October 12, 2003, Arts and Entertainment, p. C15
By Dale Singer
“Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are”
By Brooke Kroeger
Published by Public Affairs, 240 pages, $25
The origins of this intriguing book, about people who make themselves seem
what they aren’t, come from a 1933 novel by St. Louisan Fannie Hurst.
That book, “Imitation of Life” – later adapted into a classic movie
tearjerker – tells the story of a light-skinned African-American woman who
passes into white society, marries a white man and cuts off all ties with her
former life and family, never looking back.
In “Passing,” Brooke Kroeger, who also wrote a biography of Hurst, looks at
modern versions of that story, concentrating on “people who pass to be more
truly themselves. Sometimes the passers in this book cut through passing’s
moral and ethical thickets with relative ease. Sometimes not.”
The six stories she tells progress through increasing layers of complexity.
Kroeger starts with a black man who passes himself off as a white Jew, then
moves to a white woman who passes for black; a Puerto Rican woman from a modest
background who moves into privileged society; a gay Conservative Jew who
suppresses his natural self to succeed in the seminary; a lesbian who must
pretend to be straight to advance in her naval career; and, finally, in the most
convoluted case of all, a male poet who uses the technological cover of the
Internet to take on the persona of a female rock critic.
Along with their stories, Kroeger intersperses scientific and sociological
information and theories about people who pass; some of the additional
information helps illuminate the individual tales, but some of it becomes a
detour at best, an irritant at worst.
The six people she interviews each took a unique path to his or her
deception, but Kroeger generally succeeds in finding common elements in their
lives. Discussing Joel Alter, the Jewish seminarian, she makes an observation
that applies equally to the others: “The point is to blend in with the
surroundings. Passers make an art of appearing in all ways, in their speech,
gestures, attitudes, conversation, mannerisms, expression, associations,
interests, apparent lifestyle, and dress, to be bona fide members of the group
or situation in which they seek admittance or acceptance.”
The extent to which passers succeed, Kroeger adds, matches the extent to
which they can enter seamlessly into new lives.
Passing is not without risk, particularly in cases where strict rules apply,
such as the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The lesbian who had to pass as
straight to succeed in the Navy is identified by Kroeger only as “the
Careerist,” because even now, though she has left the Navy, she could lose her
retirement benefits if her behavior were to become known. No statute of
The most fascinating story is that of Joshua Clover, a poet who played what
he called The Jane Game in an effort to become more marketable as a writer.
Passing as a rock critic with the persona of Jane Dark, Clover made his way by
using the veil of the Internet, a place where, unlike the bar in “Cheers,”
nobody can be sure of knowing your name, at least not your real one.
Only when success came both to Jane the critic and to Joshua the poet is he
forced into the uncomfortable position of outing himself; even then, he
continues using the pseudonym of Jane Dark to write about music, despite the
fact that he lost the sense of her as “an autonomous writer, a thinker, an
Unlike posers such as Frank Abagnale, the subject of Steven Spielberg’s
“Catch Me If You Can,” who pretend on a whim, Kroeger’s passers aren’t playing a
game. She notes that their lives lead to serious questions about identity,
stereotypes and the limitations our life situations can place on us.
“Encounters with passing have a way of sharpening perspective on who we are
now and on who we are becoming,” she says, “slipping in an often harsh rebuke to
those elements of society that just might need a good kick into the future. It
makes clear how destructive it is to categorize human beings on the basis of
irrelevant criteria for the express purpose of excluding them.
“But it also sheds light on what criteria may, in fact, be relevant for this
purpose. Yes, passing stories can deepen our appreciation for the wonders of
human mutability and self-intervention, but at the same time, they expose where
the limits are and where they ought and ought not to be.”
Copyright 2003 St. Louis Post-Dispatch Inc.
For National History Day contestants. Upcoming — January 30: Iona College. February 4: Sagamore Hill. March 27: Ephemera Society of America. April 4: Avon-on-Sea Public Library, Avon CT June 4-6: “Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),” Université de Lausanne. Link to past appearances.
Coming March 2020: Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage, Linda Steiner, Carolyn Kitch, Brooke Kroeger, eds.