• Turn and Face the Strange: Darcey Steinke on Our New Life with Masks

    "When I look at masked people my brain still feels like its malfunctioning."

    My husband’s face, when mask-less, interacts with my face. I can read the movement of his mouth, his eyes and, in turn, he reads mine. At times, my husband recedes from my face, pulling his animating forces inside of himself. He is focused on a problem I cannot see. At these moments his face is inert, mask-like.

    I’ve spent the pandemic at an upstate cottage in Sullivan County near the Delaware River. One day a week my husband and I go into town to the dump and the grocery store. During these forays out into the world, we’ve had trouble understanding one another. For instance, when I get out of the car to direct him as he backs up the narrow incline to the dumpster, I give the directions I always do to the right, the left, go back, back, back but my husband is frustrated. Tell me what to do? I try for more precision. Turn the wheel to the right. You are a few feet from the edge. His eyes above his mask are bewildered and irritated. He needs my face to understand my words.

    A common delusion of schizophrenics is that those around them, doctors, nurses, other patients, have faces that cannot be trusted. “His face is more refined then it used to be,” says Joseph, one of three mental patients studied in Milton Rokeach’s book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, “and behind that face there is another face that looks like another patient that used to be here.”

    My face, while a body part, is much more than a hand or a foot—it stands in for my whole body, my whole self.

    In the grocery store I don’t recognize my neighbors in their masks. They say It’s Lynn or It’s Julia. One friend, in a floral mask, after identifying herself, told me her mother had died. I found myself fixating on her eyes. Brown pupils with tiny bits of grey thread, dark lashes and eyebrows. Wetness flooded the whites and pooled at the red edge. Without being able to bring my face close to hers I could not really comfort either of us.


    “We didn’t need dialogue,” insists Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, “we had faces.” She claims the only face left now that the silent film era is over, is Greta Garbo’s. Garbo was known as The Face and The Divine. “Garbo belongs,” writes literary critic Roland Barthes, “to that moment in cinema where capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, where one literally lost oneself in a human image.”

    When I look at masked people my brain still feels like its malfunctioning, a skipping sensation, a tenuous connection is reached for and missed.

    Evolutionary biology traces the emotive face from a time before language and links it to the growing complexity of our early social groups. The better early humans were at conveying feelings, the more successful they were at the co-operations that pushed civilization forward. Some scientists have suggested that homo-sapiens greater facility for facial expression is what allowed us to overtake the less facially dexterous Neanderthals.

    My face is my trademark and my main mode of communication. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote about the meanings and morality of the face. “The face opens primordial discourse where the first word is obligation.” The face is the ground zero of expression. “The face is a source from which all meaning appears.” To Levinas, even without verbal discourse, the face itself demands acknowledgement.

    Face blindness or prosopagnosia is the inability to recognize faces. Some people are born with the condition, others develop it after brain trauma. The fusiform gyrus, the part of the brain known for recognizing patterns and systems as well as faces, is damaged. The condition was not recognized until 1947, when Joachim Bodamer, a German neurologist, discovered it in a 24-year-old man who, after a gunshot wound to the head, could no longer recognize the faces of his friends, family or even his own image in the mirror.

    After I end my zoom class, freezing my students and me mid-expression, I pull off my head phones, put my laptop to sleep and sit in my chair staring at the dark screen. Sadness blooms in my chest. The small electronic simulacrum of my students’ faces never comes close to their living features enlivened by questions, ideas and what some people call the soul.

    Children who are genetically predisposed to prosopagnosia cannot follow the plots of television shows or movies, as they cannot distinguish one character from another. While there is no known cure for face blindness, children and adults with prosopagnosia can be taught to use jewelry, clothing, hand expressions, gait and even smell to tell one person from another.


    Levinas’s philosophy of the face began while he was a prisoner in a German camp during World War II. There his humanity was negated. “Our coming and going, our sorrow and laughter, illness and distraction, the work of our hands and the anguish of our eyes, all that passed in parenthesis.” It was a face, the face of an animal, that finally restores the camp to ethical health. “We called him Bobby…he would appear at morning assembly and would wait for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight.” A dog’s face affirms Levinas’s human one. “For him there was no doubt that we were men.”

    During the 17th century doctors wore bird masks to protect themselves from the miasma which they thought carried the plague.

    For Levinas faces are central to our morality but also our vulnerability. “The skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute. There is an essential poverty in the face, to mask the poverty it puts on poses.”

    A mask is a kind of permanent pose.

    In a recent YouTube video a man in a pointy white hood walks up to a group of young people in medical masks standing in the beer aisle of a grocery store. The man wears the KKK hood and below it a t-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes. He staggers, lurches, sways and appears to be very, very drunk.

    A man recently walked around Hellerdon, England, wearing a plague mask shaped like a bird’s head and a long black cloak. During the 17th century doctors wore bird masks to protect themselves from the miasma which they thought carried the plague. The masks featured eyeholes covered in glass, and herbs—juniper berries, rose petals, mint—stuffed into the long beak to hide the scent of decaying flesh. Some residents, the BBC reports, are frightened. “He scared the life out of my wife.” But others feel the walker’s mask is timely. “It’s not illegal and if he can’t wear it now when can he wear it?”

    The first masks were not used to avoid sickness but rather in death rituals. Anthropologists speculate that humans have been making masks for more then 30,000 years. The earliest surviving mask, kept in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, is stone and dates from 7000 BC. It is not unlike Michael Myers’s mask in the Halloween movies; holes for eyes, a thin nose and a grinning mouth with teeth. Indentations around the edges suggest that, like a hockey mask, this first mask was strapped to the face, and served as a conduit for the dead to interface with the unknown.

    Interfacing with the unknown. Our current masks are protective, medical, but also act as stop-gaps between what is known (the medical reality of the Covid virus) and what is not known (what Covid could do to our lives) and even the mystery of what, if our bodies die, might be on the other side. The Iroquois made masks out of the wood of living trees to use in healing ceremonies. Inuit tribes wore masks, during rituals, that united men, their ancestors and the animals they hunted. West African tribes used animal masks to connect to spirits that live in the forest.

    Masked people, while momentarily destabilized, hoped at the end of their ceremonies to bring the broken pieces back together. This is not true for those who wear KKK hoods or the black ski masks of ISIS executioners. These are worn for the same reason villains wear masks in horror films. “With their frequent acts of physical destruction and social transgression mask-wearing horror antagonists,” writes Alexandra Heller-Nicholas in Masks in Horror Cinema, “share (a) pursuit of deconstruction…there is (in them) little interest in re-assembly, only chaos.”

    People have seen Jesus’s face, among other places on a tortilla, in a butcher’s bloody apron, in clouds, on tin foil, on a Christmas tree and on a Pizza Hut billboard in Texas.

    The masks people wear in upstate New York come in all varieties of fabric patterns and colors. Some have slogans Black Lives Matter, Keep Your Distance, God is Love, others logos for Hello Kitty, Harley Davidson, the Bulls, or the Knicks. And others are like horror film masks with a skeleton’s jaw imprinted over a background of camouflage or an American flag. In the grocery store I was forced to speak to an attendant wearing a skull mask. I asked him where I could find the vegetarian burgers. The skull spoke.


    Just before I lost consciousness last September, my young surgeon, Dr. Katsuura, came in to join his team in his gown, cap and mask. His eyes were the last thing I saw before I went under. My doctor’s mask, standard surgical wear, also seemed like part of the uniform of a metaphysical astronaut, one positioned between my body and its pain, even its mortality.

    Unseen regularly and in-person by friends, strangers, even loved ones, I feel my identity, never that solid to begin with, fraying. I feel unmoored, less real. This must be, in part, how masqueraders at carnivals and festivals throughout history have felt. Identity loosens allowing one to act outside constructed roles. “Masks,” writes anthropologist Efrat Tseelon, “unsettle and disrupt. The fantasy of coherence replaces clarity with ambiguity and undermines the phantasmic construction of containment.”

    Searching for information about sadomasochistic masks, the black leather or rubber mask worn during sex, the majority of the results point back to Covid-19. A recent Harvard study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine warns that people not quarantining together should avoid kissing and wear face masks during sex. To be safe they must shower before and after sex as well as clean their physical space with alcohol wipes.


    While the mask is fixed, outside of time, time, etched onto a face, turns the face into a mask. Years of expression have ridged my forehead, the area around my eyes and mouth. All this, if not profound, is at least natural. I literally carry my history on my face.

    Yet women are often blamed for allowing natural aging processes to change their bodies and faces. We are instructed from a young age about the norms of femininity and the work needed to keep them up. My friend Rachel Pollack had to adhere to rigid gender requirements during her transition from male to female. “In the early years,” writes Pollack, “when all hormonal or surgical treatment was filtered through the all-male medical establishment, you actually could not get any medical or legal support without convincing some panel of doctors that you could pass for a woman. Which is to say you had to switch masks.”

    My face, as I age, has become less interesting to men. This is what women mean when they say that they feel invisible. The feeling is not that different from wearing a Covid-19 mask. People on the street don’t look at me, don’t register my face. Among colleagues, friends, sometimes even family, I am less funny, less animated, somehow blander and less interesting.

    My face, as I age, has become less interesting to men. This is what women mean when they say that they feel invisible.

    The aging face is an anti-face. It does not receive the automatic empathy Levinas claimed for the face. In The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke writes of faces he sees on the streets of Paris. He is particularly disturbed by an old women’s face. “When they are barely forty years old they come to their last one… it is worn… has many holes in it, is in many places as thin as paper, and then little by little the lining shows through, the non-face and they walk around with that one.”


    I’ve been reading about the non-face in my upstate cottage. In Katherine Anne Porter’s story “Holiday,” a young writer visits a family of “real old fashion German peasants” deep in Texas farm country. They are a huge multi-generational brood of farmers served by a “crippled, badly deformed servant girl” named Ottilie. A creature who moves in a “limping run” with a “mutilated face” that is so “bowed it is almost hidden.” Midway through the narrative Ottilie pulls the narrator into her small shabby bedroom off the kitchen, to show her a photo of herself at five, before illness ravaged her body. “She patted the picture and her own face, and struggled terrible to speak.” The narrator realizes Ottilie is not a servant but a member of the family, the eldest daughter, treated after her illness with neither love nor kindness. “No one moved aside for her or spoke to her, or even glanced after her when she vanished into the kitchen.”


    White people have long had trouble seeing the faces of Black and brown people. Rather than see them, some, particularly college age white men, have chosen to diminish Black people by wearing blackface. In 2015 a group of Princeton undergraduates posted a video of a university-approved group called “Urban Congo.” The video showed a dozen young white men in body paint beating drums. In 2019, both Virginia’s governor and attorney general admitted to wearing blackface in college. Patricia J. William lamented in The Nation that here she was again writing about blackface. “Blackface gets to the discomforting core of how Black people are seen by the broader culture and how some white people see themselves.”

    “What white people see when they look at you,” James Baldwin told Studs Terkel on his radio show in 1967, “is not visible. What they do see when they look at you is what they have invested you with.”

    For his 1962 book Black Like Me, rather than talk to Black people about their experience, John Howard Griffin felt “the only way” to “bridge the gap was to become a negro.” Griffin took drugs and used make-up to darken his skin in order to break social boundaries. By wearing this mask, Griffin hoped not only to commune with the other, but to actually join them. Living as Black he is in constant constraints. His physical needs are negated; few restaurants will serve him so he must carry food and, denied the use of bathrooms, he uses the outdoors to relieve himself.

    It’s me, it’s my face but also the face of a stranger.

    Ancient mask-wearers hoped to enter a liminal space, where they could commune with a powerful other, one they saw as sacred. John Howard Griffin, who worked as a freelance journalist, begins his long-term “empathetic racial impersonation,” as Alisa Gains calls it in her book Black for a Day, with empathy and a hope for solidarity but also horror. “I feel the long loneliness of the terrible dread of what I have decided to do.”

    Near the end of Black Like Me, Griffin finds living full time as a Black person too stressful. He develops a technique to zig zag back and forth. Like an actor playing two different parts in a play, he dons the mask and then removes it at a frenetic pace. “In my bag I kept a sponge, dyes, cleansing crème and Kleenex… I would find an isolated spot, perhaps an alley at night or a bush beside the highway and quickly apply the dye to my face and hands.”


    Pareidolia, is the opposite of face blindness. It is a condition, Darwinianly selected, that pushes us to see faces everywhere, whether they are there or not. The brain is activated by face-like objects which alert the observer to the emotional state and identity of the face, even before the conscious mind begins to process. Babies, scientific experiments have proven, are more likely to be cared for if they are able to recognize a face and smile back.

    This may explain why people have seen Jesus’s face, among other places on a tortilla, in a butcher’s bloody apron, in clouds, on tin foil, on a Christmas tree and on a Pizza Hut billboard in Texas. The Virgin Mary has been seen on a grilled cheese sandwich, on a pretzel, a hospital window, a brain scan, a highway underpass and on a Cheeto. In Japan there is a museum that displays what are called jinmenscki, found rocks that contain faces. The museum collection includes rocks that resemble among others, Jack Sparrow, Elvis, Donkey Kong and Donald Trump. One display features open-mouthed rocks, each resembling a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

    Some people have perceived these faces as phantoms. “If you look at any wall with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones” Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his diary, “…you will be able to see… figures in quick movements and strange expressions of faces…  which you can than reduce into separate and well-conceived forms.”


    A veil is a mask that has grown out around the edges and become so huge it hides not just a face, but whole ways of being, whole other dimensions. In Exodus, after Moses speaks to God, his face is so radiant he must wear a veil. W.E.B. Du Bois writes that the veil of racism for Black people “darkens half the sun.” Veils in early synagogues separated the inner most altar from the general place of worship. The last altar was a liminal space, a place half of this world and half of the next.


    When I look at masked people my brain still feels like its malfunctioning, a skipping sensation, a tenuous connection is reached for and missed again and again: this disconnection is the same sensation I sometimes feel in dreams. It’s my brother’s face but it’s also my high school principal’s face, it’s my third-grade teacher’s face mixed with the face of my department chair. It’s me, it’s my face but also the face of a stranger.

    With their husbands and sons fighting in the war of Biafra in the late 1960s, the Izzi women of Nigeria began to make and perform in masks. “Special women,” writes anthropologist Chinyere Grace Okafor, “post-menopausal ones, wives of senior cult members and lineage daughters are drafted to perform roles in the masking performance.” My mask connects me to a long line of women who, in times of crisis, yearn to protect themselves and their community. The women move around their village singing. “Who-ever is sleeping wake up / Try hard and Wake up / something huge has happened.”

    At the zoom funeral for my uncle, my father’s brother, I watch my 85-year-old father. He is one of 30 relatives on the screen, each in their small rectangular box but it is his face, as the service progresses, that most compels me. He, along with my mother, were my first faces. Faces I struggled to understand and connect with as a tiny baby, even before my own memory began to unfurl.


    Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary is available in paperback from FSG.

    Darcey Steinke
    Darcey Steinke
    Darcey Steinke is the author most recently of Flash Count Diary (Sarah Crichton Books, 2019), as well as the memoir Easter Everywhere and the novels Sister Golden Hair, Milk, Jesus Saves, Suicide Blonde, and Up Through the Water. With Rick Moody, she edited Joyful Noise: The New Testament RevisitedHer books have been translated into ten languages, and her nonfiction has appeared widely. Her web story “Blindspot” was a part of the 2000 Whitney Biennial. She has been a Writer-in-Residence as well as both a Henry Hoyns and a Stegner Fellow at the University of Mississippi. She has taught at the New School, Columbia University School of the Arts, New York University, Princeton, and the American University of Paris. She lives with her husband in Brooklyn.

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