“Being Someone You Are Not”
Book Review; Page 5
September 14, 2003
Passing When People Can’t Be Who They Are
PublicAffairs: 280 pp., $25
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
. . .Brooke Kroeger, the author of “Passing,” is a professor of journalism and former foreign correspondent who has written two well-received biographies: “Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist” and “Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst.” Her biographical and narrative skills give nuance and depth to the touchy, often explosive topic of “passing” in this set of short biographies of lesser-known individuals. The subtitle, “When People Can’t Be Who They Are,” is key to understanding the text. Kroeger is not dealing with impostors, frauds or men with multiple families unknown to one another. Her definition of passing includes several elements: First, it refers to individuals who “effectively present themselves as other than who they understand themselves to be”; second, other people must accept the identity that the passer projects; third, “Passing involves erasing details or certain aspects of a given life … “; fourth, and important, the passers do not have to change anything in their outward appearance. Passing involves, more than anything else, the control of information. Some of the attributes required for successful passing, Kroeger writes, are stealth, gumption, cunning, agility, social conceit and guile. She probes ethical questions about passing, such as the significance of authenticity, the responsibility of individuals to tell all about themselves, the thin line between disclosure and lying and the possible effects on the passer’s character.
The heart of “Passing” consists of six case studies. Each is vividly specific but also representative of a larger aspect of identity in the United States, historically and currently. The individuals who shared their stories with the author — ordinary people, not public figures or celebrities — are young, smart, well-educated and engaging.
. . . In a brief final chapter, Kroeger deftly ties the stories together. She finds a suitable definition of passing in a dictionary entry for the musical term “passing note” or “passing tone”: “A passing note is not part of a composition’s harmonic scheme, but one the composer introduces to ornament the work or allow for a smoother transition from one tone or chord to another.” After much research, interviewing and thought, the author concludes that such “transitions” are not always a negative experience and, although dissonant, not necessarily to be condemned. . . .