Mirror, Mirror: Looking for Reflections of Self

The little girl looks in the mirror
The little girl looks in the mirror

As a child, I was fixated on mirrors. Time and time again, my parents would catch me in some elaborate, solo musical production performed for an audience of one on the back of my bedroom door. Not only was mirror gazing a solitary indulgence, it was also a public compulsion. I remember being mocked by my Hebrew school classmates when they busted me transfixed by my own reflection in the long windows of the temple gift shop like a Jewish mini-Narcissus.

Until recently, when confronted with memories of my embarrassing pastime, I've always reached the obvious conclusion: I was hopelessly vain. Worse yet, I was hardly physically exceptional enough to justify such fascination. So I wasn't just vain, but delusional to boot.

But mirrors are more than just a place to check your makeup or your air guitar technique. In myths and fairy tales, mirrors are often a mystical thing -- half of this world and half of another. Mirrors play an integral role in Snow White, The Snow Queen, Beauty and the Beast, Through the Looking Glass and the myth of Narcissus, among others. Perseus kills Medusa by using a mirror. Mirrors can provide portents of future events, can hold malevolent spells and can even be a portal to other worlds.

Lately, I've begun to see my fascination with mirrors as the result of an impulse more fundamental than vanity. Mermaids traditionally carry mirrors as a symbol of their duality. As an adopted child, I, too, lived in the borderlands between two worlds. I didn't grow up physically resembling my family and didn't see much of a correspondence, physical or otherwise, between myself and the disturbingly homogenous population of the conservative town in which we lived. I secretly harbored suspicions that I had been dropped into northern New Jersey by sadistic aliens. Or perhaps I had been abandoned by a princess who couldn't raise me because of an evil spell -- the very sort of princess who might have a magic mirror.

We all live on a shifting frontier between truth and fiction. Memories are a collaboration between past and present. The events of our lives are shaped by the dreams, fantasies and beliefs that circle them and vice versa. For adopted children, this hazy boundary between life and narrative takes on an added dimension of urgency, because in some ways we are forced to self-invent from the gate. The inability to easily concretize an identity can lead to feeling disconnected. It can drive you to stare at your own face for too long, to wonder who exactly you are and where you came from. But it can also awaken the narrative possibilities within you. The loss created by adoption leaves a gap, a void. If you are a certain kind of person, you learn to fill that void with story.

My birth mother recently came to visit, graciously agreeing to participate in a series of oral histories I'm recording. I had met her briefly once before, but hadn't seen her in nearly fifteen years. I picked her up curbside at the airport and as I hopped out of my car to hug her, the late afternoon sun glanced off her eyes and the resemblance struck me nearly breathless for a moment. Her eyes were the same shape and unusual muddy green color as my own. A bit lighter, maybe. A bit more careworn, certainly. But still, the similarity startled me. It occurred to me that this sense of recognition is what most people experience every day of their life. As a result, perhaps they don't feel compelled to look quite as hard in the mirror.

This search for reflections in the world around us is an essential impulse. It's an impulse that isn't only answered by our families, but by music, art, books, lovers, friends -- and by stories.

In my adult life, I don't look in the mirror as much as I used to. What the mirror never gave me, I found in narrative. My hunger for connection inspired me to tell stories. I am grateful for it every night as I lie down with my own son, who is also adopted, and spin him tales in which he is a warrior, a prince, a hero. For now, he can take any one of these reflections and choose for himself a truth. And one day, I hope he will tell me a story about who he is, and it will be far better and truer than any story I could invent for him.