I always wanted glasses. My mother wore aviators in the ’70s and looked like Gloria Steinem, with her long hair middle-parted, her hands on her hips. My sister got them early, and though she had to suffer through glasses-and-braces, when she reached college, she looked as super-smart as she was. I didn’t think of wearing fake ones, like the celebrities looking bookish for good-cause purposes.
When I finally earned distance glasses, it was just in time to live in Barcelona, where one of the female fashion paradigms involved skinny little glasses and a long shiny ponytail. The only nickname I had, really, was Pony (Camp Tohikanee, age 12, nickname due to ponytail, I hoped, rather than buck teeth, too grateful to have been deemed nickname-worthy to investigate the matter), and I could manage the ponytail. Now I had the glasses, too! In a coffeeshop, writing in a notebook with a cortado at hand, I belonged. The other fashion paradigms were impossible, anyway, requiring youth, beauty, or money.
Every night while watching an episode of ’30 Rock’ I wear my glasses and smile at Tina Fey. However, rounder glasses are coming back in, so my paradigm is shifting. Glasses allow you to be at least two selves. Put them on, take them off. Stare down your nose through them.
Since the myth of the patient Sybil has been debunked, I wonder how greedily we wanted her to have sixteen different selves. The account of the patient Shirley Mason was published as Sybil in 1973, and one-fifth of all Americans saw the 1976 movie based on her story (the image of the terrorized girl tied to a piano leg will not leave me!). Logistical difficulties aside–well, wait, it’s hard to put those aside:
“She would ‘come to’ in antiques shops, her mind a blank, facing dishes or figurines that were smashed to pieces. Or, she recounted, she found herself in strange hotels with no idea what city she was in.”
That’s from Debbie Nathan’s 10-16-2011 New York Times article about Shirley Mason. So, aside from the practical problems, and putting aside the awfulness of Shirley Mason’s situation that caused her develop the schema, I wonder how enticing the whole idea was, that a person could be multiple. “I am all of them,” Mason said to her psychiatrist in 1958. A person could be one way today, and another tomorrow. The librarian is sexy because when she whips off those glasses and takes down her hair…watch out. Superheroes are often doubles–why should the rest of us have to settle for one identity?
Tangentially, was Sybil a harbinger of the extreme memoirs to come in the following decades? Mary Karr’s mom didn’t have just one cocktail, James Frey didn’t get let off with a warning, Augusten Burroughs’ step-dad wasn’t just eccentric, and Jeannette Walls didn’t just move from New Jersey to Connecticut. They represented our own little dramas writ large. I refuse, I tell you, to be just one person.
These three photos are by Cindy Sherman, from her series “Untitled Film Stills.”