

by Ralph Ellison (March 1, 1914 – April 16, 1994)
from Invisible Man (1952)
image – Shamefullyso

Shock Treatment

Here, the narrator of Invisible Man has just been given electroconvulsive shock treatment. A few pages before, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, knocked unconscious by an explosion. His next memories are in the now, now coming to consciousness between seizures brought on by electric shocks. It’s the sort of passage that demands re-reading, because exactly what is happening isn’t spelled out for the reader.

He hears voices from unseen people, as they discuss if his is a case for surgery. On my second read-through I gathered that the surgery they were talking about was a lobotomy, still a wonder cure in the 1950’s, and I hung onto relief that what’s happening is “only” shock treatment. The narrator tells us only what he knows – there is no all-knowing voice-over. As a result, we live his disorientation. His disorientation is our disorientation.

A good friend of mine had shock treatment in the 1960’s. She had post partum depression after the birth of her first child, and the goal was to free her from depression as quickly as possible – to re-set her clock. As a result of shock therapy, she permanently lost months of memory, including childbirth and pregnancy. After a couple months in the hospital she was released, with medication and an arrangement for long-term therapy. Almost immediately, the psychiatrist she was to see had a heart attack and died. She was alone, without a psychiatrist and unwilling to begin again with another, living with a strange husband and an unknown six-month-old daughter.

Her response was to become the best mother possible, and never speak of depression again. For twenty five years, two more children and a divorce she was everyone’s archetypal earth mother, before finally realizing she’d succeeded and was safe to have any feeling and think of any part of her past.

Self Determination

Taken in isolation, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free” is a happy, shiny quote – a little mysterious around the edges, glowing with New Age possibilities. Move it to the context of Invisible Man, and it’s still a call for a good thing. Though the shock treatment setting is saturated with confusion and desperation, the narrator “fell to plotting ways of short-circuiting the machine.”

I think this insistence on creating stories we can accept is part of human nature. We could be hogtied at the bottom of a pit in a vast wilderness, without reason or will to hope, and still check for a rope leading up to safety and freedom.

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One Response to “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free”

  1. starla Says:

    I wrote once in a moment of self-discovery …I am a contradiction at best. I hide my feelings and I am learning to be free. I am scared to death of not telling myself some story in my head just to make myself feel better. Learning to let it all be what it is …IS HARD!!
    Story telling helps us cope i think..i still do it..the erratic driver is just trying to get home to his wife who is pregnant…helps me not get angry and want to cuss!! :0)