The Face in the Mirror: Writers Reflect on Their Dreams of Youth and the Reality of Age
edited by Victoria Zackheim

Prometheus Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-591-02752-2.
Reviewed by Susan Ideus
Posted on 09/03/2009

Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Creative Life

According to the editor, "the heart of this anthology beats around one prevailing question: When you look in the mirror, who do you see?" Of course, the obvious answer would be "I see me." Not what Zackheim was looking for. The challenge is to look at ourselves in terms of whether the image in the mirror reflects the achievement of childhood dreams, or whether the image is far removed from one the contributors thought they would be seeing at this stage of their lives. The answers are as varied as the people writing.

For most of the contributors, there was quite a dissonance. Dreams and reality often don't mesh. Not one of these writers actually planned to be a writer. The closest may have been Eileen Goudge, who originally wanted to be a dancer. She was told she didn't have the body of a dancer and so became a writer. She observed "This wasn't as much of a stretch as you might think. Both professions demand a large degree of flexibility—in the case of writers, bending the truth and creating plot twists—and both require you to express yourself in public, often in ways that might prove hazardous." Isn't this a delightful analogy?

Several used writing as a back-up, or second choice, when their original careers faltered or when they were going through tough times. A few expressed that writing was an outlet, a way to preserve sanity and a sense of self. Some knew only what they didn't wish to be. Malachy McCourt, growing up in abject poverty, said "One thing I was absolutely certain about in my Irish childhood was what I did not want to be, and that was me I myself." No one wanted to be their parents, though some thought it was somewhat of an inevitability. In this case, I surmise, never say never.

More than one of these writers recognized that they had a great need to be noticed, some as a result of early neglect, some due to sibling rivalry, and some because they feared losing the essence of self. In her own piece, Zackheim says that for many of her growing up years, "the girl in that mirror became defined more by the expectations of her parents and her teachers than by her own." Perhaps this is a rite of passage. Lee Chamberlain believes that "The face I see in the mirror is a work in progress."

This book is timely for a generation of Baby Boomers, coming into their later years in a society when we are often judged by what we do, rather than who we are. These writers share hard-won wisdom as they look back over their own lives. Perhaps this will encourage readers to do the same. Perhaps, in the end, we might all learn the lesson the editor offers: "...although it took six decades, I finally understood that being a somebody is not the opposite of being a nobody. It is, in fact, being oneself." Perhaps, being encouraged to explore self as a result of reading this anthology, some readers will learn this lesson much earlier in life.

Victoria Zackheim is an author (The Bone Weaver) and editor, living in San Francisco, CA. She also works as a developer and writer of documentary films, and teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. Learn more by visiting her website.

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