Sheba's interest in photo booths preceded her seeing the film Amelie, in which the booths figure, but she agrees that the movie caused her budding fascination to bloom. Now she loiters at the Star Bar or wherever else she can find the booths, and engages in compulsive self-portraiture. Her fondest wish is to have a booth of her own -- a scary prospect that reminds me of the woman crawling into the pod in Todd Haynes' film Safe or the Wizard of Oz cloistering himself in the booth that projects his own image.
I'm being a bit facetious, of course. I don't think Sheba's hobby is anything but healthy. An artist is captivated by images, whether her own or others. What does fascinate me, though, is the power of self-portraiture in Sheba's case to enliven her. When she pulls out her dozens of strips of little self-portraits, her mood shifts as surely as if you gave her a happy pill.
I've asked her why she takes such delight in her hobby and she waxes a bit philosophical. "To me," she says, "the pictures show how every moment is different and can't be recovered. You can never exactly reproduce the same moment. If I just throw all these strips down at once, they all look the same, but as you look at them closely, you notice differences in my expression and that's the way everything is."
Andy Warhol, who also made use of repetition in his work, made the same observation. Life has a kind of tedious continuity much of the time but inside each moment, worlds open. Or perhaps, in the case of portraiture, it would be appropriate to say that the naturally fractured nature of identity reveals itself in the moment. In the case of Sheba, a pretty lesbian, she looks like Elvis at one moment, a homeboy the next, a contemplative the next, a very femme model in the next. To look at the pictures is to realize identity is as unfixed as the moment.
But why should this so captivate Sheba?
There's a principle in developmental psychology, interpreted in various ways but almost universally accepted in its basic form, called mirroring. According to this theory, the infant's sense of presence and ability to regulate and understand feelings are the result of "mirroring" from the mother. You can extend this to the entire childhood experience. Our sense of self is very much conditioned by the way we are seen by others in our family.
Of course, nobody receives completely positive mirroring and as a result everyone's self-image is distorted to some degree. People like Sheba, though, received especially devastating mirroring. I won't recount her entire history, including the beatings by a father that sometimes caused her to call the police. It should be sufficient to say that she was sexually abused by her brother, her mother's favorite, and when she disclosed this, she was accused of lying. Because she had not received positive mirroring to begin with, being treated like the family freak as early as she could remember, Sheba of course lacked the emotional autonomy to resist the accusations that she lied.
That is the horror of abuse of the magnitude of a sibling's sexual violation. It totally disrupts the victimized child's sense of autonomous presence and then, having disrupted the autonomy, it also renders the child incapable of confidence in articulating and believing her own story. Every victim of child abuse knows this. Even as you tell your story as an adult, a voice inside you says, "This can't be true, you must be exaggerating. They must really love me."
And that doubt can keep one enmeshed in the family, forever going back to prove the truth and to try to get the love that the parent never mirrored.
The task, of course, is to shatter the mirror that distorts our self-image. The beginning of that process for Sheba began perhaps a year ago when, making another effort to ingratiate herself to her parents, she found herself locked in the usual bitter argument with them. Her father, an old man, attacked her physically. Sheba, in a gesture worthy of a John Waters film, flew into a blind rage, went into her mother's yard and smashed her plaster garden gnomes.
It would be hard to design a more perfectly metaphorical moment. Having been treated like a freak all her life, Sheba smashed images of the freak inhabiting her mother's yard, effectively smashing the mirror of distortion.
But what to do when you've smashed the mirror? You have to find a new one, of course, and one that tells the truth, doesn't deny the fracturing that the past has caused. That, I surmise, is exactly what Sheba is doing in her ritual of self-portraiture in the photo booth.
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