by Emma Wallace
April 2012

In Daryl Gregory’s short story, “Second Person, Present Tense,” we encounter a young girl whose circumstances have led her and her family into metaphysical questions concerning personal identity. Gregory presents the story from the perspective of Terry, who believes she has only been in existence for two years, after waking up in a hospital in the body of a seventeen-year-old girl named Therese Klass. Therese’s parents believe that Terry, in the body of Therese, is their daughter, while Terry copes with the fact she is trapped in another’s identity. This interesting situation provides an opportunity for thoughtful application of theories of personal identity. In the story, we see characters who understand personal identity in terms of the body theory, and others who believe the psychological continuity theory. Each theory provides very different answers concerning Terry’s true identity. Overall, the reader is given a stronger presentation of the psychological continuity theory, but because of the emotional circumstances and drama in the fiction, the realization does not come without serious social consequences.

In “First Person, Second Tense,” Gregory presents a particular understanding of personal identity in which mental activity and consciousness define the self. The story presents the idea that the processes of the brain are what really govern a person’s behavior or decisions. Once the brain makes a decision, it sends a signal to one’s consciousness, which then tells the body to carry out the decision. Our awareness of the decision-making process gives us the impression that it was our “self,” rather than just a set of neurological processes, that makes the decision to perform a certain act (294-295). This understanding supposes that though the consciousness does not make decisions, it tags a set of mental processes as consistently and continuously belonging to one person: “myself” (299). As a result, consciousness becomes the basis for our sense of identity. Gregory bases Terry’s sense of self on this understanding.

Throughout the short story, the drug “Z” temporarily delays the signal that notifies the consciousness of mental activities and decisions, creating a feeling of indifference. The body acts under the decisions of the brain, but there is no sense of self creating a memory or putting the decisions in perspective of its past and in the framework of the future (293). When Therese takes too much “Z,” the drug not only delays the signal to the brain, but also communicates to a different self—a different consciousness. After the overdose, the signal never reaches Therese again, and all of the mental activities that occur in the brain are reported to Terry’s consciousness (296). This is why Terry believes she has only been in existence for two years, and that she does not share the same identity as Therese.

Terry’s understanding of personal identity does not correspond with the body theory. According to Adam Kovach’s lecture on personal identity theories, the body theory defines identity by the continuity of the body. As a physical body persists through time, the identity of that body remains consistent. Terry acknowledges that she has the same body as Therese. She even describes the situation as if she were living in a pre-owned house: “I only gradually understood that somebody must have owned this house before me. And then I realized the house was haunted” (Gregory 298). However, Terry does not define herself and her identity by her body. She refers to Therese as if she were another character. For example, Terry comments, “The shirt is a little tight; Therese, champion dieter and Olympic-level purger, was a bit smaller than me” (295). Terry confirms that there can be more than one identity per body.

Although Terry does not define herself by her body, others do. Terry views Therese’s parents as strangers; however, Mr. and Mrs. Klass believe that Therese’s identity persists because Therese’s body persists. Indeed, everyone from Therese’s life considers and treats Terry as though she is Therese. Mrs. Klass brings up the point that “you don’t get to decide who loves you” (304). If we reject the body theory, as Terry does, we must deal with the consequence that imposed identities may be significant, but ultimately are not valid. How does one cope with living as a new person in a body to which so many have an emotional attachment?

Mr. and Mrs. Klass even send Terry to a counselor to help her “reclaim her memories,” or to look back through Therese’s memories and try to put herself in Therese’s shoes (M 24, 297 r). Dr. Mehldau, the counselor, bases her therapy on the fact that although Terry might feel like a different person from Therese, they are still the same person biologically and legally. The sessions work toward putting the pieces of Therese’s past together so Terry can continue her life in relation to Therese’s old one (297). This is a slightly altered view of the body theory, since Dr. Mehldau does not directly say that Terry is the same person as Therese, rather, that they share an aspect of identity. This adapted version of the body theory may be a strategy, on Dr. Mehldau’s part, to sympathize with Terry during their therapy sessions. Dr. Mehldau has to let Terry know that she understands her feelings, but at the same time, adhere to her objective to make Therese and Terry one continuous person because they share the same body. Once again, if we were to reject the body theory, we cannot deny that the physical parts of Therese do live on, and a set solution remains questionable. Is Terry responsible for the past of her body?

However, Terry’s belief that she is a separate person from Therese is also justifiable. According to the psychological theory of identity, a self is only continuous in terms of psychological connectedness. If the components that make up a person’s mentality, such as personality, motivations, and perspective, carry on over time with minor, steady change and development, then the person’s identity is preserved. Indeed, over the course of a few years, we change our opinions and outlooks on life, but we tend to consider ourselves the same person. As Derek Parfit explains in his essay “Personal Identity,” “the word ‘I’ can be used to imply the greatest degree of psychological connectedness” (316). When these characteristics take a drastic change, or if we look far enough back in time to a point in our chain of successive selves to a link that does not closely match our present state, we can say that there is a different self. Parfit adds that in cases of such a drastic change, one could specify the degree to which the selves are related (316). This theory agrees with Terry’s account of the identity problem.

If we look at Therese’s and Terry’s existences as one combined life, we would see that there are too many psychological differences between the two girls. Terry does not display a continuation of any emotional connections to Therese’s family and friends, even though she can see them from Therese’s memories. Terry has distinctly different interests from those of Therese: whereas Therese enjoys Christian rock and gymnastics, Terry is fascinated with Buddhism and neuroscience (Gregory 293, 295, 300). Surely, the degree of psychological connectedness here must be too large to consider Terry and Therese to be the same “self.”

However, the main, and probably most important, factor that determines a change in personal identity is the change in consciousness from Therese to Terry. This change seems to be the point that Gregory emphasizes throughout the story. The very choice of writing the story in first person brings the reader closer to Terry’s thoughts and allows the reader to gain a more intimate understanding of Terry’s relation to Therese. As mentioned earlier, Terry always refers to Therese as if she were a separate character in the story. As she learns more about Therese’s old life, Terry forms opinions about Therese and makes guesses as to how she would react towards certain things. Terry makes judgments about Therese despite limited knowledge about her and access to Therese’s memories.

We also see instances of Terry observing things about Mr. and Mrs. Klass, and sympathizing with them. She understands their position, and feels sorry that they have misunderstood that she is their daughter, but she fiercely declares to Dr. Mehldau, “This is my body, and I’m not going to kill myself just so Alice and Mitch can have their baby girl back” (297). This strong sense of self is what sets Terry apart from Therese. Terry believes that if it were possible to regain the psychological continuity with Therese, Terry would literally cease to exist. Here, Terry, the narrator of this story, relates her identity not to the body, but to her consciousness. When Mrs. Klass tells Terry “you don’t get to decide who loves you” (304), Mrs. Klass has just admitted that Terry and Therese do not have the same identity. Mrs. Klass’s perplexity functions to communicate the difficulty she faces with the change in self between Terry and Therese, and the difficulty Terry faces in realizing that people are not always willing to drop designations of the body, even if the self is no longer the same.

Overall, “Second Person, Present Tense” functions as a unique, extended thought experiment to which we can apply various theories. Characters with opposing opinions offer objections and replies. Emotional insight and human interest often address questions that may be discussed in the course of examining the competing arguments. For example, if we simply had the basics of this story presented as a thought experiment within an argument about personal identity, readers might not have fully understood the emotional effects of the implications. Though unlike philosophical papers in which an argument is outlined and a conclusion is made clear, a work of fiction can still present a relevant situation. Open ends allow readers to think critically on their own and apply metaphysical theories to new situations.

“Second Person, Present Tense” is an appropriate vehicle for understanding issues of personal identity. The psychological discontinuity between two selves that are contained within the same body provides a situation that allows for application of the body theory and the psychological continuity theory. Although the story, particularly the insight provided by the use of first person, gives a stronger preference to the psychological continuity theory, Gregory effectively communicates the weighty and difficult implications of rejecting the body theory.

Works Cited

Gregory, Daryl. “Second Person, Present Tense.” 2005. Reprinted in Arguing About Metaphysics. Ed. Michael C. Rae. New York: Routledge, 2009. 292-304. Print.

Kovach, Adam. Class Lecture. Marymount University. 1 December 2011.

Parfit, Derek. “Personal Identity.” In Arguing About Metaphysics. Ed. Michael C. Rae. New York: Routledge, 2009. 305-319. Print.

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