The Chameleon and the City

I recently read an article that was published in The New Yorker called “The Chameleon”.  The article was about a Frenchman, Frédéric Bourdin, who has spent much of his life impersonating children.  He traveled all over Europe, inventing or assuming identities and assimilating himself into the culture of each community that he fool – he even convinced a Texas family that he was their missing son for five months.  Although Bourdin claims his motivation was in playing the part and for the emotional pay-off of feeling loved and that he is not a pedophile or sexually motivated, there’s no denying that what he did was creepy and disturbing.  However, there is a connection between what he did and what countless people do every day when they move to a city: they reinvent themselves.  In the city, you can become anyone you want to.

When I graduated high school and left for college way too many a few years ago, I was excited for the fresh start I had.  I moved half-way across the country, and I was excited for a new city (albeit one in Nebraska), new clothes (in my case, winter clothes… living in Nebraska is a lot like living in Jotunheim with the Frost Giants), and a new name (Jess instead of Jessica).  My dad was in the Army when I was a kid, so I was used to moving every couple of years, but moving to Lincoln was different – I had never lived in a city before, and I was completely on my own.  Making that kind of change can scary, but life in the metropolis proved to be exciting and engaging.

While reading Skyscraper (by Faith Baldwin), I found intrigued by the character of Jennie Le Grande.  City life for Jennie is a whirlwind of dates and dresses.  Jennie, a model, changed her name when she left Brooklyn and in doing so reinvented herself into the kind of girl who has a new beau every week.  Like it does for so many other people, fictional and real alike, the city lets Jennie be the person she wants to be.  Jennie does not feel tied down by the social conventions of her era.  She dates who she wants, and she is not shy about voicing her penchant for men with money.  Jennie is a woman in charge of her own fate, as she knows her modeling career will not last forever.  She has taken it upon herself to enjoy her youth and the city allows her to be wined and dined by a wide selection of men.

The city is a mecca for the chameleon in all of us – you can be transformed by the neon lights and graffiti-covered street signs waiting around every metal-and-glass corner and down every concrete sidewalk.  The true draw of the city is not the hustle and bustle, but instead lies in the promise of anonymity and a chance to start anew, a chance to break free from your former self.  For Frédéric Bourdin, each new identity was a chance to make an emotional connection, even if that bond was based on a lie.  Each new community was a way for Bourdin to escape his own unhappy childhood and create a newer, better one for himself.  For me, living in Lincoln meant new experiences, new friends, and a chance to break out of my shell and become an independent young adult.  No matter who you are or who you want to become, the city is there, waiting for anyone who is ready for a new beginning.



Filed under Continuing Class Discussion, Creative Responses

4 responses to “The Chameleon and the City

  1. I just read the first page of the New Yorker story, and I am definitely intrigued. The idea of anonymity leading to self-invention is present in a lot of urban theory, from Georg Simmel to Ernest Burgess to today. For some reason, your post reminded me of my favorite heroine who moves to a city and reinvents herself, Holly Golightly. (Maybe because she treats men the same way Jennie does.) Do you think the idea of reinvention in the city is different for men compared to women?

  2. ecc0009

    I really enjoyed this post. Being from Birmingham, my view of living in a REALLY large city is not that great, but I completely see what you mean about the ability to reinvent yourself in the city. The story about the man fooling people is quite astonishing, creepy, but at least he says he is no pedophile! Reinvention in the city is something, I for one, believe that certain people need. Not saying you personally needed to change who you were when you made your big move, but having time to become who you want to be on your own, where virtually no one is going to know has to be exciting. Nice job!

  3. This post proved interesting. I like how you incorporated the New Yorker story as an introduction and provided a nice flow of information and transition to tie in identities in the city by using Jennie as an example. Growing up in a small town and never living anywhere else, really helped to mold my identity; thus, I’ve never felt that I could reinvent myself to the same gruop of people. However, since I have yet to experience this for myself, it makes this post even more interesting to me and something I hope to be able to experiement with in the future. I can easily see how college and the big city can become a place of redemption and loss of identity. But with that, it allows one to take control of their own identity and reinvent themselves with no attachments from their “old identities.” This type of redemption gives ones a second chance to escape the person they were and depict themselves to be somene they want to be, or want others to see. Jennie seems to be a great example of this. I love that you incorporated her lack of caring about what society thought of her, because for me, it’s an admirable quality I wish I had! Really great post. I think you have several great ideas that flow together nicely and would work great as a starting point for the final project!

  4. jordanorr

    A Ha! Great post here! Love the chameleon metaphor! However, with my paper topic – I play a little bit of the Devil’s advocate. I agree that the city gives everyone an opportunity to express their true feelings or gives them a chance to “experiment” with new personailites. However, I beleive that with all of these “skins” that we can try on in a large city, it’s very easy to lose ourselves and forget who we are meant to be. If we spend all day trying to be someone we’re not, are we really anyone at all?

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