On Self-Reflection, Stories, and and What Mirrors Really Tell Us
“The narrative of your present is crafted by the past.”
I can recall the moment I realized the girl staring back at me in the mirror was already past, that the reality reflected in the glass was of a time already gone.
As a child I retreated to the restroom to read when I should have been getting ready for bed, the room full of echoes: the steady faucet drip, the gentle ring of bubble bath around the tub, my parents murmuring from the living room. Climbing to the sink, I would seek myself in the mirror above the counter.
One evening when I was five or six, my reflection became a question. I knew it was me, but the longer I stared, the more fully my image became a stranger.
The odd feeling that I existed both in and out of that reflection was unsettling, for neither was fully real. She was girl and ghost, and the contradiction of duality weighed heavy in my stomach as I began to float. I could not tell where or when or even if I began.
Holding my face close to the mirror, I studied the image closely, so convinced it could not be me at the same time I knew it to be true, that I scarcely noticed that my breath fogged the glass, barely heard my mother from the other room calling me back.
Created in 1970 by American psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr., the mirror test is designed to determine whether an animal is capable of self-recognition. The test is simple—animals are anesthetized and marked with a spot of red paint or a sticker on a part of their body they can’t normally see. When they wake, they are placed in front of a mirror. If the animal investigates the new mark, they are considered capable of self-awareness.
Most animals fail the test. Only humans, a few apes, a single Asiatic elephant, dolphins, orcas, the Eurasian magpie, and cleaner wrasse fish have passed—and scientists disagree on the majority of these successes. Most animals simply gaze in the mirror.
Humans don’t pass the test until they are toddlers, and this often occurs after extensive coaxing where the toddlers learn to mirror the adults around them. Recently, rhesus monkeys and small fish have learned to pass the test, indicating that they are latently aware of the self, or, at the very least, capable of learning new cognitive skills.
For many years, it was assumed that animals who passed the test were capable of reflecting on their being and identity, and, by extension, potentially understanding that other animals have distinct selves and minds. But this is assumption, abstraction based on what we observe when watching animals watch themselves.
In 2011, photographer James Geddes captured the image of an eagle standing on frozen ice, staring down at its reflection. The photo seems quintessentially American—the symbol of freedom pensive at its likeness, a national self-reflection captured a few years after Obama took office and began to write a narrative of hope and the country responded by beginning to unravel.
The eagle’s reflection is crisp and sharp, the bird craning its neck forward to peer closer. It is easy to read the image as one of contemplation: the eagle considering its place in a changing world, assessing the apparent stability of ground even as the water rushes underneath.
The world is always leaving.
I realized this young. My body was a vehicle, time a stretch of road. There was no choice but to move forward, try to stay in the careful lines to avoid a collision. If I did stray, the car would rumble, the road designed to keep me in, to startle me back in position if I tried to leave or simply drifted unaware.
From my position in the passenger seat, I witnessed how the reality of the road in front of me could become a memory fading behind. We were always heading to the future, even if the destination was a museum that celebrated the past: polished silver cups or obsidian knives glinting under the lights, my gape-mouthed reflection in the glass. The beach was full of waves retreating forward and back, and I tried to capture that blurring sense of time on my tiny camera, though mostly I strained my eye to find the mirror inside. I tried to capture my kitten growing bigger each day, the way the window reflected sunlight on my lap, rainbows through the air, my own face looking in a mirror so I could see both versions of myself at once.
Objects in mirror are closer than they appear, read the rear-view mirror. I did not understand, for perceptions of depth and time have always made me dizzy. I like the unreality of compressing time, past and present not so different, or looking down from a tall building, stomach drooping into my temple.
Caution, my parents explained. It meant that when you’ve left something behind it can sneak up on you, that you are never as far ahead of something as you believe. That the narrative of your present is crafted by the past.
Invented in 1903, the two-way mirror is not a mirror of binaries, of doubles. The mirror is actually referred to as a one-way, the name a trick, much like the device.
A mirror is made by applying a thick layer of reflective material to the back of a sheet of glass in order to make it opaque. When we gaze into the mirror, the layer of silvering reflects our image back at us. In a one-way mirror, however, the silvering is applied by half, so that the glass is not opaque, but translucent, ethereal. Half the light striking the glass passes through it, the other half reflects.
This mirror is often used to mislead, to interrogate. Those gazing at the mirror from a brightly-lit room see themselves reflected, while those on the other side in a room dimly-lit are obscured. The mirror is deception, a play of light and shadow, expectation and ego.
Turn the lighting up on both sides and the reflection disappears, the mirror simply glass, images free to float between the veil.
At the start of 2020, I have not looked into a mirror for over four years. I do not know when my childhood fascination with the self—the certainty of its mutability—shifted into grief. I only know that at some point I grew wary of the reflection, not my likeness but my living.
The last time I can recall looking into the mirror without dread was when the world was on the cusp of dismantling. There was a new president, a new climate, a new decade approaching, time gone fast and slow all at once. Trump took office as I reluctantly claimed a new job and thus a new home, neither of which I wanted, though I knew I was lucky.
In my early twenties I’d watched eagerly as California faded from the rear-view mirror, a new home in Nebraska on the horizon, but nearly a decade later as Nebraska faded from sight and Massachusetts came into focus, I felt only disappointment. The life, the home, the country were nothing like I’d expected, nothing I’d written for myself.
Within days of arriving, I caught sight of my face in the mirror, saw my mouth pinched into a straight line like the horizon behind me, eyes glazed like a museum specimen frozen in the past. The image was a ghost of who I had been before, and for months I stood before her, tried to fake-smile at the me in the mirror the way I did with people at work, though there was no one I wanted to smile at, or at strangers in the street, though Massachusetts seemed full of resentments bitter as the cold and I missed the quiet comfort of Nebraska and the golden beaches of my California youth.
Soon I was haunting my own life, caught in the present while longing for the past. I was nostalgic for my father’s classic rock buzzing through the radio while we dipped low into a backroad, or peeling the skin of a California acorn to reveal the mealy flesh beneath. I missed the way the ocean wind made me forget precision, hair whipping in my mouth, nose running, and the way the summer heat pooled in the parts of my body I would otherwise forget, mingling with the smell of sunscreen and BBQ.
I wanted the messy freedom of my girlhood, where time stretched long into the afternoon and abandoned walls were for bouncing balls against, rocks for gathering heavy in your pocket and flinging from high vistas or across a still lake. I missed the promise of a few years past, sipping wine with friends late into the night, knowing I might never see them again, which was what made our stories more compelling long after the candles had spilled their wax across the table to pool like amorphous phantoms.
I was nostalgic for the environment of my childhood too, the country a place that grew more fractured. I didn’t recognize the images of my country just as I didn’t recognize the images of myself. The television showed children in cages and women crying for their lost families, soldiers on the Capitol steps and Nazi flags. The news reported storms ravaging the coastlines, leaving countries in the dark, washing away cities, tornadoes snaking through the South, hurricanes hovering over the East, the West Coast black and burning each year. Online, friends and family argued over two seemingly-different worlds, each inhabiting their own side of the mirror, unable or unwilling to turn on the light to see the other. It was as though the image of the world and those within it had been smashed, the country’s reflection reduced to jagged shards.
What was reality and what was perception melted before me, politicians reporting everything was fine just as I reported the same to those who asked how I was doing, though I could no longer look in the mirror without weeping or seizing up in panic. Once, I caught sight of myself in a restaurant mirror and lost my appetite, so sad I was for that lonely, lost woman.
It was unsettling to see the images of my reality reflected back at me—a country that seemed to be, like the climate itself, on the verge of extinction, each home I’d known under attack, fires threatening to burn my childhood California to rubble, tornadoes winding themselves like a noose around Nebraska, snow threatening to bury Massachusetts, leaving us as dark and dead as I felt most days. The forward momentum of my childhood proved incorrect—I’d driven forward, but now there was nowhere else to go, only ocean at this other end of the continent. And the danger in the rearview mirror was much closer than it appeared. So I simply stopped looking.
To be clear, I didn’t disdain my appearance as much as mourn for the woman trapped as if behind glass in a place and position she never wanted to claim. Though I loved my childhood in the golden light of small-town California, from my vantage point many miles and years away, I realized it had written a narrative of sameness on me—one that defined my gender, sexuality, and speaking in a way that sought to silence.
Though I loved my husband, our marriage after nearly a decade seemed stifling and prescriptive and felt, the longer I was in the role of wife, like it was closing in all around. Though I loved my work, I took a job I did not particularly want because there are few in my field and we are told to be grateful, and after I arrived, the photo filters were removed one by one until all that remained was the grainy image of my new reality. I’d sought movement for many years, thrilled by the images whirring out the window, my face reflected over them in the glass, but I realized now it was the other way around, that my image was the one upon which the world had been superimposed.
The longer time went on, the more blurred and faint the image of myself, my home, my country seemed. Everything felt lost, disappeared by a power beyond our control. It pained me to see what I had become without my permission so I simply stopped looking at myself at all, stopped taking photos so as not to mark this passage of time.
I spent so much time longing for the past that at a certain point I felt nearly dead, as though I were a ghost haunting my own life. Nostalgia and haunting are not so very different, after all—we are only nostalgic for things that are gone, we are only haunted by the things we once loved.
I used to read beside my reflection, my child body curled up with a book on the bathroom counter. Mirrors seemed to be everywhere—the bathroom, the car, the vanity in my bedroom, the walls of ballet class where we were told to be strong but also small enough to disappear. They were in the glint of a knife and the windows of buildings where I saw myself pulled forward by the hand, my feet moving by duty rather than desire. The city skylines of every place I visited were lined with mirrors as if to reflect the world back onto itself, but the older I got, the more I saw confusion, the way a mirror faced against a mirror created reflections to infinity, no sense of logic or place. The way a bird flew into a window believing it sky.
I read books about ghosts because, like time or gravity or the certainty that my body would remember to breathe or beat, it filled me with wonder and a bit of fright. I read the one where a boy finds a mirror in the attic that can make him invisible. He likes disappearing and makes a little game of it, the way I liked to look at myself in the mirror to be both image and abstraction. Eventually the boy disappears for too long, struggling to find his way home. I thought about how one day my angry grandfather was alive and then he was dead and my grandmother seemed like she could finally breathe.
I thought about how my friend down the road with the best climbing trees moved away and then her trees were forbidden even though I knew all the footholds and how to reach one hand around the branch to the knot at the back, hoisting myself up and into the pine, sap glistening across my thighs as I looked across the riverbed to my house on the other side, the river disappearing, the bed full of cracks where the water vanished, birds pecking at the dry ground.
I thought about how every spring the eucalyptus groves where the monarchs wintered were emptied and the flutter of gold vanished and though this was the way it should be, it was hard not to wonder if the butterflies would ever return. And I thought about how the historic mission in my town had stood for centuries but then it rained too much and the wall around the graveyard—the one my parents said kept the spirits in—collapsed and what would keep them in now or would they wander lonely through the town, confused why it seemed familiar though everything was different?
There is a delay between seeing and perceiving. It takes our brains a moment to process what we are looking at, so the image of my girlhood I saw in the mirror was from the past. At the mirror, I was both there and then. I was present and past, living and memory, girl and ghost. The longer I thought about time, how fast it goes—the first reflection I saw in the mirror long gone just as the one I was currently seeing was suspect, a version of myself I could no longer get back—the more I felt the sad sweet swell of nostalgia. I was only five, then six, then eight and ten, twenty and thirty, but already I was longing for and missing what was right in front of me.
One of my favorite books told the story of a young girl named Jane who visits her family in New England one summer and becomes intrigued by a garden reflecting ball. She spends long hours gazing at the reflection in the mirrors, the way they refract reality, until she begins, like me when I look in the mirror for too long, to see things that aren’t real.
Then, one day, Jane sees the ghost of a wicked girl named Emily. She does not know where one girl ends and the other begins, what is present and what is past. The adults around her say it’s make-believe like my parents say when they pull me away from the mirror to play in the real world. Jane and Emily merge into one.
I read the book time and again for a fright, stopping to stare at my reflection like a moon in the darkness of my bedroom window or in the skylight high in the bathroom ceiling, my pale face looking up as if from the end of a long tunnel.
It is myth that a mirror inverts your image. You do not reflect in reverse. Instead, the left of your face is imposed on the left of the mirror, the right over the right. It is merely illusion—another trick of perception—that you exist altered. This is why photos and videos of ourselves seem so unnatural. We are more used to existing in the lag time between reflection and perception.
To view an accurate image, you must position two mirrors together at ninety degrees, stand at the split, straddle the images on either side. You must exist in multiples, view yourself from where the many selves join.
A true mirror is one that projects your image as others see you. Wave your right hand and the three-dimensional image will wave as if from the left. Lean to one side and see yourself lean away. The image is lifelike in a way that a traditional mirror is not and the experience disrupts our understanding of reflection, at once more human and intimate than our many years brushing our teeth or hair at the abstraction in front of us.
Some are startled, shaken, some shamed they have understood themselves incorrectly. And some weep at the rare chance to witness the self in as it truly exists in time and space.
Now, in my mid-thirties, I am trying to see myself as I exist rather than as I reflect. I am searching for the place where the two mirrors come together to reveal the truth.
The image of the woman and the world I have been avoiding is both reflection and abstraction, the images not quite accurate, but ones I have been mourning these past few years. I have been so distracted by perceived loss that I’ve missed things disappearing right before me, even my own sense of wonder.
I no longer want to hang a Victorian veil over the mirror as though I am dead, as though the looking glass might trap my soul, prevent me from moving on. I want to go back to that girl in the mirror, watching, searching, enthralled by the many versions of the self.
When I stare in the mirror now, as I am (re)learning to do, as our reliance on video chats requires these months and years we isolate, the woman before seems a stranger and a support. I marvel at the way memory and nostalgia compress time so that I am here and then, in mirror and memory, the me of now and also of a split second ago and also all those years ago when I first stared in the mirror, headband pushing hair from my face, teeth starting to jut through the gums, that slow smile of recognition.
Reflection is both the mirrored image and careful rumination. I’ve been avoiding the image because I’ve been avoiding the thinking—about the homes I’ve made and the ways they do not fit, about the country changing underfoot. But these images I’ve avoided are not true reflections, and each is already gone. The only thing to do is remember there is no mirror test to convince your restless animal self that existence is precious, to convince you to step away from the reflection and into reality.
This doesn’t mean we forget history or stop aching for it, mourning it if we must, but rather that living requires we keep some distance between our past and present, we keep our many selves in sight in the rearview mirror, as we determine which path to take and where to deviate.
The first images of Earth were captured in the 1940s, a 35mm camera snapping a shot each second from a rocket, the photos falling back to land in a steel canister. What was reflected was revolutionary—horizon curve backdropped by space—but scientists worried over whether or not to release the images.
Earth surrounded by the vast dark of space, they feared, would counter people’s self-perceptions. They thought people would feel insignificant, alone, fearful. They thought people might see human life as futile when faced with the vast isolation of space.
These first images fell to Earth from the future, but revealed a world already in the past. It is difficult to look at these photos without the complexity of time tugging comprehension in multiple directions. This image of the world is foreign and familiar, comfort and chaos. Astronauts tasked with leaving in order to move humankind forward to the edge of the galaxy, to live where the darkness was so deep there was no light to reflect, were compelled to turn back, nostalgic for what they’d abandoned.
Excerpted from Halfway from Home by Sarah Fawn Montgomery, available via Split/Lip Press.