Yale University

Sound Off !

Reply to William McGaughey "On Finding a Positive Self-Identity for a Person like Me"

John Wylie

October 10, 2013

Category: Society > Rights

I want to applaud William McGaughey for putting his finger on what must be a widespread problem amongst our classmates, including myself. Once, when I was feeling put upon by someone very successful boasting (and probably exaggerating) about how poor he was growing up, I took a deep breath and announced, “I am a DMW.” “A DMW? What’s that?” “A downwardly-mobile-wasp,” I replied, trying to muster some attitude. But I have to admit that this was a desperate gesture of empty bravado to hide the fact that I am similarly bereft of even one scrap of reverse-snobbery.

I am going to focus on the downwardly mobile part, which I think is an even bigger identity problem than being a plain old vanilla wasp, because whatever the race or ethnic background of that guy I was talking to, I took some solace in the fact that his children were going to have to face the same problem that William and I have had to cope with. So, the answers that I have come up with also pertain to our self-made, successful classmates’ children.

Suggestion #1. Get away from your parents and go in a different direction. I started following in my very successful surgeon father’s footsteps, but after two years of surgical training, I dropped out, became a psychiatrist, and moved to a different city.

Suggestion #2. Go underground. Despite the above outburst (remember, I only did that once), realize that you can’t fight the Horatio Alger thing publically. It is just too huge. Accept that propping up a downwardly mobile identity is a lonely struggle. While being a psychiatrist by day, I secretly nurtured an identity of being a philosopher of human nature by night.

Suggestion #3. Become obsessed with offbeat, ironic projects that slyly poke fun at the American Dreamers. I singlehandedly built and maintained a grass tennis court in our back yard which, at its height, looked like Wimbledon — all on a shoestring. I also bought a 10-year-old Fleetwood Cadillac limousine (at the time the longest car in America) for $3000. I loved that thing so much that I painted its engine baby blue!

Suggestion #4. Embrace your circumstance in the larger context of your particular position in your family’s history as worthy. See yourself as blazing a trail for what to do after the American Dream has passed you by before even starting out. We are not the first, nor the last, in this forlorn situation, and we need more role models.

Suggestion #5. Make damn sure that your family life is successful at any cost. I had to extract myself from a horrible marriage before catching a real winner, which is the real secret of my downwardly mobile success.