Once in a while, I would remember this painting I saw at the Rijksmuseum during my trip to Amsterdam in 2019.
There’s nothing remarkable about this painting. By that I mean, it hasn’t achieved the same level of fame as Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” or Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”. You could argue that the painter, Jan Adam Krusemann, was somewhat popular for his portraits, but in the pantheon of artists, he doesn’t have that name recall as Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Frida Kahlo, or Artemisia Gentileschi. And when you Google the subject, Alida Christina Assink, you would barely find any information about her.
That drab October afternoon though, I listened to the audio guide as I stared at the portrait of Alida’s face intently, longer than at any other artwork inside that museum.
In the painting, she is depicted in clothing that was fashionable at the time: puffed sleeves and a hoop skirt. She sits relaxed, positioned exactly to communicate a certain softness, a gentility that the description explained was fairly typical of aristocrats and socialites of that era. You would think she was just another young lady during her time who was sufficiently wealthy and bored to have a painting of her made: immortalizing this idealized depiction of herself, at the prime of life.
Except Alida wasn’t a rich girl. The truth is, she didn’t have a title or money at all. Together with her mother, she lived with a widower who was speculated to have commissioned this portrait only to improve Alida’s status in life by finding a suitor who’d marry her.
Alida was, in short, an impostor.
Sometime in 2013, over iced tea and cigarettes (this was before I quit smoking), I had this conversation with a former friend—the exact topic is hazy now, but there was that one statement she said that I couldn’t forget:
“Siya yung tipo ng taong gagawin ang lahat para makuha ang gusto n’ya.”
I would often revisit that in my head and ponder about the many layers of meaning I wanted to peel from her statement. It was used as a ridicule, true. But I kept thinking: was it such a bad thing? Why did it sound like it was such a bad thing?
There is a particular feel-good narrative we enjoy: the narrative about people luckily stumbling into success. We like listening to stories of people being magically plucked out of their swamp existence by fate, and suddenly transformed into wonder and glory.
It turns us off to see people struggle so hard, as if breaking a sweat is the most undignified thing to do. It’s off-putting to see people breaking out of the narratives we’ve built around them. I think that’s precisely the reason why we find it so funny when we hear someone bumble with another accent, or show off flashy things. We call it tacky, obtuse, pretentious.
Recently, I’ve been having conversations with different sets of friends about what authenticity really means. When we encourage people to stay true to themselves, what exactly do we mean?
I’ve tried to explore this topic before, but frankly, I’m still at a loss, grappling with the whole concept of authenticity. Do people really think that there is an essential self that exists within, like a well we can draw from? At what point in our lives do we decide that that is our authentic self? Do we just wake up one day and say, this is who I am, and from now on I will no longer grow up from this idea of myself, and I will take it to my grave?
As I grow older, the more I believe that the capacity for change within ourselves is almost limitless, if only we recognize that people are not static things, but always in a constant state of flux. Who I am five years ago is definitely a totally different person from who I am now.
But in the same way, I also understand that there are parts of who we are that may be fixed. We are made of matter, after all. As much as the human imagination is powerful, we can’t escape the reality that our existence is the magnificent dance of atoms: a biochemical symphony that is chaotic but also predictable.
There’s this one scene from “Closer” that I recall really well, among the many other scenes that I love from this movie.
Trying to make sense of a relationship that has spiraled downwards, Larry (played by Clive Owen) begs to Alice (brought to life by an equally amazing actor Natalie Portman):
“Tell me something true.”
She responds detachedly:
“Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off. But it’s better if you do.”
At the end of the movie, we discover that the Alice every character knew was a well-fabricated lie. There was freedom in that false identity, a shield that she used to protect herself from everybody else. She could be as vulnerable as she wanted but still be untouchable, inaccessible. There was a part of her that was solely hers.
Maybe that sense of detachment from one’s self allows you to objectively assess who you truly are, like a person reading a story and seeing it across chapters, from beginning until the end. When you’re in the midst of things, you tend to get lost in the minutiae of details within the immediate present. But perhaps detaching yourself from the self that is living the present, like a fascinated observer with barely a skin in the game, makes you more aware about what kind of you you truly accept.
I think about my life now and wonder: am I the impostor?
I’m writing this in a posh flat somewhere in Podgorica with a view of the mountains, and there’s this part of me that is looking at myself typing away on the couch in the living room.
“You never imagined that this would happen, did you?”, this detached-me, the me who is a casual observer, is whispering it to me right now.
It is true: the fifteen-year-old me who tried to escape my family would never have thought that I would be here, in this country I then barely knew existed. The twenty-year-old me, surviving a suicide attempt, would scoff at the idea that I would even make it past that night. Not in my wildest dreams nor crazily-envisioned timelines did I consider that this is where I’d end up in.
My different selves would call my present self an impostor, a poor facsimile of the true Evan. If things played out as the past Evans had projected them, present Evan would either be working in a soul-crushing call center or advertising job, or probably in an abusive relationship that’s only alive because I’m too scared to be alone, or dead.
Each of those realities were equally plausible, at certain points in time. And maybe, in the other breakaway realities, they all exist parallel to this existence.
Lying on this couch, I try to get in Alida’s head, trying to grasp what she was thinking while she was posing for that portrait. Was she excited at the prospect of a better life? Or was she ambivalent? Did she get what she wanted in the end? Did she think she was being deceptive, or was she just manifesting who she truly thought she was?
Do we stop being impostors the moment everyone is finally convinced we are who we say we are?