A six-year old recalls realizing, while at the dinner table, that there had been a time when she had not existed.
We were sitting at the table: my father, my mother, my two brothers and I. My little sister, who was only six months old, was lying in her cradle. We ate and talked—about what, I don’t remember. Suddenly I became aware that I hadn’t always been alive. I hadn’t always been somebody with a father, a mother, and two brothers. This realization was a shock to me. Up to this moment, it had always just been a given. Suddenly, it was different. I must have had a beginning somewhere at some time, must have come from somewhere. (122–23)
One who wrote to Kohnstamm recalls a scene, at about age four, in which he learns from the adults that he too would die someday. He was pretty down about that (144–45).
In this book are kin of Anthem's protagonist Equality 7-2521, in his climbing his way from his native society to the concept "I".
I had celebrated my ninth birthday just a few days before and was in the playground where I would often hang out when all of a sudden I felt, I am I, entirely for myself, only for myself, separated from the others and ultimately without any connection to them. I wrote my name in the sand—a scene which is still clear in my mind—and I looked at it and felt myself as being entirely my own. I was looking at myself. It was like a brief, terrific high, an extremely intense feeling of independence, without any fear; rather I was filled with pride and security. At this moment, the other children didn’t matter at all. I was I, though I felt no animosity towards them. (152)
One summer morning, I was playing in my parent’s garden. I must have been four or five years old, because my three older siblings were in school. Before me there was a shoebox padded with fresh lettuce leaves where I had placed several small snails. As I observed the snails and wondered what they would do next, it became clear to me that in my life I would never be able to know what it’s like to be a snail. And at the same time, I had an amazing sense of my own self, my own body, of being alive, all the sensory impressions, my light dress on my body, the wind, the sand on my hands, the sun on my back. An astonishing feeling of happiness flowed through me: I am me; I feel, I make my own decisions, I am inside and outside, I am one. (80)
It happened one morning when I was in the fifth grade. My best friend was in the hospital, and it was feared that she would die. I went to a Catholic school, and on this morning, in class, I prayed for the first time. I never did this otherwise. In our home, we weren’t religious. In our classroom, a porcelain angel was hanging on the wall, and I directed my gaze at it. The teacher had already begun the lesson. Suddenly I was seized with a profound feeling. Little by little I sensed that I was going ever farther into myself and I thought, I am I, I am Liesbeth and this will always be. It was a bit frightening, because I had been determined for all time and would never be able to become somebody else. But it was also beautiful that I would be able to experience everything and that I would be able to perceive it. I was I. When I repeated this later to myself, I would have this feeling again of descending, layer by layer, deeper inside of myself; it is still like that today.
As a child, I was very closed in on myself and never spoke to my parents about this experience. Sometimes I also felt rather lonely, but from this moment on I had myself! (46)
How one reacts to realizing one is an individual person—separate, different, and autonomous—varies somewhat between individuals, according to the reports compiled by Kohnstamm. The accompanying mood may be matter-of-fact or defiant or exhilarating with a feeling of strength and pride or fearful with a feeling of vulnerability and isolation. The individual profile of those moods people recalled in their individual epiphany I am I was influenced occasionally by recent events with family members or friends. I suggest responses are contoured also somewhat by individual temperament. Not everyone is so like Equality, who finds always an inviting plenitude and completeness in solitude.
Brushes with I am I in childhood occur also in noticing autonomy in one’s body. One woman recalls the moment, at age three, of stepping down a stairway noticing along the way that, inadvertently, she had not been holding onto the railing. “Then and there a feeling of unbelievable happiness flowed through me, because I had accomplished this, I could move freely without help from others, using my own strength” (50). At age twelve, with wider horizons, another woman recounts: "It had been a hot day. After a loud thunderstorm, I ran to a small park in the neighbourhood. It was nearly dark as I ran barefoot through the grass. Suddenly, I looked at my arms and legs and thought, These here are mine; this here is my body, I can do what I want with it. This was an astonishing thought that made me very happy" (54).
Kohnstamm’s chapter next to last is “Scientific Perspectives on the Development of Self-Awareness.” He includes past thought of psychologists concerning development of the grasp I am I, beginning early in the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. Contemporary work discussed includes that of Michael Lewis, that of Katherine Nelson, and that of William Damon and Daniel Hart. He brings these models of the development of self-awareness into confrontation with the I-am-I remembered episodes he received. Supplementary to Kohnstamm’s book, I should mention the 2004 paper “Early Memory, Early Self, and the Emergence of Autobiographical Memory” by Mark L. Howe.
We begin to use the personal pronouns I, me, and mine at age two. Knowing one’s proper name and knowing how to use first-person pronouns does not yet include realization of the deep fact I am I (or I am an I or I am me) (Kohnstamm 2007, 48). At two one can construct scenarios with dolls or other figures representing individual persons. One can make up dialogues, not only participate in them. The ability to converse with oneself as if between two characters is a plausible step necessary for coming to the insight I am I, where the first I is self as patient, actor, and controller, and the second I is self as in contrast to any other self (Kohnstamm 2007, 164, 174). Thinking I am I importantly includes thinking the identity of those two characters. Rand’s Equality accomplishes the same recognition as part of the thought expressed by his newly found word I whose meaning is explicated as his unique and uniquely possessed body, shrine of his unique spirit, and explicated by his triplet I am, I think, I will.
It will be recalled that Equality had been seeking some word and concept that had been excised from his society. People there are missing the personal pronouns I and me and the possessives my and mine. Each refers to himself or herself by proper name or as we and refers to another individual by proper name or as they (or as you taken as plural).
The discovery of I by Equality is an episode of exhilarating liberation and profound fulfillment, though also overwhelming sorrow for mankind in its state of not knowing I. Given the spontaneous, untutored character of the I-am-I episodes in real persons displayed in Kohnstamm’s book, one might wonder whether the absence of the pronoun I in the fictional society that was Equality’s cradle is really possible. Probably not, though it is a neat ploy to Rand’s purpose of showing the importance, the preciousness of man the individual, as against the collective. For thoughts of Kohnstamm on I am I in a couple of actual collectivist societies, see pages 175–80.
Equality’s native society is without mirrors. Were we to bring one into their village, they would soon comprehend themselves in it, just as Equality does later in the story, seeing his face in water, and just as each of us did before age two. Earliest comprehension of mirrors and one’s body in them does not entail the comprehension I am I (Kohnstamm 2007, chap. 4). Similarly it unfolds in the journey of Equality; he has not yet roundly and profoundly grasped I and I am I when first seeing his reflected face.
Equality and his fellows had been trained to deflect awareness from the self and direct attention to the group by saying we where we should say I. Forbidding the word I with its meaning attained in the understanding I am I would be idle without currents of the forbidden within subjects under the law. Such currents are on show to the reader in the person of Equality 7-2521. I suggest, however, actually, we in the indoctrinated sense of a joint singular life and will and thought of the collective can only have meaning to one who has gotten I am I. The author of the fictional adventure knew the reader would come equipped with that grasp.