I’m sure many of you have a nemesis. Someone whose downfall you wish for because they are rude, or downright evil, or they’ve caused you actual mental or physical harm. These people are easy to hate. We find them despicable or personally offensive. It is all too easy to despise someone whom we don’t see ourselves in.
In Jordan Peele’s 2019 movie Us, Lupita Nyong’o’s character Adelaide and her family find themselves under attack by their own doppelgängers, a group of soulless clones. These are their “tethered,” the result of a failed government program. In the movie, these clones seem to exist for everyone in America, and are relegated to living a life underground blindly performing the same motions as their aboveground counterparts.
The tethered function as the evil twins of their real world equivalents. They are what happens when you take a person and strip them of all the things that make us human: compassion, empathy, a working use of language.
I’ve been thinking of Us and the idea of the tethered recently because I realized that I actually have one. You probably have one too.
In my mind, a real-life tethered is a more nuanced presence than a nemesis. They are someone you see yourself in, but would never dream of being. Someone perhaps more shameless, more abrasive, or more of a nightmare to be around than you think yourself to be. This person is the fun house mirror version of you, a distorted reflection with contorted proportions that have been all messed up.
My tethered is someone I’ve known for years – let’s call them Alex. Alex is widely regarded in my social circle for being one of the most annoying people alive, and yet, I have a soft spot for them. I enjoy the conversations we have when we run into each other three to five times a year. We like the same books and movies, come from similar backgrounds, have a proclivity for gossiping, and I find their casual name-dropping of various niche New York microcelebrites to be kind of charming.
Despite all our similarities, Alex and I will never be close. They are notoriously flaky, obsessed with themselves and the pseudointellectual image they’ve crafted, and too many people in my life think they are downright shitty. But I keep an eye on Alex for one reason: They make me a little better.
They do not know it, but I see so much of myself in Alex that I worry about becoming them. Sometimes I think about what my life would be like if I lacked any shame. Luckily, I have Alex, whose own lack of shame and inflated sense of self-confidence have driven wedges in their friendships and made them notoriously disliked in their professional sphere. I can watch as they make the choices I have only considered, and take notes as it goes up in smoke.
I am willing to guess that you have a person like this in your life. It might not be as apparent as it is to me, but we all have a tethered lurking somewhere in the shadows. It might be your kiss-ass coworker whose schtick is running thin, the friend of a friend who is always interrupting people. It might even be your mother (which is something to bring up with a therapist). These people, while disliked, provide a crucial public service. We should all be trying to suck a little less, and these are the people who can unknowingly help get us there.
The ideal tethered is not someone you are especially close with, but someone you can keep tabs on through social media, gossip, and maybe the occasional run in at a bar or a tertiary friend’s house party. They are the person who references Lacan in casual conversation in a way that makes you ask yourself, “Is that what I sound like?” Yes, that is what you sound like. Lesson learned.
The twist in Us is that the character we know as Adelaide is the actual tethered one who switched places with the real Adelaide when they were children. There’s also a Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons in which Bart realizes that he has an evil twin. The Simpson family keeps said evil twin, Hugo, chained up in the attic for years. But it turns out that Bart is actually the evil one. “Oh,” he says. “Don’t look so shocked.”
So you probably have a tethered. But you are also just as likely to be someone’s tethered. It goes both ways. Just as you have someone whose behavior can keep you in check, there is probably someone out there who watches the way you move through the world and thinks, “I don’t ever want to be that.” I’m sure that I’ve done some things, and definitely posted some things, that have made people more certain of the kind of person they don’t want to be. To those people I say, you’re welcome.
And to my tethered, I say thank you. Selfishly, I might be the only person who wishes that you never change, despite the fact that if someone brings your name up around the right group of people a chorus of groans rings out. To me, you are leading by example. The example, of course, being: Don’t ever go that far, bitch.