The Face of Another
This email has almost nothing to do with the very good Kōbō Abe novel with the same title.
Lost: Teeth, a Face // Found: The Folded Clock, another face
I’m unsure of how to introduce the most horrifying “lost thing” message I ever received other than to just quote it—
i lost my face.
well, first I lost all my upper teeth. i had dentures for three years, awful, just bloody awful, then found some dentist to drill holes in my skull and screw a full-arch of zirconia false teeth into my face… the prosthetic “teeth” are stable, i can eat anything i want and yell “Fuck!” as loud and as forcefully as i care without a plastic plate flying out of my mouth-hole and sailing across the room onto the floor. but—these teeth he made are ugly and ill-positioned, and tiny, and too high, too far forward… it ain’t my face no more! whose fucking face IS this??
The message was signed “lulu,” the same nickname my mother uses for me. I wrote back asking what had happened to their teeth to begin with. “Bad genetics,” lulu explained, a rare problem with the roots, “no wild bar-room brawl, no horrid impact,” but they also wondered if their feelings about the ordeal would be different if everything began with an accident like that.
would i feel more grateful, less angry, have more patience? would i be more forgiving? would it be easier to accept the distortion of the face i knew before? thoughts are indeed wild animals.
One of the reasons I keep soliciting messages about loss from strangers is that I love the mundane, casual tone of an email. Another is that they instigate a new way of looking at something I feel I’ve seen a million times over.
I’m in the bizarre moment the book publishing cycle during which involves being photographed on occasion, and as I’m standing there— trying to seem natural doing something entirely unnatural, trying to seem less like a wild animal than I know myself to be— I keep thinking of a chapter from Heidi Julavits’s genius memoir, The Folded Clock.
In one of the entries Heidi recalls how people often tell her she looks just like someone else—a friend, a cousin, some girl somewhere. It’s dislocating to be told your face is a replica of another. But if you think about it too much (and as far as I can tell it’s my job to think too much) it’s dislocating to even have a face in the first place. Julavits writes about this, too—
For decades I never saw anything but my doppelgänger when I looked in the mirror… I kept waiting for the girl in the mirror to look like me. She never did. Starting in my late thirties, however, I no longer felt the same disconnect when I look in a mirror. That’s *your* face! I would think. I mean *my* face! This face was leaner and sharper, and suggested that when I wasn’t old woman I’d resemble a kindly witch.
The younger Julavits and lulu have the same problem, one that most of us come up against at some point or repeatedly: our bodies seem to be inadequate tools to convey our personhood, while our minds are inadequate to comprehend the bodies that contain them.
Which is why being photographed is such a trip for almost anyone until they’ve become, for whatever reason, accustomed (or inured) to being photographed. The people I’ve known who work as models or actors or performers all have one thing common, and it’s not some kind of universal symmetry, but rather a preternatural ability to relax in un-relaxing environments, to forget that they’re a physical thing while being stared at, to resist the fear of a camera translating a passing moment into a fact.
It seems that being photogenic is the ability to be as neutral as possible about your appearance, to know that it’s not your business to know what you look like.
There’s a mirrored wall in an apartment where a friend of mine lives with her kids and when we’re in that room her children sometimes stare at themselves in the mirror while they talk to us. They’re both too young to have absorbed much cultural baggage about what they look like or should look like, so they see their faces as simply representations of their slowly developing selves. They don’t stare in vanity but as a way to echolocate themselves—I’m there, I’m here, I’m there.
I’d just started writing all this last week when I went to a studio to take photo for a magazine and was met with a visual representation of this whole line of thought:
Mark Lim was the photographer, collaborating with the art director Lizzy Oppenheimer (together they run a magazine called NicOtine). They’d assembled a few small mirrors attached to C-stands with the help of two assisstants who polished and adjusted them. For the portrait, I stood next to the mirrors as Mark took photos of my chopped reflections. Relieved of the obligation to be cohesive, I felt that every disjointed portrait looked more like me than any photo I’d ever seen before.
My story of checking myself into a peer respite and then, five months and two weeks later, being hired by the same respite is going to be published in a newsletter soon. I’ve taken several webinars through a wellness and recovery center and am currently taking their introductory class. When I asked them if they needed anything from me, their spokesperson said that if there was a specific picture I wanted to use, I should send it to them. I locked up, no idea what to give them.
I’m genderqueer and while a picture can capture me well in a certain time period, it loses its meaning as a tool of expression in time. Now, I think that I need to deconstruct some photos and reconstruct an image of me that feels right. If they don’t want it, I can use it for myself, probably for social media. But I sure as hell appreciate reading about this idea. It’s a better way of representing myself than I ever could have imagined before.
Thank you, Catherine.