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Who Am I, Who Are We? Individual and Group Identity through a Psychological Lens



The term 'identity' has come to be associated with our membership of various groups based upon gender, sexuality, race, religion, culture and class. A psychological perspective moves beyond identity politics and emphasises both group and the individual. The selves we become are based upon who we internalise through identification. An aspect of this is our ancestral history. The author uses a personal story to illustrate the dynamic interrelationship between our group and personal identities. Our identities can be a badge of honour or a burden. How we are treated according to the labels applied to us shapes the sense we have of ourselves. Psychological work aims to help a person distinguish between who they truly are and what was forced upon them in the course of their lives. This requires a dual focus on the group legacies we carry and the individual as the unit for understanding identity.
N E W Y O R K • O X F O R D
European Judaism • Volume 55, No. 1, Spring 2022: 28–41
© Leo Baeck College
doi: 10.3167/ej.2022.550103
Who Am I, Who Are We?
Individual and Group Identity through a
Stephen Blumenthal
The term ‘identity’ has come to be associated with our membership of various groups
based upon gender, sexuality, race, religion, culture and class. A psychological perspec-
tive moves beyond identity politics and emphasises both group and the individual. The
selves we become are based upon who we internalise through identication. An aspect
of this is our ancestral history. The author uses a personal story to illustrate the dynamic
interrelationship between our group and personal identities. Our identities can be a
badge of honour or a burden. How we are treated according to the labels applied to
us shapes the sense we have of ourselves. Psychological work aims to help a person
distinguish between who they truly are and what was forced upon them in the course
of their lives. This requires a dual focus on the group legacies we carry and the individual
as the unit for understanding identity.
Keywords: group, identity, identity politics, individual, psychoanalysis, psychology
Maria Magdalena Groenewald was born in 1881 in a conservative
white Afrikaans farming community in a village called Bredasdorp
in the Western Cape of South Africa. Her background, the identity she
was born into, epitomised that of the apartheid oppressor. Her people
were hardy and uncompromising. They were descended from Dutch,
German and French Huguenots who had escaped hardship and perse-
cution in their countries of origin, and made the dangerous journey to
Africa in ships in the seventeenth century. In turn, they were oppressed
by the British and trekked into the wilderness of the South African inte-
rior in ox wagons, a bible in one hand and a gun in the other. The places
they came to inhabit weren’t the Garden of Eden. Maria and her clan
tilled the soil by hand under the hot African sun. They endured drought
European Judaism Vol. 55 No. 1 Spring 2022 29
Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
and famine. Medical care was practically non-existent. The prospects for a
straightforward pregnancy and birth were hit and miss and infant mortal-
ity was high. Their identity as a nation was forged in this perilous crucible
and as a result it was founded on insecurity.
Maria didn’t much like her community; we will never know why.
Around the turn of the century, she made the unlikely acquaintance of
Jacob Jacobson who travelled inland to sell his wares. Jacob came from a
different place. He escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe, in which his
people, the Jews of the arc of settlement, were persecuted, their commu-
nities extinguished. His identity as a Jew was marked out by others who
wished to expel him, or worse, kill him, because of the group to which
he belonged.
Jacob got on a boat. The boat was going to Cape Town. What must it
have been like to leave family and community? To risk life and limb, and
travel for months from a dark winter and arrive to blue sky, sun glinting
on the sparkling sea, as the imposing Table Mountain came into view?
Jacob was said to have been a debonair young man. I imagine him on
deck of the ship, leaning against the guard rail, straining to see the town
that nestled beneath the mountain as it came into view, in his best suit
for arrival. He would have been sporting his impressive moustache, black
hair slicked back, the salty sea spray filling his nostrils as he considered
the place that would be his new home, and his future which lay before
him, waiting to unfold.
What could Jacob, a foreigner in a strange land, do to eke out a
living? He became a smous, a travelling salesman. Fresh off the boat, he
sold his labour to someone with a bit of capital who provided a horse and
cart, which he loaded with pots and pans, cloth and farming implements.
He set off on a long solo journey into the interior to sell his wares to the
community of farmers who lived there. It was there that he encountered
Maria for the first time.
The story of Jacob and Maria’s love was never told. Its fragments
were pieced together by their grandchildren and their great grandchil-
dren. Maria’s origins were never spoken of openly; this was strictly for-
bidden ground. Maria Magdalena Groenewald became Esther Gordon.
She changed everything about herself, including the name her parents
had given her. She undertook the challenging Orthodox Jewish conver-
sion which took years, and she left her people forever. She denied any
connection with her Afrikaner past and transformed herself into a Jewish
There is a single reminiscence from one of her granddaughters of
someone coming to the door, perhaps a long lost relative in search of
reconnection, who was shooed away. This was never spoken of again.
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Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
I look at the grainy photograph of my great grandmother and her
imposing figure is reanimated in my mind, striking and powerful. I recall
her strong presence, her care and her steadfast affection. I wonder what
lay behind her tough yet loving, attentive eyes. She seemed to belong to
the world she inhabited. Moreover, she was central to it. I wonder what
she felt in her heart. What inner struggle could not be expressed?
Esther Jacobson née Gordon epitomised the Hebrew matriarch as the
world entered the twentieth century. She kept a strictly kosher home,
spoke and wrote Hebrew and Yiddish, brought up five children and, after
the premature death of Jacob, she supported the family by running a
shop in the multicultural District Six in Cape Town, later to be bulldozed
by the apartheid government because it epitomised cultural integration
when they espoused segregation.
Her daughter became a communist and fought against apartheid.
Esther could multitask. She was pivotal in ensuring that Jewish immi-
grants from Eastern Europe became integrated into the local community
after making the hazardous journey from persecution to a new life in
Figure 1 My great grandparents, Maria and Jacob, with my grandmother and great
uncle. Image courtesy Stephen Blumenthal.
European Judaism Vol. 55 No. 1 Spring 2022 31
Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
Africa. She ensured they felt a sense of belonging to the place that was
now their home. Esther kept house for her daughter and she brought
up her granddaughters and looked after her great grandchildren. No-one
asked about Esther’s origins; it was always assumed.
Yet the transgenerational trauma of Esther’s denial lay at the heart of
the psychological conflicts which affected subsequent generations of my
family. It is one of the things that provided the impetus for me to seek
out psychoanalysis. I have made a profession of trying to understand the
burden of unprocessed adversity previous generations could not carry
and so passed on to their children and their children’s children without
consciously knowing they were doing so.
We seek analysis for the burdens we bear, which were unknowingly
transmitted to us. The symptoms we suffer are the signifiers, the repre-
sentatives, of the baggage our forefathers were unable to deal with and
passed to us to carry. In some respects, the analytic task is to help a person
to say – this belongs to you, not to me. This is mine; that is yours. Our
identities can be a badge of honour or a burden. We may carry our iden-
tities with pride, or we may bear them with shame. How we are treated
according to the labels that are applied to us shapes the sense we have of
Ironically, because Judaism is matrilineal, my credentials as an
Orthodox Jew by birth, which bestows upon me the right, for example,
to read from the Torah in an Orthodox synagogue, are due to Maria. She
endured the challenging process of Orthodox conversion, but started life
baptised in a Dutch Reformed Church in the South African interior.
Identity through the Psychoanalytic Lens
Identity is hardly mentioned in the psychoanalytic literature, but it lies
at the heart of the analytic task. There are a number of related terms that
are widely used in psychoanalysis, such as identification. But in relation
to identity, Freud made only one reference to it. He did so with regard
to his being a Jew when he addressed a meeting of the B’Nai B’Rith in
Whenever I felt an inclination to national enthusiasm I strove to sup-
press it as being harmful and wrong, alarmed by the warning examples
of the peoples among whom we Jews live. But plenty of other things
remained over to make the attraction of Jewry and Jews irresistible –
many obscure emotional forces, which were the more powerful the less
they could be expressed in words, as well as a clear consciousness of
inner identity, the safe privacy of a common mental construction.1
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Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
Freud expresses a preference to identify himself as a Jew, rather
than as an Austrian. But it is the second part of his statement, with his
reference to ‘obscure emotional forces . . .’, which suggests two levels
of understanding the notion of identity: the individual and the group.
Identity is almost entirely synonymous with the group rather than the
individual, yet the individual level is as important.
The Group Level
When I think who I am, my first port of call is to reach for membership
of the various groups to which I belong, both real and imaginary. Gender
is implicitly the first thing that occurs to me, but I do not articulate this
explicitly. In my case it’s obvious, but there are many people for whom
this is not the case and a host of pronouns have proliferated in recent
times to capture the sense of ambiguity many people experience in rela-
tion to their gender identity.
Group designations are a window into our souls. As a young person,
my great grandmother took her identity into her own hands. She decided
she could have a fuller life elsewhere. Her audacious claim of the clan
with whom she felt kinship, her assumption of a new identity and her
rejection of what she considered not to be her, took courage. But Maria’s
secret re-designation as Esther, her concealment of that window, impacted
upon her children. They bore the burden of her disavowal. What per-
sonal issues lay behind her determination to eradicate her identity with
her family, her community, her cultural and religious group, her entire
people? She replaced the rituals which shaped her as a child with an
entirely new set of cultural rituals – the lighting of the Sabbath candles,
the breaking of bread, the making of her home kosher for Passover. Yet
much remained silent and obscure, as Freud says: ‘the more powerful the
less they could be expressed in words’.
Many of the people I see, particularly those with severe problems, tell
me about early experiences in which they have had their gender, their
racial or their religious identities attacked either subtly or explicitly, and
the particular way in which they express their troubles reflects this. Mr S,
for example, was the fourth boy and his mother had a name for the girl
she wished for. He is called the male version of that name. He was the
wrong child at the most fundamental level. He discovered in analysis that
the suffering he endured reflected the burden she bestowed upon him.
The group level has a positive and a negative side. Our national
identity brings us into connection with people we do not know. We pay
taxes so people we have never met can benefit. During this pandemic,
European Judaism Vol. 55 No. 1 Spring 2022 33
Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
I continued to ply my trade and I consented to money being spent and
national debt accumulated so that someone I will never meet can benefit.
This is the upside of nationalism. Esther’s new identity led her to express
her solidarity with people she did not know by helping Jewish immi-
grants fleeing tyranny to become part of her adopted community. One
family gifted her a set of silver candlesticks which I light on the Sabbath
and in remembrance of her and the generations of families who have
broken bread by their light. I study the uneven contours of the candela-
bras and imagine a Jewish silversmith with a large beard in some small
Eastern European village forge creating them in centuries past.
There is of course the negative aspect of national identity. The
‘common mental construction’ of the group can be galvanised, and iden-
tity with others can be used against other groups. Jacob left his home in
Eastern Europe because he was a Jew. His community was destroyed. He
came to a country which persecuted people on the basis of the colour of
their skin, deprived them of nationhood and land and divided families.
Jacob was unaware of the future of the country which provided him a
home. Apartheid systematically dismantled the structure of society by
attacking identity, both in relation to ethnicity and gender. Black people
were given citizenship in rural areas and deprived of the richest areas
where the wealth of the country existed. Communities were torn apart
by ‘permitting’ the men folk to come to the gold mining areas around
Johannesburg to sell their labour, while leaving the women and children
at home, thereby depriving the families of a father. Grown men, fathers,
even grandfathers, were referred to as ‘boys’, as in ‘the garden boy’, and
grown women and mothers were referred to as ‘girls’.
Esther must have been in late adolescence when she met Jacob.
The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson2 maintained that personality develops
through eight stages of psychosocial development, from infancy to adult-
hood. A particular psychosocial crisis is experienced during each stage.
Adolescence is concerned with a conflict between identity and confusion.
This is when a young person forms a sense of self and asks the question
‘who am I?’ in order to establish their beliefs, values and goals. The ado-
lescent is involved in an exploration of different ideas and roles, hence
the cornerstone of life at this stage is the peer group. The adolescent
leaves the family, which until now has been the main source of identity
formation, and explores through experimentation their kinship with the
wider community. Esther’s sense of empowerment, to transform herself
in the way she did, is reminiscent of the exploration of gender roles and
sexuality in current times. Young people have the opportunity to explore
sexuality in a way that brings both a sense of liberation and increased
anxiety. The problems arising from Esther’s adoption of a new identity
34 European Judaism Vol. 55 No. 1 Spring 2022
Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
while denying her origins offer a salutary lesson for a new generation
where choice is both a liberation and potential tyranny.
The Portman Clinic, which is part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS
Trust, where I work, was established in 1933. There exists a meticulous
record of the patients seen there over the eighty-eight years of the clinic’s
existence. This has provided the London Metropolitan Archive with a
valuable window to study the changing zeitgeist of identity over this time.
It is sobering to consider that homosexuality was illegal when viewed
from the present. One example is of a 28-year-old patient referred in the
1950s for ‘Irritability’. She was diagnosed as suffering from ‘Character
Disorder’, described as the ‘inability to accept femininity . . . the Patient
had strong wish to be a boy’. She was prescribed individual and group
treatment and at follow-up her outcome was declared a success – she
was now engaged to be married; her fiancé was training to be a psycho-
analyst! This is living proof of moralism masquerading as science and the
need to keep an open mind.
The Individual Level
Nearly a century separated Esther and I, yet we had a strong bond. She
looked after me as a young child and I have fleeting memories of her con-
taining maternal embrace, which gradually slipped away as her memories
faded with the onset of cognitive decline. Esther had a special name for
me – ‘my little caterpillar’. I was not yet formed then; I had not under-
gone the identity transformation within the familial cocoon. What was
I to become? Some essence of me was there, but my self was yet to be
Psychoanalysis is radical in taking the individual as the unit for iden-
tity rather than the group. This is different from the world of identity pol-
itics, where group membership is what defines identity. Battles between
the races, sexes and nations become the defining struggle. The quest to
resolve conflict is the triumph of one group’s ideas over another. In fact,
reaching for the group level of identity can be defensive and can take us
away from who we really are. I make this statement cautiously, because
of course, identity often comes to matter when you feel your identity is
under attack – like Jacob who left his home because his group was being
targeted, or like people of colour who are treated differently because of
the colour of their skin.
In psychoanalysis the struggle takes place at an individual level. I
think this is what Freud refers to when he speaks of the ‘inner iden-
tity’. The world is changed by changing the self, the individual identity.
European Judaism Vol. 55 No. 1 Spring 2022 35
Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
People come to analysis not knowing who they are. My job is to take
them into this unknown territory. In known territory, you have a map.
In the unknown, you do not. The slow progressive work of psychoanal-
ysis helps a person find an identity for themselves that is separate from
what was forced upon them. Despite much cajoling by her grandchildren
in her senility, Esther never relinquished her secrets. She never told her
story of the inner struggles that led to her abandoning her kinship group.
While identity is peripheral as a concept in the psychoanalytic lit-
erature, a number of other related terms are central to psychoanalysis,
including identification, introjection, incorporation, internalisation and
Identification is the process whereby the subject assimilates an aspect,
property or attribute of the other and is transformed wholly or partially
by the model that other provides. It is by means of a series of identifi-
cations that the personality is constituted and specified. It is thus in the
process of our development that we take on aspects of our parents, for
example, which then combine with in-built constitutional elements,
which then populate our internal worlds. We may also counter-identify, in
other words, become the opposite of our parents.
In the right circumstances we develop an integrated sense of self,
separate from others, but with a permeable boundary. Of course, we all
can struggle with our identity and our sense of ourselves, particularly at
times of emotional crisis, such as profound loss. When one partner of a
couple who have been together for many years dies, for example, the
other may take on characteristics of that person.
Identification for Freud is distinct from imitation, which is conscious
and deliberate, incorporation and introjection, which are more concerned
with replication. To be human is to identify, not incorporate. When
someone imitates or incorporates aspects of the other, we think of this as
a false self. In some respects, the analytic task involves differentiating our
true identifications from our imitations, in order that we might be more
able to be our authentic self.
Identity and the Analytic Process
Freud thought that our conflictual experiences are repressed and remain
unconscious, but the aspects of ourselves which are unconscious also seek
expression. These are articulated not through words, but by finding rep-
resentation in a variety of ways, including in dreams and in symptoms,
but also through behaviour, and hence his concept of acting out. In his
paper, ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working Through’, Freud wrote:
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Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
The patient cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him,
and what he cannot remember may be precisely the essential part of
it. He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary
The patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten
and repressed, but acts it out. He reproduces it not as a memory, but as
an action: he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeat-
ing it. For instance, the patient does not say that he remembers that he
used to be defiant and critical towards his parents’ authority; instead, he
behaves that way to the doctor.4
As a psychoanalyst, you get used to being the object of another per-
son’s assumptions about you. These projections turn out to contain vital
information about the person which has been repressed because it is con-
flictual. This is the grist for the mill of psychoanalytic work.
As a psychoanalyst, you prepare yourself to be misperceived; in fact
you welcome it. But it is, nevertheless, testing because you have to tol-
erate what you are not. Sometimes you might be seen as an indulgent
or withholding mother, sometimes a harsh and judgemental father. You
withhold the impulse to say: ‘No I am not that, I am this’. This is challeng-
ing to one’s own identity, because you are perceived in ways that mirror
the patient’s internal identity (as well as aspects of yourself you would
prefer not to see!). These are the tools of the craft, because this provides
the essential insight into the internal world of the other – the assump-
tions the patient has about you are meaningful regarding the figures that
populate their internal world.
This is the identity we piece together as the analytic process unfolds.
The patient in analysis assumes things about who you are, they identify
people in you, which then turn out to be aspects of their own identity.
The analytic work proceeds on the basis of retrieving these unwanted
sides of the self – you could call it the shadow side – and re-owning these
lost aspects which were projected and located elsewhere. I wonder about
all those fragments of Esther’s identity that remained disavowed until
the end of her days. What might psychoanalysis have revealed about her
inner identity, the discomfort she experienced with aspects of herself,
which led her to find her clan elsewhere, and to vehemently deny any
connection with her past?
This shadow side can of course be projected by a group onto another
group, who then come to hold all the ‘bad’, hated aspects of the group’s
identity. This is what happened in Nazi Germany. Despite our awareness
of it, this recurs in our world, which is beset by discrimination on the
basis of colour, creed, gender and sexuality.
European Judaism Vol. 55 No. 1 Spring 2022 37
Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
The Fluidity of Identity
Sometimes people come for help in a state of uncertainty about their
identity and at others they come in a state of false certainty. We try to
keep an open mind and remain with ambiguity. There is a constant temp-
tation to foreclose on thinking by rushing to a quick solution in order to
resolve the problem of identity prematurely.
This is hard when a person thinks, for example, that the solution to
their problems might be to change their identity in a concrete way. If
Esther were to have come as a patient, we might have considered with
her what led to her need to make such radical changes in her life. This
may have helped her to integrate her past with her present. Our aim
would not have been to steer her in one direction or another. Rather it
would be to have assisted her to understand herself as a whole person
and what discomfort led her to cut herself off from her past. In the case
of religious and cultural identity, as with Esther, there is the possibility of
reverting back and to undertake the psychological work later. However,
in the case of gender, for example, gender reassignment surgery or med-
ication to alter hormones is immutable. In such situations it is vital to
think things through with the person before undertaking radical irre-
versible changes.5
This brings me to an important statement about identity from a psy-
choanalytic perspective. Identity is a fluid thing; it is not static. How we
identify ourselves, our identifications, are constantly changing. We may
wish to reach for categories, be that membership of one group or another,
because that provides a safe refuge from psychological conflict.
Racist ideology draws dividing lines where they should not be, and
interferes with the permeability of identity. One of the tragedies of
Nazism was that Jews in Germany were becoming more integrated into
the society at the time. In Bosnia, Serbs, Croats and Muslims lived side
by side and communities were integrated, until cynical power-hungry
nationalists exploited these divisions. In my country of origin, apartheid
was an extension of the British policy of divide and rule. This emphasised
division between racial and cultural groups, with the purpose of creating
fractious conflict and preventing unity, thereby weakening opposition.
The tragedy of this tyrannising of identity is that it creates an iden-
tity based on a siege mentality; we might call this a siege identity. At both
an individual and a group level, the targeting of people because of their
gender, sexuality, race, religion or culture has the effect of galvanising
group identity in a negative way, in that it is based on hostility rather
than positive kinship bonds, which has the effect of what I will call an
affirmative identity.
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Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
A siege identity is based on a sense of threat. A group united on the
basis of insecurity is apt to behave in primitive atavistic ways, such as
gaining strength and unity through targeting other groups. It is based
upon a vertical relationship of power rather than a horizontal relation-
ship of peaceful coexistence. Group relations based on mutual respect are
replaced by associations of power and dominance. In such cases, shaming
of one group by another triumphs over a situation of equity where there
are bonds of reciprocal affirmation.
We Are Many Selves
Psychic reality is far from categorical. We are many selves, not one. When
we use the word ‘psychodynamic’, it implies movement and dynamic
interaction. It is a model of the mind which is based on the notion of
psychic conflict. It implies an internal struggle between different parts of
the self. We can be at war with ourselves internally, one internal voice
saying one thing, and another which prohibits it. This is one of the reasons
people seek help – to resolve such intrapsychic conflict and find peace by
tuning in to their multiple identities which can exist in contradiction to
one another.
This is poetically put by Virginia Woolf in Orlando:
These selves of which we are built up, one on top of another, as plates
are piled on a waiter’s hand, have . . . little constitutions and rights of
their own.
One will only come if it is raining, another [will emerge only] in a room
with green curtains, another when Mrs. Jones is not there, another if
you can promise it a glass of wine – and so on. . . . Everybody can mul-
tiply from his own experience the different terms which his different
selves have made with him – and some are too wildly ridiculous to be
mentioned in print at all.6
Experiments on epilepsy patients requiring psychosurgery to sever
the corpus callosum, the connections between the two hemispheres
of the brain, show this to be more than poetic truth; it has scientific
validity too. Roger Sperry, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in
1981, asked a teenage boy who had this procedure what he wanted to be
when he grew up.7 He replied that he wanted to be a draughtsman, but
this came from his left hemisphere, which has language and is oriented
to logic and reasoning. Sperry wanted to know the aspirations of the
right hemisphere. They gave the boy Scrabble tiles to spell this out and
European Judaism Vol. 55 No. 1 Spring 2022 39
Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
wrote on a piece of paper the same question. He spelled out ‘automobile
Because of the lack of connectivity between the hemispheres, split
brain patients have difficulty accounting for these differences and their
formulations lack coherence. In effect, we are all doing a similar manoeu-
vre all the time, trying to integrate these various aspects of our character.
Our identities are always evolving and we never quite reach an end-
point. The free association technique has this notion at its heart. The only
instruction given to a patient is to try to talk without censorship and say
everything that comes into their mind, no matter how trivial, embarrass-
ing or irrelevant it may seem.
People formulate what they think in the process of saying it. If you
give a person a chance to speak, they may change their mind in the
middle. It is through this process of speaking as freely as you can that a
deeper identity can emerge. This journey is challenging because it exposes
the patient and the analyst to uncertainty and doubt.
We have a tendency to dislike ambiguity and to want to name things
and categorise them, which provides a sense of safety. Group identities –
gender, race, religion, class – can sometimes act as false signifiers, in that
they are a means of avoiding conflict and taking refuge in false certainty.
The biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote an influential paper in 1983
called ‘What, If Anything, Is a Zebra?’ Stripes do not a zebra make. We
define groups of animals by their genealogy and not because they have
independently evolved similar features. Zebras exist as three species.
While they all have black and white stripes, one of them, the mountain
zebra, is closer to a horse than to its other two erstwhile relations; it is
more precisely a striped horse rather than a zebra.8
Prior to the discovery of the gene, the living world was classified
according to the phenotype – what things look like, their common char-
acteristics. According to the genotype, however, it is the underlying
genetic structure that determines membership of a reproductive group.
These three animals were previously considered ‘zebras’, but this is no
longer the case. This challenges the way in which we define group mem-
bership in the human world.
Two important points about identity emerge from this. Firstly,
the categories with which we define the world change and evolve.
Homosexuality, for example, once constituted a psychiatric diagnosis and
it was illegal. In contradiction to this, there exist natural underlying struc-
tures which underpin our world; they are not just social constructions.
While we should question the categories we impose upon the world, the
structures we have evolved should be respected. We relinquish our tax-
onomies at our peril.
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Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
There is a Kabbalistic riddle which asks: if God is omnipotent, omni-
scient and omnipresent, what does he not have? He lacks finitude, which
is why he created us, to have what he does not have. Limitation signifies
the inherent tragedy of our lives, but it is also the source of meaning.
Identity has emerged as a ‘master signifier’ in the humanities and social
sciences.9 Yet selfhood, who we are, is not just a question of what group
we belong to. It is more centrally about what we internalise in the course
of our development, with whom we identify.
I will never know why my great grandmother turned her back on her
family and her community and made the decision to change her identity.
Her determination in doing so suggests a deeper personal need. There was
a mystery in the family which was never solved and the generations that
came after her carried this burden, sometimes not understanding what
was in the baggage they carried. I think of her strong identity as a Jewish
woman, the community she established around her, and what must have
been a profound conflict for her about her sense of belonging. My great
grandmother lived to 100. She was the powerful centre of the family. Her
identity seemed clear to us and clear to her, but so much lay behind the
sturdy figure she showed the world.
Dr Stephen Blumenthal is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and
Psychoanalyst in private practice and the Tavistock and Portman NHS
Foundation Trust. He is a clinician, author, researcher and teacher and he
has published widely in the academic press and in national newspapers.
1. S. Freud, Address to the Society of B’Nai B’Rith, in The Standard Edition of
the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XX, ed. and trans. J.
Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1941 [1926]), 271–274 (here 274).
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European Judaism Vol. 55 No. 1 Spring 2022 41
Stephen Blumenthal Who Am I, Who Are We?
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
The capacity of transgender to incorporate all gender variance and sexual preferences has become a powerful tool of activism and personal identification. Rather than being an index of marginality “trans” has become a central cultural site. In this paper, I will argue that this identity label encompasses a complex range of internal psychic positions in relation to consciously stated sexual preferences and gender identifications. My aim is to explore what can appear to be in some cases a premature embracement of the empowering potential of the transgender identification through my work with under 18-year-olds who are seeking medical intervention for gender dysphoria. This can undermine the painful psychic work required to establish what transgender means for any given young person. In an external culture where to ask “why transgender” (as opposed to “how transgender”) is felt to be pathologising, working with these young people can prove difficult for the analyst. The challenge is to tread the fine line between a dialogue based on an equidistant curiosity about meaning and function that is core to an analytic approach, and a posture of implicit skepticism.
Describes experiences with advanced epileptics in whom an extensive midline section of the cerebral commissures had been carried out in an effort to contain severe epileptic convulsions not controlled by medication. The most remarkable result of this operation was the apparent lack of effect on ordinary behavior. However, among the most significant symptoms, collectively termed as the syndrome of hemisphere deconnection, was an apparent doubling in most realms of conscious awareness. Each hemisphere seemed to have its own separate and private sensations, perceptions, concepts, and impulses to act, with related volitional, cognitive, and learning experiences. Appartus for studying the lateralization of visual, tactual, lingual, and associated functions in the separated hemispheres is described. Observations led to the opinion that the minor hemisphere constitutes a 2nd conscious entity that is characteristically human and runs along in parallel with the more dominant stream of consciousness in the major hemisphere. (20 ref.)