2000 was a big year: the year of the future. It was the year my father dreamt of as a child, and the year his father died. It was the year of the Y2K bug, when millions believed a problem with computer coding would generate chaos in technology around the world, and the year of the ABC T.V. film Life Size in which a prepubescent Lindsay Lohan brings her Tyra Banks doll to life. It was the year I turned eight, the focal point of psychologist Erik Erikson’s “latency period,” when children develop an awareness of themselves as individuals, when they begin to see themselves as a person with an identity who can accomplish goals and enact change. It was the year I played point guard in the Rockets basketball league, and the year I finally felt old enough to watch Lakers games with my dad, whom I visited on weekends.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant played together on the LA Lakers from 1996 to 2004. They were the two gods of the NBA, but when forced to play on the same team, the rivals clashed ferociously. It was impossible not to take sides as the Shaq-Kobe feud divided not only the team, but my city. Ultimately, the rift inspired Lakers’ head coach Phil Jackson’s book, The Last Season: A Team in Search of its Soul. From the beginning I devoted my loyalties to Shaq; although he was a menacing force on the court, I trusted him, perhaps because of his endearing Achilles heel, the free throw. I had watched Kazaam, the kids’ classic in which he stars as a rapping genie. I even had a Shaq bobble-head sitting on my dresser.
In February of 2000 the LA Times announced that it would print a life-size Shaq body part each week, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on par with Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. With breathless eagerness, I awaited the delivery of the Sunday paper. I would sift through the black-and-white weekly happenings, all jumbled and dead to me, pursuing the news to its recesses where words gave way to form: a massive hand. I would race to my room and press my tape delicately, seamlessly, between wrist and forearm, elbow and bicep, knee and quad, alone in my work save for the high sun outside my window, watching my labors week after week, urging me on, until the twelfth Sunday gave way to my creation. Shaquille.
There was his basketball. His #34 jersey. His wide, goofy smile. The push was over and now the scattered limbs of the LA Times lineage stood in full bloom before my eyes. But the deliverance was not all I had anticipated. Lying in bed that night, I pulled the covers tight around me, unable to peel my eyes from the shadowed 7’1’’ figure looming over my bed.
I was terrified, yet could not bring myself to disassemble the monster I had created. Was my inaction born of fear? Or of devotion—devotion to Shaq, to my project, to some aspect of myself? This collection of images reflected my newly realized identity, so precious at age eight; to tear the final product down would have been to refute it all. Shaq was a beloved idol to whom I accredited my love of basketball, and along the way he had come to represent those fleeting weekends with my dad. Yet some aspect of my attempt to connect with Shaq had clearly gone wrong; this was not the BFF story of Lindsay Lohan and Tyra Banks. I was afraid of those carefully curated paper limbs, which felt to me both dead and alive, both mine and, upon completion, eerily beyond my control.
The dread that filled me that night can only be described as uncanny, a term popularized by Freud in 1919, though iconically captured by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a hundred years before. In 1906 Ernst Jentsch, a German psychiatrist who influenced Freud, wrote that the uncanny often accompanies “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate.” Freud diverges from this premise in his essay “The Uncanny" asserting that the uncanny derives its terror from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it. In 1818 Shelley managed to capture both ideas in Frankenstein - more specifically, in the peculiar moment when Frankenstein, a classic egoist, recognizes the creature, a living being stitched from the limbs of the dead, as an aspect of himself: “my own spirit let loose from the grave and forced to destroy all that was dear to me.” Despite Frankenstein’s attempts to distance himself from his creation, he and the creature become increasingly indistinguishable as the novel progresses. Many theories have been brought forth, but in general, the uncanny has historically concerned animism and the doubling of events or forms, from the strange experience of synchronicity to the anxiety-inducing questions of what separates a person from its representation and to what degree we control the representation, or what it reveals about us, once it exists independently.
Twenty years after Y2K I follow Shaq on Instagram, and I am reminded of the time my eight-year-old desire for self-definition and connection was perverted through idolatry. I scroll down the patchwork stitchings of my friends, cruise through Shaq’s aging selfies and upload my own photos, which is thankfully less time-consuming than constructing life-size people from print. As fun as it all is, I feel simultaneously attracted and repelled—another traditional aspect of the uncanny. In 2013 cultural critic Jerry Saltz described the "New Uncanny" as "un-self-consciousness filtered through hyper-self- consciousness" and degrees of narcissism, which aptly reflects how we create digital personas. Sometimes it feels like these incomplete but rich aspects of myself are perpetually hanging over the bed, separate but strangely familiar and occasionally a bit too close for comfort.