Wednesday 23 January 2019

Sarah Carey: Invisible Woman - how motherhood removed my fingerprints

Donald Trump's Muslim ban reminded Sarah Carey of her difficulties entering the US. Motherhood had literally obliterated her identity

Demonstrators shout slogans during anti-Donald Trump immigration ban protests inside Terminal 4 at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California, U.S., January 28, 2017. REUTERS/Kate Munsch
Demonstrators shout slogans during anti-Donald Trump immigration ban protests inside Terminal 4 at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California, U.S., January 28, 2017. REUTERS/Kate Munsch

Sarah Carey

The row over Donald Trump's Muslim ban reminded me of my own difficulties entering the US. I always get through, because presumably international terrorists don't look like pale-skinned Irish pixies. Still, it's never easy.

You see, when I had my first baby, there was so much going on that I just ignored my sore fingertips. There were other parts of my body in fairly raw condition that needed mending; not to mention severe night sweats, which my mother speculated were caused by anxiety. As usual, she was close to the truth.

I waited, presuming body and soul would heal in time. But my poor fingers just got worse. They peeled and bled and it was really quite painful. They looked, and felt, like they'd been dipped in acid. One day, I realised they stung most when I was folding some clothes. Then the penny dropped. Maybe I had developed an allergy to washing powder?

Sure enough, I switched to non-biological powder and my fingers healed, like magic. Having never had any kind of allergy before, I decided it was some sort of Freudian retribution. Whatever conscious desire I had for babies, my Id had exacted revenge and generated a painful reaction to a core part of my household duties. Nice.

Still, the problem was solved, so I gave it no more thought.

Until a few years later, when I began some consultancy work for an American technology company, and presented myself at Immigration Control in San Francisco airport.

I stepped up to the glass booth and obediently pressed my index finger to the fingerprint reader. The officer peered into his screen, looking confused, and asked me to try again. I did. He suggested using the other index finger. I did. Nothing doing. We tried the others.

I tried not to look guilty of anything as I was escorted to the back office, which I would come to know well on subsequent visits. Thus did I learn that the dermatitis had obliterated my fingerprints. This is not good when you're trying to get past the security state of the United States, post 9/11. Who burns off their fingerprints, except spies, terrorists and other assorted criminals attempting to avoid identification?

Spy thriller

With my rich internal life, I'd quite easily see myself as the heroine of a spy thriller in such a scenario. Needless to say, the reality is much more prosaic. They did some background checks, and with pre-Trumpian discretion, decided I wasn't a threat. My various employers might consider me occasionally troublesome, but apparently I am no terrorist.

Nevertheless, on my next few trips I still had to wait it out. Eventually they took a fresh set of slightly blank fingerprints. With these on record and my red flag explained, we became accustomed to each other. Even friendly.

These days, foreign travel is rare for me; perhaps just as well, given the exponentially more paranoid world of today. Unfortunately, the mania for biometrics has spread from immigration into everyday life.

Our creche introduced a fingerprint scanner for security, which literally left me out in the cold. The fingerprint function on a smartphone is useless to me. A shame, as my kids keep getting my passcode out of me and I have no privacy.

I've discovered that the condition is known as adermatoglyphia. With the world so caught up in the politics of identity, I wonder should I set up an advocacy group for those with an identity crisis such as mine? Us adermatoglyphites are literally invisible. Obviously, we could turn to this to criminal advantage, but it would be more in keeping with the zeitgeist to identify as a person with no identity. In a world of biometrics, what becomes of those with none?

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