The Mirror by special guest Thaïsa Frank

“Here is the question: If you could talk to your 16-year-old self, what would you say?  What advice, warnings, or encouragement would you give your younger self?”

 

The Mirror

Whenever I think of being sixteen, I have an image that doesn’t seem (at first) like the right image for this article because it’s all about appearance. But here it is:

It’s early spring in Pennsylvania: Because of a bout with measles, I’ve lost weight. And–as if my whole body has emerged–my hair, previously unmanageable, has become a long sleek pageboy. I spend hours (and hours) in front of my mirror, admiring the profile I always wanted.

Finally, I am beautiful. And I love being beautiful.  I can even stand my mother’s anger as she looks at my face.

Almost every night I climb out my bedroom window to meet my boyfriend.

Almost every morning I apply eye shadow a few blocks before school.

I also have a secret life under my bed: Books, journals, fashion magazines, make-up.

In my house there’s always yelling and screaming. Sometimes it’s my mother yelling at me and throwing things. Often it’s my parents yelling at each other. Their voices are so raw I hear the scrape of their hearts.

I am wracked by guilt about both of them:

For my mother, who can hardly get a meal on the table.

For my father, who is frightened of everything.

And for both of them, who wanted to be writers, and who hate me because I’m turning out to be that sort of animal.

I don’t want to be a writer. I simply am, against my will, writing my first story at eight, winning prizes at twelve. I have allowed myself a public life as a fiction writer because both of my parents once wrote poetry.  When I’m alone, I write poetry, too.

My secret life under my bed consists of eye shadow, fashion magazines, and an electric razor since my mother, although not a feminist, forbids me from shaving my legs.  There’s also the life of a beginning writer, hidden like a rat with a stolen egg:  Journals where I record my parents’ fights. Books my mother doesn’t understand and that my father (an English professor) resents because he doesn’t quite grasp. (Kafka and Wallace Stevens are next to the eye shadow.) There’s also my own poetry.

My parents expect me to major in English and become a lesser version of my father–going on to teach high school but not for long, because I’ll stop working after I get married.  As for me, I know–without really acknowledging it–that I’ll become a writer.

When it’s time to go to college, I defy all three of us. Instead of English, I major in philosophy of science and learn the incantations of symbolic logic.  I’m less in love with camouflage (I shave my legs in broad daylight and no longer hide my books).  But I remain separate from what everyone–including me–thinks I should be doing. Philosophy helps me understand the breadth and limits of language: but–and to my annoyance–I often read it as a writer, thinking about the limits of language and treasuring a passage in Hume where he leaps out of his philosopher-persona to describe sitting by the fire in his dressing gown. Nothing I’m doing quite fits and I most enjoy staring out the window.  But when I study philosophy in graduate school, I re-read William Blake and decide that philosophy has limits.

I quit school and become a proofreader. At Sports-Illustrated we work until four in the morning and get drunk on scotch.  I ride the subway home to save cab money and defy anyone to bother me. I live in a walk-up in the Village, read my poetry at literary events and start to study Zen. Zen feels right for many reasons, but one important aspect is cultivation in silence–the bedfellow of creative language.

Eventually, I become a therapist–a long road where I help people like my parents feel happier, which begins to ease my guilt about them.  Eventually I teach in graduate writing programs, where I help people who (again like my parents) want to write–except they’re willing to learn from me.

Teaching eases my guilt even more. And one day I realize that I’ve become what I always knew I was, yet for many reasons tried not to be. It happens when I’ve published three books: I’m a writer. After all.

It’s been a zigzag path, interrupted by forays into fashion, and (via the women’s movement) forays away from fashion. It’s been reading Heidegger for a solid week in graduate school and emerging on West End Avenue stoned on his notions of existence and time.  It’s been telling Tarot fortunes at parties, expounding about modal logic.

The path has also been about relationships–some that reified the pain and guilt I felt about my parents and some that were gifts.  Some that held me back and some that pushed me forward.  I also became the mother of an extraordinary son.

So what would I say to this sixteen-year-old, admiring her profile in the mirror, with a copy of Metamorphosis under her bed? I would say almost nothing: Because her tumultuous, painful, ecstatic zigzag path is taking her where she needs to be.

There are two things, though, I would want to tell her:

First: Trust yourself even more than you do. Trust your secret forays into fashion. Trust the books under your bed.  Trust sneaking out the window to see your boyfriend.  Trust the way you hear the ache in your parents’ fights. Trust your forbidden journals. And trust your elaborate camouflage.

Second: Thank you. Thank you for being brave enough to enjoy your image in the mirror. Thank you for your rebelliousness.  Thank you for being true to your path.

____________________________________________________© 2012 Thaïsa Frank

The Mirror by Thaisa Frank

Thaïsa Frank’s Bio:

Enchantment is Thaisa Frank’s third collection of short fiction and includes two semi-autobiographical novellas as well as thirty-three stories. Her most recent novel, Heidegger’s Glasses, takes place in the mythical haven of an underground mine during WWII, the safety of which is threatened by a courageous worker in the Resistance. It was published in 2010, reissued in paperback in 2011 and sold to ten foreign countries before publication.   She is also the author of Sleeping in Velvet and A Brief History of Camouflage, both on the Bestseller List of the San Francisco Chronicle. Thaisa has received two PEN awards and is a three-time Northern California Book Award nominee. Her stories have been widely anthologized–the most recent of which are in A Dictionary of Dirty Words, Harper/Collins Reader’s Choice and Rozne Ksztatly Milocsi.  She has published critical essays on writing and art and wrote the Afterward to Viking/Penguin’s most recent edition of Voltaire.

Thaisa Frank majored in philosophy of science and studied writing alone, turning down fellowships and working as a copy-editor, ghostwriter, and psychotherapist. An interviewer once claimed she also once was a psychic reader; but this was just a rumor, started by one of her characters.  Visit her website at: www.thaisafrank.com

The Mirror by Thaisa Frank

Thaisa Frank