Maud Casey’s novel contains plenty of pieces that, just like Elizabeth’s puzzle, shapes one’s identity into a whole. Among these pieces what strikes me as central, at least to the Doctor’s attempt in helping Albert regain his Self, is the importance of having a story. Casey encapsulates this point on page 127: “The problem is not that Albert’s story of his life is happy or unhappy; it is that it is invisible to him.” Albert evidently has a sense of Self but somewhat lacking in what Antionio Damasio calls an autobiographical self. He has no memory of how he wandered from place to another for so long and this deprived him of that autobiographical self. Thus the Doctor resorted to hypnotism to retrieve these memories and reconstruct his identity and find out what made him wander the first time.
Here the question is what led Albert to lose his memories. A quick read about disassociated fugue shows that sometimes stressful events or traumatic experiences can lead to this mental disorder. Dissociative Identity Disorder, in which people acquire two or more personalities, have similar causes. A traumatic experience may trigger the brain’s coping mechanism to protect the autobiographical self by separating it from that event. In one person this coping mechanism may lead to the creation of a separate personality or in the case of Albert an urge to flee (uproot from home and identity) and forget. The disorders may be simply manifestations of such coping mechanisms that vary across cultures or as Ian Hacking writes “are entirely socially conditioned.” The cure then is to allow the person to integrate the event with its autobiographical self.
There is this notion of the autobiographical self that can only exist in a state of harmony, which Damasio might call homeostasis. Like nature, the autobiographical self tends to seek a state of balance. A traumatic event may be momentarily disruptive but if such shocks can be integrated into the autobiographical self then the self returns to its balanced state. If the disruptive force is too big and integration does not occur, the imbalance may lead to mental disorder. So the story that one has of oneself and which creates this autobiographical self is always in a state of balance. This is not to say that it must have a pattern or routine, although it would certainly help, but that a person has, and this is just an example, a view of himself or herself that matches other people’s view of that person. There is wiggle room of course but in general the inner experience and the outer experience matches.
Another question is how does one’s autobiographical self attain a high tolerance for disruptive forces in order to retain its harmonious state or homeostasis? The answer may have a Zen-like approach to it as a certain level of detachment toward life seems necessary, that is the kind of detachment that brings oneself into harmony with life, a detachment that lets go of the apparent and attaches itself to the meaning behind the apparent.