In the week I turned eleven, the world came closer to nuclear war than it had at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis ten years before I was born. NATO was engaged in a major exercise testing their ability to respond to a nuclear strike on the West; but the Soviets feared this was in fact the cover for a genuine nuclear first strike against Moscow and her allies, and put their own nuclear capability on alert.
The events leading up to those ten extremely tense days form the backdrop of the brilliantly-woven German drama Deutschland 83 (eight episodes; recently shown in the UK), in which a young East German soldier is sent undercover into the West German army as a Stasi spy.
It is a study in ideology – how (every) ideology needs to create a (false) enemy in order to justify its own existence – and of how our unquestioned beliefs blind us to our own moral accountability and blind us to the people – ‘allies’ and ‘enemies’ – around us.
But it is also a study in identity. In ‘becoming’ Moritz Stamm, Martin Rauch takes on a double-life that calls his very identity into question; but, in fact, living a double-life is the common motif shared by every main character in the series, whether spy, soldier or civilian, on either side of the Berlin Wall.
Having just completed watching Deutschland 83, we watched the film Still Alice, which tells the story of a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University who develops early onset Alzheimer’s, and explores the impact of the disease on her and her family. This, too, is a story about identity and, in a particular way, leading a double-life.
The double-life in question here is that, despite losing her mother and sister in a car accident when she was in her late teens, and her father later on to the alcoholism that towards the end robbed him of control of even the most basic bodily functions, Alice has pursued her brilliant career as if she is immortal.
Leading a double-life isn’t restricted to hiding an affair from our spouse, or a gambling addiction from our family, or radicalisation from our neighbours; isn’t restricted to the things that make for dramatic storylines in soap operas, and destroy bystanders in real life. In certain regards we all lead double-lives; tell ourselves that this is the necessary safety-net, the trade-off that enables us to get on with our lives at all; when all the while it makes living additionally tiring.
I cannot imagine what it is like to live with Alzheimer’s. But because of living with Dyspraxia, I can identify with the deeply painful embarrassment of – apparently randomly – not being able to recall to mind the most familiar of names, habitual of professional acts, or the earlier part of a current conversation. And, god, it takes so much effort to hide this from most of the people most of the time. Too much effort.
But we do not live super-heroic ‘gain trajectories’. Frailty is fundamental to our human experience. We become less – confident, able – in certain ways even alongside becoming more – confident, able – in others; in predictable and unpredictable ways. And yes, it is especially poignant to watch a fictional linguistics professor, an expert in human communication, have everything stripped from her until there is nothing left but love; but Alice is an everywoman, an everyman.
I am not my enemy, to be out-smarted, or to have my place taken by an imposter. (Or, if I am my enemy, Jesus told his followers to love their enemies.)
I am my neighbour – who turns out to be just-like-me – to be reached-out to, known, in the most perilous and ordinary of times: today.