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8 Best Literary Impostors

06/13/2014 09:52 am 09:52:21 | Updated Aug 13, 2014

"Just be yourself." "Be true to you." "Find your own voice." And other inspirational urgings that, sometimes, simply, just won't do. In my novel, Adam, a 17-year-old straight boy finds himself spending the summer surrounded by lesbians and ends up wooing one of them by allowing her to believe he is a trans man. The following list explores some of my favorite chameleon characters. Dear souls who, for a wide variety of reasons, find it preferable at some point in time, to lead others to believe they are people they aren't. A warning: some of what follows contains spoilers.

1. Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith In which Plain Jane Tom Ripley murders and then impersonates the object of his infatuation--handsome, entitled playboy Dickie Greenleaf. There are many motivations at play here: Tom's repressed sexual obsession, his desire for wealth and the good life, general dissatisfaction with being himself. But also, Tom believes he can be a better Dickie than Dickie can. There's a great moment where Tom and Dickie sit in a sidewalk café: "'This is what I like,' Dickie said expansively in the Galleria, 'sitting at a table and watching the people go by. It does something to your outlook on life,'... Tom nodded. He had heard it before. He was waiting for something profound and original from Dickie." It never comes, but Dickie's murder, shortly thereafter, does.
2. Sybil from Sybil: The True Story of a Woman Possessed by 16 Separate Personalities by Flora Rheta Schreiber Here we have a woman who consists of 16 personalities, including babies, little boys, and teenage girls. All because of lurid abuse she suffered as a child. No wonder this book became an instant bestseller. I, for one, discovered it on my parents' bookshelf, age 10, and had nothing short of a revelation on how fascinating life can be. As revealed in Debbie Nathan's Sybil Exposed, however, it turns out the real impostors were Sybil's psychiatrist Dr. Connie Wilbur and author Flora Rheta Schreiber, who, when Sybil came to them saying, "Um, actually I don't have multiple personalities. I was pretending," chose to ignore her and promote the story for their own rewards.
3. Babo from Benito Cereno by Herman Melville In Melville's haunting short story, Captain Delano, at sea, boards a bedraggled ship full of white sailors and black slaves where something seems... off. He meets their captain Don Benito Cereno who is accompanied, every moment, by his attentive, affectionate personal slave, Babo. In one fascinating scene, Delano watches Babo dutifully and punctiliously shave Benito Cereno with a gleaming razor and has this thought: "...as he saw the two thus postured, [Delano could not] resist the vagary that in the black he saw a headsman, and in the white a man on the block. But this was one of those antic conceits, appearing and vanishing in a breath..." As is later revealed, there has been a slave mutiny, and Babo is indeed Benito Cereno's captor, rather than the other way around.
4. Nathan Landau from Sophie's Choice by William Styron In a novel about the Holocaust, where identity is death, and characters are desperate to claim any identity but their own (Sophie tries to convince her Nazi boss to raise her Polish son as German in the Lebensborn program), the character Nathan (Sophie's post-war lover) represents another extreme form of impostorism. Both Sophie and young writer Stingo (the narrator of Sophie's Choice) believe Nathan to be a genius cell biologist working at Pfizer and on the cusp of discovering the cure for cancer. The cure for cancer! When it turns out Nathan is actually a delusional paranoid schizophrenic, lying about everything, Stingo's entire world is called into question.
5. Sam from Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum In this fantastic memoir, Erlbaum recounts volunteering at a teen homeless shelter, where she subconsciously searches for a girl who reminds her of her troubled younger self. None of the girls do, until she meets Sam-- a snarky white girl junkie with a poverty-stricken, abusive past, who also, it appears, is a child prodigy. Janice becomes obsessed with Sam, devoting her life to trying to save her, until... she slowly begins to realize.... something is not quite right. We read in horror as it's revealed Sam is actually a mentally ill girl from a privileged home suffering from Munchausen's Syndrome, which leads to her do things such as inject fecal matter into her own eye.
6. Narrator from Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison In Ellison's genius novel, the young black protagonist tries to find his way through the late 1920s South to 1930s Harlem. The most ubiquitous and unsettling thing about the book is that the narrator never has a name. Toward the end, the narrator is trying to escape The Brotherhood who has turned violent against him, and disguises himself in sunglasses and a hat. In this outfit he is mistaken by everyone as someone named Rinehart--a man of many identities, culminating in this realization: "Still, could he be all of them: Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rineheart the Reverand? ...His world was possibility and he knew it... The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast, seething, hot world of fluidity..."
7. Savannah Knoop from Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy by Savannah Knoop Who wasn't obsessed with the whole JT Leroy saga, in which 35-year-old author Laura Albert led everyone to believe she was a homeless, HIV+, teenage boy prostitute? One of the most bizarre turns in this story was when, prior to exposure, JT began explaining to the press that he was actually transsexual and taking the steps to transition into a woman. This was in part prompted by people thinking that the JT seen at rare public appearances seemed like a woman--which it turns out he was, being performed by Albert's half-sister Savannah Knoop, and detailed in Knoop's WTF memoir.
8. Frankie from Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers McCullers' perfect coming-of-age novel about the search for identity and desire to belong is divided into three parts. In Part One, our protagonist, a 12-year-old white girl in Georgia, is "Frankie,"-- a scrubby, anxious tomboy with ambitious dreams, whose only friends are six-year-old John Henry and the family's maid Berenice. In Part Two, she becomes "F. Jasmine,"--a soon to be member of her brother Jarvis and his fiancé Janice's wedding. As F. Jasmine she dresses up fancy, goes into town, and lets a soldier believe she's much older than she is. Finally, in Part Three, in the aftermath of having been expelled from the wedding, she settles on "Frances," a now grown girl, with a beloved friend her age, and a future she accepts.