Through a mirror darkly

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a talk given by Dr. Ruth J. Simmons, previously the President of both Smith College and Brown University, and the current President of Prairie View A&M University. She is also a Trustee Emerita of my Alma mater, Rice University. The subject was the books that shaped her life.

Born to sharecroppers in the tiny East Texas town of Grapeland (current population just under 1,500), Dr. Simmons found a world of knowledge and possibility in books. An avid reader from an early age, she described libraries as her toy stores. Moving with her family to Houston when she was seven years old, she continued to read anything and everything she could get her hands on. She received a scholarship to Dillard University in New Orleans, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in French. She went on to earn both a master’s and PhD in Romance Literature at Harvard.

It was in college that Dr. Simmons first encountered Jean-Paul Sartre and the philosophical movement to which he contributed so much, existentialism. From Sartre, Dr. Simmons said, she came to understand that she was responsible for her existence, for the course of her life. It was a powerful realization and one that propelled her to continue pursuing her studies despite criticism and skepticism from others, including her family and even many of her professors. Hearing Dr. Simmons speak about how Sartre influenced her, reminded me about the journey of discovery that I began in high school, when my French class read Huis Clos, Sartre’s famous play about a group of people locked in a room that represents Hell.

Most often translated into English as No Exit, the French phrase literally means “in camera”, the same description used for the in-person inspection and review of legal documents by a court. The idea is that the items are available for observation and study, but cannot be taken away or hoarded. And, that’s ultimately the point of the play. The three characters are uncomfortably on display to one another and to the audience. They bicker, they whine, they philosophize, one attempts to seduce another, and so on. Finally, one concludes that “L’enfer c’est les autres,” meaning that “Hell is other people”. Or, put differently, that eternal torture is being forced to see oneself as others do.

After the talk, I went home and pulled out my now-ancient copy of Huis Clos. Flipping through the pages and rereading familiar lines, I considered how apropos the story is of my present situation. I’m learning to see my true self, in some ways for the first time, and also learning how others perceive me in rather stark and direct terms. In the play, the characters assume that they will be physically tortured, because of their misdeeds in life. Their reality becomes, as one of the two women in the play states, that they are each other’s torturers, needling one another and, through their interactions, exposing the flaws and failings of one another, coming to terms with first seeing themselves laid bare as then before others.

I’m still ruminating on yesterday’s post, where I talked about the process of therapy. I’m soaking in the idea of therapy as personal introspection, which for me is (right now) truly hellish, and also as a reckoning with how I perceive the way others perceive me. I find myself still dogged by bullies in both the distant and recent past. I’m wrestling with the ways in which I am affected not only by how I experience my own life, but also by how others experience me in their lives. It’s a lot of complexity to create and hold space for, but it’s also necessary to do if I’m going to get to the underlying issues and challenges posed by Jerk Brain.

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