Searching for Our Own Reflections: Lessons from Alana Massey and Madeleine L’Engle
I met with Julie for about 18 months during 2011–2012 when I was trying to gain skills and develop tools that might prevent additional spirals into insanity from complications due to my bipolar disorder. In addition to providing therapy that would help me avoid mania and depression, she also encouraged me to practice self-acceptance and embrace myself instead of comparing myself to other women I knew. “You cut corners as a mom and that’s great,” she’d say. “You’re fine with throwing a rotisserie chicken from Sam’s Club on the table along with a bag salad and calling it dinner. There’s freedom in that.” I was not like most of the moms in my mostly white, mostly middle-to-upper-middle class evangelical circles. I didn’t like to craft with my kids so I didn’t craft with my kids. I made sure my daughter and son always had art supplies, but I had no desire to direct or join in their fun. I was (and L’Engle and Massey both recognize the personhood of strangers and that recognition ushers them into a greater awareness of their own personhood.am still) way too proud of myself whenever I manage to prepare a balanced, healthy meal for my family, while that’s something so many of my friends do every night without much effort and without any self-congratulation. During one of our sessions, I told Julie I realized one big difference between me and the women I was always comparing myself to is that I read People magazine whenever I could find one in a waiting room. While I’m sitting and listening for the nurse to call my name, I scour the pages and soak up the gossip and baby updates and photos of celebrities walking down Los Angeles or New York City streets with a latte or a carton of coconut water in hand. I didn’t think any of the women in my Bible studies and carpool lines would ever be interested in reading People. She fixed her gaze on me and responded, “Those women need people in their lives who read People.”
In A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle writes about a realization she had when she was around seven or eight years old. One night she saw a woman undressing by an open window in an apartment building across from hers. L’Engle watched the woman take off her dress and stand in her slip. The woman didn’t move. She was still. She was being. L’Engle writes,
And that was my moment of awareness (of ontology?): that woman across the court who did not know me and whom I did not know was a person. She had thoughts of her own. She was. Our lives would never touch. I would never know her name. And yet it was she who revealed to me my first glimpse of personhood.
When I woke up in the morning the wonder of that revelation was still with me. There was a woman across the court, and she had dreams and inner conversations which were just as real as mine and which did not include me. But she was there, she was real, and so, therefore, was everybody else in the world. And so, therefore, was I.
This sense of wonder that L’Engle describes reminds me of Alana Massey’s engagement with various women in her book All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers. L’Engle and Massey both recognize the personhood of strangers and that recognition ushers them into a greater awareness of their own personhood. L’Engle and Massey both find more of themselves through paying close attention to others.
L’Engle had no way to know the dreams and inner conversations of the woman who lived across from her apartment. Although they weren’t separated by much physical space, there was too much distance. There was an age divide and a maturity gap. And the woman L’Engle saw wasn’t famous.
Massey, however, has more to work with. In All the Lives I Want she writes about women who live or have lived in the public eye. From a greater physical distance than L’Engle was afforded but with plenty of other entry points, Massey observes a wide range of women (from Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion to Anna Nicole Smith and Amber Rose), consumes their personal stories and the work they’ve created, and makes astute connections between these women and herself. Massey does all of this with brilliance and grace, maintaining appropriate balances between self and other, between “high culture” and “low culture,” and between comedy and tragedy.
In the book’s opening piece, “Being Winona; Freeing Gwyneth,” Massey takes her readers on a journey of pitting Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow (and those who identify with them) against each other only to land in a place where she realizes appearances and pieces of a narrative never tell us the full story. Massey’s words had me ready to create a #teamWinona hashtag on Twitter, but by the end of the essay, her words moved me to repent of my judgmental perspective and my propensity to choose sides (and belittle the one I’m not on). Massey writes,
The public discourse about Winona had trapped her as the long-suffering girl, and I was in collusion with it. The decision to actively disengage from the way of looking at Winona made me sympathetic to an unlikely ally: Gwyneth Paltrow.
Giving Winona back her full humanity meant giving it back to Gwyneth, too.
In this essay, and in Massey’s other essays in this collection, humanity wins. I can’t help but think L’Engle would approve.
As a Christian, I oftentimes say to myself and to my middle school–aged kids that we should find our identity in Christ. And while that statement is true, I don’t believe it’s as simple as it sounds. Finding our identity in Christ doesn’t mean we can’t glean some of who we are from other people. If we’re all made in God’s image and if we all deserve our full humanity, we should have permission to look into the faces of others and see our own reflections.
Maybe that’s why I like to read People, which I now have a subscription to. (I love that I don’t have to wait for my next annual checkup or dental appointment to partake.) Every week a new issue provides updates on Kate Middleton and Prince William, a “day in the life” of a famous woman whose life looks nothing like mine, and a full-day’s menu for someone who probably cooks less than I do. But as I flip the pages and make observations, I make a few new connections. Since reading All the Lives I Want I’m better at noticing the places where my life might intersect with the lives of the women photographed and blurbed and with the characters they play, the music they record, and the books they write. I’m also better at noticing the places where my life might intersect with the lives of the women in my circles who don’t read People and with whom I sometimes think I have very little in common. Massey has taught me how to see others more clearly. And like her and L’Engle, I’m becoming more aware of my own humanity as a result.