How to Become Someone Else

Isle McElroy on body swapping, imitation, and why empathy may be overrated.
Lucien Samaha, "And Then Their Eyes Met," 2014.Courtesy of the artist

About a year ago, I received a wave of notifications on Instagram alerting me to new followers. Normally, there would be nothing strange about this occurring, except many of my new followers were writer friends who already followed me, people I’d seen at a party the previous night or over lunch only days earlier. The new accounts all appeared to have been made for the same reason: their original accounts had been hacked, they insisted. In the bios of the new accounts were pleas to unfollow the other original accounts, for those accounts, the new accounts claimed, were imposters.

The new accounts were obvious scams. It was unclear what, exactly, prompted this surge in identity theft. Most of the writers had published one or two books and were building established careers. A few months later, Pulitzer Prize-winner Andrew Sean Greer alerted his followers to an imposter Andrew Sean Greer Facebook profile. Identity theft on social media requires a person to not only report their imposter but also enlist friends in their cause; administrators tend to be wary of removing fake accounts without a critical mass of complaints. It’s not their job to decide who is real. This uniquely frustrating modern experience offers a technological parallel to a narrative that long predates the rise of social media: the myth of the doppelganger. 

Doppelganging is having a moment. This year, Jon Fosse was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature shortly after his Septology books were published in English. The books center around a painter and his double—and though it was Fosse’s entire decades-spanning oeuvre that earned him the Nobel, the timing suggests the author tapped into something critical to our current moment. Naomi Klein’s new book, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, is perhaps the most comprehensive recent exploration of the phenomenon. In it, Klein uses her personal experience being mistaken for Naomi Wolf—the former liberal darling whose star fell precipitously once critics started fact-checking her claims—as an entrance point to the cultural impact of doppelgangers more broadly. The book skates brilliantly across political commentary to literary history to personal reckoning—some of Klein’s best writing explores how she evaded the Zionist teachings prevalent in her community growing up. For Klein, doppelgangers help explain a range of confounding political crises of self-defeating radicalism. Why have so many seemingly progressive wellness influencers found homes in the anti-vax movement? How was celebrated feminist like Wolf drawn toward right-wing blowhards and conspiracy theorists? And what does the United States gain from supporting Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine?

Though the doppelganger offers an astute lens for understanding our political and personal divides, I have spent the last few years obsessing over a different well-trodden trope: the body swap. Whereas doppelganger narratives serve as a way to confront the messy and repressed parts of ourselves, as Klein notes, the body swap is, ostensibly, about the desire to understand someone else. We all know how the story goes: you and a person you envy touch the same haunted skull during a lightning storm, causing you two to swap bodies; after a few days spent learning to empathize with the other person, the two of you palm a new skull together, this time during a solar flare, and return to your original bodies, grateful for what you have and are. The arc is predictable. Lessons are learned. Envy and misunderstanding give way to empathy and compassion through embodied experience.

I am a nonbinary person and a fiction writer. While gender transition has helped me see the many ways that a body can change, writing fiction has given me an intimate understanding of empathy and envy. Though I don’t think empathy is the most important factor in making good fiction—personally, I’m most inspired by the texture of sentences—good fiction writers must, at some point, imagine themselves into the lives of their characters. Envy, speaking for myself, typically arrives after the work is published, when one wishes one’s own writing was read as widely as one’s peers. Regrettably, when I saw Andrew Sean Greer being impersonated, I felt a flash of self-doubt. Would I ever have a career worthy of both a Pulitzer Prize and an imposter? What about me wasn’t good enough to be scammed? At that moment, I was willing to suffer the frustrations of identity theft in exchange for the accolades of a celebrated writing career.

The desire to be someone else can sometimes feel as old as desire itself. As a culture, we’re obsessed with both the fantasy and the threat of swapped lives.

The desire to be someone else can sometimes feel as old as desire itself. As a culture, we’re obsessed with both the fantasy and the threat of swapped lives. In Being John Malkovich, for instance, countless disaffected shlubs line up to pay $200 for fifteen minutes riding along in the brain of an actor who, the movie reminds us, isn’t even that famous. As often as we dream about swapping up we also fear swapping down. “There go I but for the grace of God,” we mutter, upon seeing a version of ourselves with whom we hope to never swap. And the plot is often used to make the point that such conceptions of up or down are themselves moot, despite the fact that we are obsessed by the urge to compare, to wonder.

Our language is cluttered with clichés about walking in another person’s shoes and grass being greener. Mark Twain wrote about this nearly 150 years ago, in The Prince and the Pauper. In movies, the narrative reappears across films like Switch, 13 Going on 30, Trading Places, and, the most recognizable of the genre, Freaky Friday. Over the holidays, Netflix released Family Switch, a too-self-aware movie about a family of five who all swap bodies due to the interference of a fortune teller. The parents swap with their teenage children; the baby swaps with the dog. I don’t need to tell you the movie is bad. Even a better film, like Everything Everywhere All at Once, uses its multiverse plot to explore how its protagonist Evelyn, played by Michelle Yeoh, wields the skills of her alternate selves to strengthen the life she is already living. This is not a body swap movie in the traditional sense. But it lands in a similar place. Upon seeing how she has drawn a wedge between her and her daughter, Evelyn applies what she learns in the multiverse—that she has actively pushed her daughter away—to embrace her daughter’s queerness. In the end, a lesson is learned. Evelyn empathizes with a person she once refused to fully accept.


I understand fairly well the desire to live a different life. I spent my first thirty years wanting to be someone else. As a child, I would imagine myself as my stepsisters, sometimes going so far as wearing their dresses and painting my nails with their polish. Later on, I shaped my personality to align with a best friend’s. I lived with him for a few weeks one summer, desperate to insert myself into his family, and I even stole one of his brother’s soccer jerseys—which included their last name on the back—and wore it to school. Later in high school, I wondered how it would feel to be a different friend, a woman this time, less envious of her family than of how she moved through the world. Over the years, as I came to terms with my gender identity, this feeling often returned among strangers and friends. I would picture myself as women and gender-nonconforming people I passed on the street, wishing I could inhabit their bodies and be them.

Ideally, I would claim these feelings were driven by empathy, by a generosity of spirit so grand I cannot help but wonder what others are going through and what it might be like to live their lives. I believe deeply in the power of empathy—I write novels, after all, the art form most often asked to invoke this feeling in readers—but I also believe it’s important to recognize its limitations. What I felt in those moments, for stepsisters and friends, was not empathy but a kind of self-interested pursuit. I wanted to understand their lives because on some level I wanted their lives, or rather I wanted to incorporate what I admired about their lives—their charisma and style, sometimes their gender—into my own. I longed to be these people in order to better make sense of myself. I longed for the fun of the body swap yet desired nothing of its promised lessons regarding compassion. As a child, I didn’t have the language for what I was doing. But through imitation, I was aspiring to self-expression and self-understanding. I knew only how to imitate myself into being.

A crowd of figures, with different clothes and bodies, all hold up uniform masks with the face of John Malkovich staring seriously forward.
Being John Malkovich, 1999Courtesy of Allstar/Propaganda Films/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Imitation and empathy are separated by a perceived wall of morality. Imitation is a grasping act. Rarely does anyone actually feel flattered by the sincerest form of flattery. At its worst, imitation—and its more problematic sibling, appropriation—can illuminate unequal power dynamics or tend toward violation, especially in many of the doppelganger narratives that appear in Klein’s book. According to Klein, though the double can “stand in for our highest aspiration,” it more often “represents the most repressed, depraved, and rejected parts of ourselves we cannot bear to see.” The double is a violation. It wants what belongs to the original. In defeating the double, one kills off a part of oneself but also protects oneself—albeit at a high cost. The doppelganger narrative teaches self-protection at all costs; the body swap, however, teaches empathy.

Empathy might seem, on its surface, like a universal good. What can go wrong by imagining how it feels to be someone else? Empathy is the gateway toward understanding. And when we step out of line, when we assume, incorrectly, how it feels to be other people, empathy serves as a necessary practice and a miracle cure.

In body swap movies, empathy is a lesson characters are required to learn. The lesson is the point. In Switch, a womanizer killed by his lovers is given another chance at life by God. However, he must return to earth as a woman, in order to understand how he’s mistreated the women in his life, and convince a woman to sincerely love him if he wants to get into heaven. The body swap, in this instance, is punishment. The plot is pretty unhinged. His best friend sexually assaults him and gets him pregnant. The protagonist dies giving birth to a girl—who, we assume, sincerely loves him—and from heaven looks down on his best friend and baby, touched by all the love in the world, a reluctant but satisfied swapper of bodies. The same holds true, to a lesser extent, in the genre classic Freaky Friday. Fighting between mother and daughter puts the new family unit at risk. But thanks to an unrequested and somewhat racist intervention, the two are forced to see how the other one lives. Here, empathy is a kind of checkpoint through which these characters pass in order to return home. It is a feeling just as powerful as the spell that caused them to swap.

While these movies champion the value of empathy, they also seem suspicious of its application in everyday life. They imply that the only way to understand another person is to undergo the impossible: to physically inhabit their skin.

While these movies champion the value of empathy, they also seem suspicious of its application in everyday life. They imply that the only way to understand another person is to undergo the impossible: to physically inhabit their skin. Furthermore, this transformation is only possible through supernatural means, like earthquake-inducing fortune cookies or animatronic psychics or a small hidden passageway between the seventh and eighth floors of an office building. Empathy is obtainable only when the right cosmic forces align. But empathy’s apparent impossibility reveals something accurate about the emotional experience. Its power comes from how we pursue it more than in how we finally achieve it; we aspire to empathy, to care for loved ones and strangers alike, even though we remain hemmed in by the limits of our own histories and perceptions.


Eight months into the pandemic and feeling starved for connection, I began writing my own body swap narrative, a novel titled People Collide. The book follows Eli and Elizabeth, husband and wife who wake up in each other’s bodies. I wrote the book, in part, seeking connections that had begun to deteriorate in the pandemic—I wanted to write something embodied during a time when it seemed dangerous to hug the people closest to me. I began the writing process intending to explore how two people intimately connected might grow even closer through this transition. Over the course of writing, however, as I considered my feelings about these characters and my views on intimacy, I found I was much more suspicious of empathy than I originally believed.

For Eli, becoming Elizabeth does not bridge the divide that has been growing in their marriage but instead exposes the many ways he may never understand her. There are limits to what embodiment can teach him. Over the course of the book, Eli does not learn to be Elizabeth but merely deepens his self-knowledge under these new conditions—this is made most apparent through conversations he has with her parents, where he is forced to hear what they honestly think about him. As for Elizabeth, she thrives in her husband’s body, not because the transition lets her understand him better but because she knows herself. Her desires, she believes, align with her new body more than they did with her old one.

Both characters are rather naive. And the body swap further insulates them from confronting their respective naivetes. Eli adopts a caretaker’s stance toward Elizabeth’s body while conveniently ignoring the many ways he prioritizes his own pleasure—whether he’s pursuing lovers or drinking too much—over the maintenance of his wife’s body. For her part, Elizabeth leans a little too eagerly into “male tears” feminism, assuming every part of her life will be easier now that she is perceived as a man. Both characters appeal to the language of empathy. In one scene, Elizabeth assures Eli the transformation has taught her to love him fully because she is now shitting as him. However, this experience does not actually alter how they see one another, the way empathy, in body swaps narratives, is supposed to. Rather, close corporeal intimacy exposes what they can never know about one another. Late in the book, Elizabeth advises Eli how to be her, but he asks her to stop. Nothing she says will teach him to be her; he cannot ever be her. The best they can do is exist in an aspirational state.

An older woman with short hair stares forward with her hands olding her cheeks, as a younger woman with longer hair looks on in horror. The caption reads: "I'm old!"

Freaky Friday still, 2003.

I wasn’t the first person to think imaginatively about what it would be like to live another’s experience. In late 2020, right as I was beginning my book, neuroscientist Pawel Tacikowski published findings from a study that tried to capture the body swapping sensation. Tacikowski’s team gave thirty-three pairs of best friends VR headsets to replicate the experience of existing in each other’s bodies. The study sought to reimagine conceptions of selfhood and embodiment, in part to better understand diseases like depression, which can reshape a person’s identity. Participants showed a decline in episodic memories while viewing life through their friends’ points of view, suggesting that by virtually living as someone else, they lost track of themselves. The self, according to the experiment, is not a fixed and coherent entity, separate from one’s body, but an expression tangled with our current physical state.

While body swap movies suggest a fixed self can be transferred into another body, the body swap study shows that the self is always shaped by its surroundings, which include whatever body we find ourselves in. This, too, complicates standard notions of empathy. How can I ever know what another person is feeling if that person exists in a state of quiet flux, their selfhood an ongoing reaction to their surroundings? This suggests something Heisenbergian about empathy. The closer we get to someone, the more our getting closer influences what there is to know about them, creating and unveiling layers that didn’t previously exist.

As terrifying as it might sound, I find this notion exciting. It requires humility to accept that empathy, in its platonic conception of fully understanding another person’s experience, might very well be impossible. For many readers of fiction, empathy has become a vital component for marking the quality of a text. Books are judged for how well an author imagines themself into the lives of their characters. Do the characters seem real? Has the author put in the appropriate effort, and research, to understand how it feels to be the people in their books? This is especially important when writing outside of one’s own identity, as Alexander Chee smartly points out.

How can I ever know what another person is feeling if that person exists in a state of quiet flux, their selfhood an ongoing reaction to their surroundings?

But an author’s ability to empathize with their characters has come to seem secondary to the connection that authors are expected to create between readers and characters—and the empathy that might be gained in the experience of reading. This expectation appears in countless think pieces claiming that reading fiction can help a person become more empathetic. This appears to be true. But, as Paul Bloom argued in his book Against Empathy, this claim also assumes that empathy itself is a moral good, rather than an action one might take in order to understand another person. While a novel like The Hate U Give might allow non-Black readers to empathize with the experiences of Black people in America, what could prevent a novel written by a white supremacist, about white supremacists, from encouraging young white people to join their cause? Case in point, The Turner Diaries. Bloom argues throughout his book that empathy alone is not enough. And the insistence that fiction is a surefire way to build empathy fails to account for the ways that empathy—simply feeling for and as someone else—can be misused if it lacks ethics. Furthermore, it assumes that a reader will leave a book having internalized the lessons an author wishes for them to learn.

Instead of empathy, Bloom argues for compassion, which allows us to act righteously without needing to feel what another is feeling. Eli and Elizabeth, in my novel, never actually feel what their partner is feeling, they merely experience what they might have already felt but under new conditions. The transformation does not make them love one another any more deeply; whatever love and understanding they feel for each other exists in the space between them. They are never sentenced to empathy in the manner that characters normally are in body swap narratives. And a return to life as it was before is not possible.

The goal of writing and life, for me, is to pursue understanding while accepting I may never achieve it. I feel similarly about my gender. I identify as nonbinary, but even that word, ostensibly derailed from the parallel tracks of binary thinking, fails to account for the fluctuations and aspirations I feel for my own body. Most days, I feel unfinished and humble; nonbinary is merely a better word than no word at all, though no word is where I largely exist.

Empathy also requires humility. At the end of Freaky Friday, mother and daughter drop their stubbornness and admit they were wrong to be so critical of each other. Only then can they really deepen their connection. The body swap allows them to fulfill their unspoken desire to be closer. When we want to be someone else, we are saying we want to be closer to them. However, we can never entirely bridge the divide between people. The cynicism of the body swap narrative, which turns becoming someone else into a punishment, ironically captures what is most beautiful about wanting to become someone else: we cannot. It’s hard enough to become ourselves. We can only aspire and pine. And whatever understanding we may gain from those aspirations, those failures to ever fully inhabit and remain, we get to take with us, helping us inform and expand our own sense of who we are. ♦

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