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Great Escape

My Life in the Looking Glass

Reflecting on my childhood fear of mirrors

Illustration: renald Louissaint

I was seven and already on my way to becoming a neurotic, bookish kid. I had only recently learned how to read the words in the volumes piled helter-skelter on shelves, spilling out of cardboard boxes in closets, the collapsing columns of tomes on the floor. I could not have pronounced many of the words they contained, much less understood them, but I rolled them around in my brain, alongside the equally unpronounceable names of the authors. Thucydides. Freud. Millet. Yeats. Whitman.

The people who owned and lived with these books wanted to be poets. Other than that commonality, they were badly mismatched and struggling in different ways to find meaning and fulfillment in Johnson’s and, later, Nixon’s America. They and their kids had just moved, leaving Chicago, where one of them was almost a full professor, to drop out and live in the epicenter of the Summer of Love. San Francisco.

Sunny day. Sitting at a folding table outdoors, on the street, near our apartment. Was there a popsicle? What was I doing there? Who was with me? Was it at the bottom of the hill, where Haight met Ashbury? I suppose my younger brother and I had arrived down there, as we sometimes did, after starting at the very top of the great three-tiered hill that was our street, sledding down the sidewalk on cardboard slabs laid on roller skates, braking with heels of our blue Keds.

I have no idea what that brown folding table was doing outside or who else was there. It was just one of those weird things that seemed normal in childhood and in the Haight. But I will never forget what came next.

There was a hand mirror on the table. In it was my face. And suddenly, like an electric jolt, I realized that the face did not belong to me. I was a transparent ghost, holding the mirror in its hand, trapped inside the alien pod of a little girl’s face not my own. And me? Smoke, filament, nothing.

To me, it was like the lens shift when the eye doctor checks your sight. That abrupt.

The sensation was so horrifying that I got up and ran home, left whatever game we were playing, abandoning my confused playmates who called after me as I bolted up the street.

For years after that incident, I periodically ran shrieking from mirrors. In third grade, in fourth grade, in fifth grade, in sixth grade, dodging bedroom bureau mirrors and steamy bathroom mirrors and even my reflection on shop windows.

I don’t remember if I told my mother about my new phobia, but it was unlikely. She was terribly worried about earthquakes and distracted by the full-time care and feeding of a one-year-old. When the baby napped, she sat in a chair, exhausted and often in despair, or sat cursing under her breath in her native language, using words that we would — much, much later, when we could actually talk about it without embarrassment — remember and try to pronounce as an inside joke.

She wasn’t well, but it was difficult to know what was wrong. My mother had her own issues with mirrors — she often told us she hated her looks, even though she was pretty.

I now know that my syndrome had a name. It’s in the DSM: “depersonalization,” a feeling of “profound detachment from one’s reflection,” like an out-of-body experience, coupled with a sense of unreality. To me, it was like the lens shift when the eye doctor checks your sight. That abrupt. According to the DSM, people who suffer from the disorder can go on to have self-esteem problems (check) and difficulty being with other people (check). Often they self-medicate with drugs and alcohol (check and check).

Depersonalization can be related to a trauma. My trauma, if you can call it that, was the relatively minor one of having to make new friends every few years as my parents traveled aimlessly around the country, coupled with the misery of daily life trapped in a household in which the adults were working out the grim demise of their couplehood in slow, tense increments.

Suddenly, like an electric jolt, I realized that the face did not belong to me.

It’s always possible I was dosed with LSD at that table, like the five-year-old girl in Joan Didion’s famous story about the era, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” My parents were not drug users, and I had a forest animal’s instinct about dangerous weirdos. On the other hand, we were free-range kids in the middle of a months-long mass psychedelic tune-in/tune-out.

The closest thing I remember to a real trauma occurred right around the time of the first mirror incident: the awful day when my mother lay down on the sidewalk. It started with a walk, the three of us and the baby, Mom pushing the stroller up the hills. My brother and I walked beside her. I was wearing brown penny loafers and purple knee socks, and I had a purse — all purchased at the Salvation Army, our dad being a nonbeliever in money and American commerce. It was an ensemble I had put together myself and of which I was feeling especially proud.

The outfit has remained in my memory, attached to the horrible thing that happened next.

At the top of the three great hills, our mother suddenly lay down on the sidewalk. She couldn’t go on, she said. Get help. Fortuitously (or maybe we were headed there?), right across the street, men in white coats were milling about the glass doors of the UCSF Medical Center. Flying, purse and penny loafers flapping, I crossed the street and told them what had happened. They sprinted back, stethoscopes bouncing off their chests, and leaned down to Mom. The memory goes dark after that. Did they put her on a stretcher and wheel her away? Did someone carry the baby away with her?

Mom came home some days or weeks later. We never learned the nature of her malady. It receded in time as a traumatic little dot in the emerging portrait of our unstable family.

On my own, I scoured books to diagnose myself. When I was 10, I read Bram Stoker, about vampires, who couldn’t be seen in mirrors. A year later, I got obsessed with reading about schizophrenia while standing in the stacks on psychology at the local public library when we lived in rural Michigan.

From the outside, all appeared well. I was often first in my class, competitive and mean, but at home I complained incessantly about stomachaches. And every once in a while, I made the mistake of looking in the mirror and thinking about the ghost. And then I screamed.

Why didn’t my parents take me to a doctor? Another sort of parent — me, probably, and certainly the ones I know now — would have put such a child into therapy. My parents seemed to think I was just misbehaving or that I’d grow out of it.

Depersonalization can be related to a trauma.

I have heard of other, nonmedical explanations. Depersonalization is often associated with religious mania. We were a totally secular family. No church for us. But William Wordsworth’s poem “Intimations of Immortality in Recollections of Early Childhood” is an ode to the notion of preexistence, in which the soul exists before the body, and to the idea that children have access to that preborn state, which they lose as they age. In my own apprehension of the immanent, if that’s what it was, I was bathed not in joy but in terror.

I came across another interesting take on the subject in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. The character Kilgore Trout, a sci-fi author, called mirrors “leaks,” as in passageways between two worlds. That’s how it felt to me.

Psychoanalyst Elena Bezzubova, with the New Center for Psychoanalysis in Newport Beach, California, believes depersonalization can also be a philosophical state, experienced by what she calls highly reflective people. “Their typical childhood feature is the combination of advanced intellectual development and high emotional sensitivity,” she writes. “They are thinkers and dreamers with affinity to deep ‘adult’ areas. Thoughts and fears of themselves, of their parents, questions of meaning of life, doubts about people’s intentions, interest in the unknown, inquiries about the magic of numbers or distant galaxies are frequently part of their early years.”

In any case, whether my affliction had to do with the madness of God, my reflection leaking into another dimension, precocious philosophical awareness, or an actual diagnosable mental health condition, eventually I did outgrow the syndrome — only to replace it with its very opposite.

At around age 13, I somehow began to realize I could bear my reflection without becoming aware of my ghost self. Perhaps it had to do with the fashion and beauty magazines my girlfriends and I had started to study. In a weird twist on the body dysmorphia they provoke in many girls, the idealized images rooted me in my own body. I started spending long minutes studying the curve of my lips, imagining what it would be like to kiss the various boys I admired in seventh-grade math and social studies. Unafraid, I pressed the mirrors to my lips to see what they would see. Perfection!

But that wasn’t enough. My hair was never perfect, and my clothes never fit quite properly, challenges that required ever more mirror-gazing to fix and check and recheck.

Now the mirror was indispensable. I needed it to apply the blue eye shadow and lip gloss, required it to assure myself that the tube top and cutoffs looked okay…to inspect the curves from various angles and find them desirable. People told me I was beautiful, and I believed them. I even got a portfolio of modeling shots. Now, when that eerie feeling came on occasionally, I could turn away and turn it off.

Lots of sex, drugs, and heartbreak later, the era of teenage narcissism ended. In college, I lurched off in the other direction and rejected the mirror for feminist, not psychological reasons. One night in my early twenties, high, I stood in front of my reflection in the bathroom and snipped away at my long hair. Swick, swick. How easily it all fell off. I reemerged 10 minutes later, and my weed-addled friend, a young man waiting for me on the couch, was shocked. But I was reborn, released from the responsibility of looking after my reflection for a while.

Whether my affliction had to do with the madness of God, [or] my reflection leaking into another dimension,… eventually I did outgrow the syndrome — only to replace it with its very opposite.

During the next two decades, I gradually settled into professional life and motherhood, embracing moderation in all things, including how I felt about my face. After a couple years of living in France, where women dress to take out the garbage, I managed to split the difference, somewhere between the defiant au naturel approach and the obsession with makeup. Approaching middle age, I looked in the mirror and, for the most part, liked what I saw looking back at me: a productive citizen, a competent mother and efficient woman. I had no problem with that person. I fit inside her. That’s who I really was all along.

Or was I?

Now, on the declining end of middle age, I don’t exactly fear the mirror, but I feel myself succumbing to a new version of my childhood phobia. The hag looking back at me in the morning? Who the hell is that? The jowls reflected at the ATM machine? I’ve seen that person before, vaguely familiar. Mom?

Thanks to concealer and good genes, I manage to “pull it together” for the mirror. But the day draws near when the face reflected back at me will not be the person I ever was or think I am or want to be. Will I scream at the sight of that ghost? Turn the mirrors toward the wall, or cover them as they sometimes do by old custom in houses where someone has died? Or, like the character Lina in the finale of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, who deliberately and mysterious just disappears in old age, perhaps I might simply evaporate from my own house at around age 65, never to be seen again — as women do metaphorically anyway? Decked out in sackcloth and ashes, shorn, unrecognizable even to myself.

In some way, I’ve already been there. I like to think maybe the child — who so fleetingly and terrifyingly knew that the small face reflected was not really her own, and that she was nothing at all — was on to something after all.

Writer, explorer, national politics, 6 books, NYC.

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