I’ve been introduced to a new word recently…ipseity. It means ‘essence’ or ‘self’…who I feel I am inside myself. This feels to me to be an advance on the term ‘identity’ which is better used to distinguish one person from another and has associations with being asked to ‘produce evidence of identity’, like a passport or birth certificate, in official situations.
What is my ipseity I ask myself? Who I am seems so strongly connected to the relationships I have, the roles I perform and the life experiences I have had it is difficult to identify very much that is essentially me beyond these things. Does my genetic background make any difference? Well, I am the daughter of an English woman and an Italian man but brought up in the UK not speaking Italian and didn’t go to Italy until I was 17. I am proud that my father was Italian – he seemed different to lots of other dads – but have no idea if my acknowledgement of being ‘half-Italian’ is based on genes, environment or upbringing. I know where I am from and that does feel important to me but it doesn’t feel as if it has anything to do with who I am.
And this is what sometimes troubles me when I hear or read about some donor conceived adults saying, “I don’t know who I am”. Do genes really equal destiny? I don’t think so and nor does the distinguished geneticist who spoke at our DCN national meeting recently. But he was talking about science and DC adults are talking about feelings. Are these competing discourses that can never meet? Presumably DC adults are basing their feelings – or at least those feelings that are not to do with being deceived for many years – on what is known about genetic inheritance. And, according to our expert, that doesn’t seem to be an awful lot. With epigenetics now adding extra layers of complexity as scientists understand more about the impact parenting and the environment, in the womb and beyond, have on altering gene function.
It struck me when I read the Chairman’s Forward of the Law Reform Committee of Victoria’s report in to Access by Donor Conceived people to Information about Donors, how he referred to donor conceived adults being ‘denied information about their identity’, thus reinforcing the idea that somehow access to something beyond knowing where you came from was being withheld.
In an article in the Independent newspaper yesterday two donor conceived adults described their feelings on finding out in adulthood about their origins. One is comfortable with the information but curious about her donor as she would like to know where she comes from. The other is upset and angry and definitely feels that there is something missing in her life. The first young woman was told by her mother when she was in her late twenties, the second found out through a third party and confronted her parents. Did this make the difference between the way they feel about being donor conceived…one comfortable but curious, unworried about being told late, and the other furious about late telling and actively searching for her donor? Wondering ‘where I am from’ and ‘who I am’ qualitatively feel like two different things to me. I wonder what ‘ipseity’ means for each of them?
I am quite clear that I am much more than the sum of my genetic heritage, but how would I feel if I found out now that my male progenitor was not the man who raised me? Pretty upset at being deceived, sad that my parents had felt they could not be honest with me and sad that my ‘half-Italian’ status might be questioned by some people, although the cultural and environmental connection would remain. Would I doubt who I am. Unlikely.
There is no question that some DC adults genuinely feel bereft, abandoned, disconnected and angry. How could anyone with heart try to deny them these feelings. And I do absolutely support access to donor information. But, apart from the deception if they were told late, I still don’t understand exactly what these strong feelings are based on. It doesn’t seem to be the science. My own position is with the wise words of psychotherapist Adam Phillips in his book Darwin’s Worms, “The past influences everything but dictates nothing”.
Link to the article in the Independent –