I could not get over feeling stunned.
All this time I had thought I knew myself. My inability to stop staring went beyond vanity. I played the video several times, feeling like a monkey.
I read that some monkeys, when you hand them a mirror, get that they are looking at their reflection. Fascinated, they explore the contours of their faces; pull down their lips to get a better look at their teeth; turn their heads to see their profiles.
Looking at myself on my iPad screen, I knew just how they felt — although I think the monkeys had more fun.
Maybe I would have had more fun, too, if I were a kid. I used to love my tape recorder “shows,” rambling on about whatever was on my mind with an imagined air of authority. “Now I present to you the Lisa show. My show is all about me, whose name is Lisa, and this show is all about Lisa and her extraordinary life which has so far lasted eight years.”
I am sure the child star of “The Lisa Show” would have loved a video camera, too. But even though video technology has been around for a long time, I have rarely made the effort to see myself on camera. I am a writer who sees herself more as her thoughts than her appearance.
So why now? I recently read that to be successful writers must not insist on “hiding behind words.” At first I bridled at this. Hiding behind words is the definition of a writer. A communicator who does not hide behind words is called a speaker. That is a different occupation entirely.
But I decided to try recording myself on camera anyway, just for fun.
The first time I barely recognized myself. The voice, the gestures, the expressions: they could not be me. I did not use hand gestures the way the girl on the video was doing, not me; nor did I bite my lip or toss my head. Who was this dark, lip-biting head-tossing twin who was pretending to be me?
The sight was not only strange; it was ironic. As a writer I have tried to develop the habit of observing people to see how they are defined by their quirks, gestures, subtle facial expressions, glances, and habitual posture. I have kept notebooks recording these kinds of details about others.
But during all of that time I did not know my own. Who was that girl who was waving her hands to emphasize a point? I would never do that, not that way. Meanwhile she made facial expressions too quick to capture in words and that I did not know I made.
I was used to mirrors. But my video was not a mirror. In mirrors I always see myself facing forward and rarely from above or below. When I blink I never see my closed eyelids.
And it was not a photograph. With photographs you pose, smile, and make yourself pleasant. Sometimes a photograph captures a facial expression during an awkward transition such as a mid-blink. Photographs like that are usually tossed out. Although they still represent me, they do not match the image I like to have of myself, so out they go.
But video honors all of the subtle transitions, every one of them, and creates from them an overall impression.
What was this impression, which so many others have seen? And how could it be influencing how others treat me?
I thought about how my new doctor sometimes talks to me like I am 15 years old. Looking at myself on camera I thought that this, while not justified, was not surprising.
The girl on the screen came across as a polite adolescent. I could see how, when anxious, I tend to pronounce my words very distinctly, sometimes too distinctly, clipping off words by making hard consonants harder than they need to be.
In my head I have changed considerably since my teenage years. Inside the walled sanctuary of my skull, I am not under-confident, and the accumulation of life experiences has brought insights that adolescent me could not have fathomed.
Since adolescence, I have graduated college, endured loss, pulled myself out of bottomless depressions, married, been hospitalized for a manic episode, and written three books. I have a vocabulary full of sesquipedalian words.
But the face of the girl on the screen revealed none of that, maybe because there has always been a mind-body disconnection with me. To illustrate: In math classes I would sometimes write down numbers wrong. In my head, I would think “3” but my hand would write down “2.”
If I caught my hand in an act of treachery, I would think, “What are you doing, hand? I distinctly told you to write three.” After every math test, I would have to go over my work, looking for signs of manual treachery so I could correct them.
Was that why the person on screen did not reflect who I am in my thoughts? Maybe, as I changed over time, somehow Outer Me never caught up. But as a writer of fiction, I operate on the assumption that gestures, glances, and other forms of body language do communicate something of who a person is.
If I were observing myself like I was a stranger, what kind of character would I be? The question was unsettling.
It was unsettling because the person on screen, this stranger, is me to everyone who has known me all my life. And I never knew her. All this time I had been tossing my head and biting my lips and making expressions, and I had never seen any of it.
I had thought I knew myself. But there were things others knew about me that I did not.
I was a shameless monkey for a few days, staring at the screen as Other Me performed. Writing took a backseat to my vain attempt to define myself as I considered new information, the flash of my eyes, the sound of my voice, all leading to that eternal question: Who am I?
I still believe that I am more my mind than how I look. But since there seems to be a disconnect between how I perceive myself and how I seem from the outside, I wonder: Is there is a way I can bring them together, somehow make Outer Me more accurately express who I am in my thoughts?
Perhaps I will. Maybe I can even use the videos as a writing tool. I wonder if I can use the camera as a way to refine my understanding of how certain character gestures convey emotion.
I know what I am feeling when I scrunch my forehead or toss my head, so maybe when I draw my characters I will be able to use those expressions to more plausibly convey how they are feeling.
Beyond that, the camera, though enticing, will remain a toy for now.
But my denial is gone. I have an outside and an inside, and they both say something about me. The camera still calls to me, an enticing riddle that must be solved, repeating an eternal chorus that says, “Who am I really?”
But maybe I am not one thing or another. Like the self captured on video and everyone else I know, maybe I am in constant transition, more often in mid-blink than posed and smiling.
And maybe, for as long as I continue to wonder, write, and learn, every moment will yield a new answer to that never ending riddle: Who am I?