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Supernatural University: What Makes You Who You Are?

If you are avoiding any spoilers or spoilery discussion concerning the May 3, 2007 episode of Supernatural – What Is And What Should Never Be – please exit the classroom now and return after the Thursday show. Time-shifting this class to avoid potential spoilage will not reflect on you adversely in any way. Thank you.


The debate about what makes us who and what we are – and particularly whether our hard-coded genetic inheritance or our life experience is more influential in determining our personalities and characters – is a popular one in psychology and sociology. The episode of Supernatural airing this week appears primed to give that debate a workout, as the Dean we know – the damaged man resulting from a boy who, at a very formative age, lost his mother to inexplicable, violent evil and his father to the hunt for that evil – is apparently flung into the normal world he never had the chance to experience. What kind of man would the Dean who had lived that alternate life have become? What kind of man would the people who lived around that Alternate Universe Dean (AU/Dean) expect our Dean to be, in his place? How would the differences in life and relationships affect not only Dean, but Sam? What things would be the same, and what would be different? Welcome to Supernatural University!


My thesis for this class is that certain things about Sam and Dean – the things driven by their respective hard-wiring – would remain the same irrespective of their life experience, but that AU/Sam and AU/Dean would be profoundly different from the men we know. I would also posit that they would be different in different ways, and for different reasons.


Understand at the outset that I don’t know what will happen in What Is And What Should Never Be. I’ve seen a few pages of sides, read the episode descriptions from the CW and TV Guide, watched the preview and the director’s cut clips, and seen some stills. That’s the totality of my knowledge. Everything in this class about AU/Dean and AU/Sam is speculation, pure and simple. We’ll see how wildly off I turn out to be once the episode airs.


Experts in the academic fields would agree that both genetics and experience profoundly affect how we turn out and who we become. Some aspects of our personalities apparently come hard-wired into our makeup. Even as babies, with little written on our slates, we’re already individuals: more active or more sedate, more cheerful or more fussy, more curious or more timorous, more verbal or more quiet. We clearly perceive things differently from each other, and very differently from adults. The way we perceive and initially react to things would seem to be pre-programmed in us.


As we experiment with what works for us or fails us in terms of experiencing our world, we adjust our individual preferences, but even from very early on, we have preferences, and those seem to be internal and innate. For example, even as small children, we start to demonstrate the characteristics of personality type: introvert (self-driven) or extravert (outward-focused); sensor (observing details) or intuiter (assembling gestalt concepts); thinker (logic-oriented) or feeler (values-oriented); perceiver (keeping decision options open) or judger (coming to closure). Our environment affects us right from the beginning, and can adjust those programming preferences. For example, a natively curious child who suffers a very frightening or painful experience while indulging curiosity may shut down that automatic urge to explore out of fear of repeating the adverse effect, while a less venturesome child who meets with encouragement and pleasure may become more adventurous and less fearful.


So where do these observations connect with Dean and Sam?


In the world we think we know, Mary Winchester died violently when Dean was four and Sam was six months old. Prior to her death, from the one brief glimpse we had of their normality, the family was close. John and Mary were clearly loving and supportive parents, and little Dean obviously loved them and enjoyed rather than resented the advent of his little brother Sammy. That unforced goodnight kiss was happy, and his demeanor was sweetly big-brother protective. A few hours later, Dean woke to Mary’s screams, John’s shouts, and raging fire; was tasked by his father with carrying baby Sam to safety; and wound up sitting on the Impala in exhausted, frightened confusion beside his devastated father, who cradled his younger son in his arms as he watched his love and his future burn. John became consumed with two things: hunting down whatever killed his wife, and keeping his sons safe. To accomplish those things, he reverted to being a soldier, and lost much of being a father.


What did that do to his sons? We know that family became the defining force and focus of Dean’s life, that clinging to the family he still had – not losing them as he had lost his Mom – drove him more than anything else. Deprived of his mother and tasked with caring for his brother in truly dangerous circumstances, he took over much of Mary’s role. The natural warmth we saw in him as a little boy expanded to fill the void, to become the nurturing force of the Winchester family, supporting the emotional needs of both John and Sam. At the same time, Dean’s fear of losing his family, of being abandoned by others as by his mother’s death, crippled him with insecurity, which he hid beneath a façade of brash self-confidence both to keep it from infecting John and Sam and to deny its power over him.


I would submit that both Dean’s nurturing development and his personal insecurity were not natural to him; that they came about precisely because of Mary’s death, the pressures of often being left alone to deal with Sam, and the harshness that becoming a hunter bred into John. I think that Dean’s choice to deal positively with his burdens rather than complain about them was intrinsic to his nature, something built-in to that sunny boy we saw so briefly in the pilot, but his extreme closeness to and emotional reliance on both John and Sam wasn’t at all what he would have experienced normally. I would suspect that AU/Dean, without those brutal spurs of loss and fear, would not have anything remotely close to the passion for family that lies at the heart of the Dean we know. Without the desperate need for family that our Dean has, and with normal family interactions in its place, I would guess that AU/Dean would have grown up more emotionally self-sufficient, and I think that he would also be much more certain of himself – for real, not just for the sake of bravado – than our Dean is.


A large part of Dean’s incredible bond with Sam is due to Dean having been both brother and mother to him. Dean learned at a very young age that Sam’s life really was in his hands, and that he didn’t dare let that grip slip. Given that mandate to keep his brother safe, combined with his fear of losing any more of his family, Dean had a major incentive to avoid letting anger, irritation, jealousy, or anything else negative get and stay in the way of his bond with Sam. Most normal brother bonds I’ve seen aren’t nearly as close as the one between Dean and Sam, at least not once the boys were grown to adults.


Most brothers, growing up, go through phases of friendship, tolerance, irritation, estrangement, and reunion as they pass through life developing their own interests, testing their own independence, and asserting their own personalities. Sam clearly experienced many of those phases in terms of how he viewed Dean, from valuing his love and turning to him automatically for support to resenting his teasing and bossiness, and ultimately rejecting his unthinking obedience to their father when Sam wanted to go his own way. Having grown up in the security of Dean’s care, Sam had a normality and an advantage that Dean had lost when their mother died. Sam didn’t have the same fear as Dean, of losing what he had. In that respect, Sam grew up more typically than Dean did, and being less emotionally deprived, was correspondingly less emotionally needy. Sam was more independent. Sam’s departures from the norm came from outside forces – first from constantly being on the move with a father on the hunt, increasingly aware with age that his life was not comparable to that of his classmates, and then from awakening to frightening powers within himself and the realization that he may have been the unwitting cause of all the evil that befell his family and his own love.


Assuming that this alternate world is indeed the world of Dean’s dreams, a world where life would have been normal and family intact, I would suspect that AU/Dean – and AU/Sam, for that matter – would both have developed more along our Sam’s lines (except without those freaky powers!) than along Dean’s. They would both have been less intertwined, because they wouldn’t have needed each other’s support so much, not with the additional support of both parents. I think they both would have displayed independence, and because their interests and personalities are and would have been very different, they would naturally not have been as close as the Winchesters we know.


I would expect that some of the intrinsic things that make our brothers different would apply just as strongly in the alternate, “normal” world. I would posit that the brothers’ evidently hard-wired personality preferences would still be the same: that AU/Dean would still be sensory, living in the world of tangible things, while AU/Sam would still be intellectual, living in the world of thought and imagination. I wouldn’t be surprised to find AU/Dean working as a mechanic and restorer in John’s garage, happy and content to be working creatively with his hands, or AU/Sam considering that life to be a dead-end one without challenge or attraction compared with becoming a lawyer. I wouldn’t be surprised to find AU/Dean living in the now, without much consideration for the future, while AU/Sam would be planning ahead for every eventuality. I wouldn’t be surprised to see AU/Dean appearing to be selfish and absorbed in his own life, given his tendency to live in the immediacy of time, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see AU/Sam looking down on him for it. After all, under “normal” circumstances, given the differences in their personalities from the very beginning, our boys wouldn’t have had much in common by the time they were grown.


Of course, if this story plays out as it seems it might, the damaged Dean of our world – the Dean whose entire reason for living is his family – will find himself in the place of AU/Dean, likely to the consternation of everyone around him, because our Dean’s feelings and reactions would not reflect AU/Dean. Our Dean literally couldn’t imagine living with any emotional distance between himself and the people closest to him, his family. I don’t think he could resist trying to change the world he found himself in, because notwithstanding everyone he loves being alive in it, the world wouldn’t actually reflect his dreams, because his dreams were shaped with the intense bonds of the life he actually lived, the life based on loss and fear, and on love. “Normality” doesn’t possess that degree of intensity: only adversity does. Perversely, Dean’s family in the world we think we know was likely far closer than any family he would have had in a “normal” world, precisely because it was shaped by what it lost. Would having them alive, without having them caring as much for him as he craves, fulfill his wish and still the longing of his heart? I think not.


What made Dean what he is? Genetics and experience. He looks for the bright side, he makes the most of the hand he’s been dealt, he lives in the moment, and he cares: those things, I think, came hard-wired. But the depth of his need, the intensity of his devotion – those things came from loss, and fear, and desperation, and he wouldn’t have become the same man without them. And I think that the life they lived had much more of an impact on Dean than on Sam, precisely because Sam had Dean as a buffer. Sam without unusual powers and without the strangeness of the life they had lived would, I think, have still been much like the Sam we met in the pilot – independent, living his own life, happy in his own dreams, and content to build his new family with Jessica rather than lean on the family in which he grew up or revisit sibling rivalries.


Who would Dean have been, had his life been different, and would he even recognize his AU/self? Would he want to be the man he would otherwise have become, if it meant giving up the intense love along with the unbelievable pain?


And would Sam choose differently than Dean, if he had the chance?


Ruminate, and watch. We’ll all know more by the end of Thursday night.


I hope you enjoyed the class. See you after the show.

Tags: meta, psychology, supernatural, supernatural university

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