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

Read this Web-Exclusive Book Review by Joanne Collings.

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with mirrors that begins around adolescence. As the years pass, admiration may turn to apprehension: how can we still feel 30 inside when the face in the mirror looks twice that age?

This dynamic threatens to yield some unsettling truths for the 19 fellow writers whom Victoria Zackheim asked to reflect on this question: how closely does the current reality of your life match the aspirations you had as a younger person?

If you're wondering, as I did, whether Zackheim's essayists would be brave enough to be honest about what they see, the answer is "kinda sorta."

Some of them approach the issue at an extreme tangent, which results in an awful lot of navel-gazing. No surprise there—most of the contributors came of age in the 1960s, when such omphaloskepsis was not just expected but encouraged. Then there's the minor detail that many of the writers collected here happen to be memoirists, meaning they are the subject they often write about the most. Because this degree of self-attention can get a bit tedious in high doses, The Face in the Mirror is best sampled an essay or two at a time.

Fifteen of the 20 writers are women, making the anthology an excellent chronicle of the way females saw their options open up as the women's movement began and realized they were not entirely prepared for those changes. As columnist and pop-culture critic Kathi Kamen Goldmark writes, "[S]omehow, in all the festive madness of the late sixties and early seventies, I got a little mixed up about the difference between becoming something yourself and living through someone else by decorating his arm. Instead of applying the discipline required to pursue [a] musical career, I welcomed relationships with guys who were musicians."

Goldmark's behavior seems a natural progression from what Aviva Layton writes about the ambitions of her classmates in 1930s Sydney, Australia: "It always made me feel uneasy that so many of my school friends had precise plans for their futures—they would go to college for a couple of years, meet their future husbands there, marry, have children." Layton's own daydreams had a vengeful stripe: "I would become an opera singer (I'd been passed over for the coveted part of Yum-Yum in my school's annual production of The Mikado); a ballerina (I'd been ignominiously expelled from Madame Olga's ballet classes); a world-famous violinist (I took violin lessons but hated them); an actress (I was so petrified with stage fright, I forgot all my lines when acting Puck in my drama club)."

But muted ambitions don't always arise from within. Lee Chamberlin, who grew up to be an actress and playwright, would have followed a much different path through life had she excelled—and been urged to do so—at college chemistry. Chamberlin's mother "believed, as her mother had before her, that the primary duty of nonwhite women was to be perceived, and ultimately considered, respectable. As she looked to my future, my mother's vision reflexively contracted to a nursing career as my best and safest hope for respectability."

Noted lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz had his own parental problems when he got to college and discovered that he was smart—and that he had been lacking only motivation. "I immediately became a straight-A student," Dershowitz recalls, "which frightened my parents almost as much as my straight-Cs in high school had embarrassed them. 'You should get Bs,' my mother would always say. 'If you get As, you'll become a teacher, and you won't make a good living, and if you get Cs, you'll end up selling shoes. Bs are good. You could become an accountant or maybe even a lawyer, especially with your big mouth.' "

Two contributors truly stand out.

The irrepressible Malachy McCourt, author of the bestselling A Monk Swimming, blithely declares himself "so far ahead of my dreams that I could die this night with just a few regrets." Looking back, McCourt reflects, "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."

And Joyce Maynard, who wrote her first memoir (Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties) before age 20, relates the experience of being informed by a younger man, "I wish I could find someone just like you… only younger." Maynard's response: "That person doesn't exist… Even when I was young myself, I wasn't like me now." Musing about what, conversely, she seeks in a man, Maynard declares, "I'm not looking for him to be my world. I have one already."

In short, Maynard and McCourt are grown up, and proud of it. Measuring present realities against youthful "dreams" is, for them, largely a waste of that most precious commodity, time.

More typical of Zackheim's anthology are reminiscences half-consciously designed to prove the memoirists' drive, intelligence, or sensitivity. Hence museum curator Richard Toon recalls being inspired by a Millais painting that his youthful incarnation glimpsed in a Birmingham, England, museum, and author Beverly Donofrio remembers a TV-inspired "desire as painful as unrequited love, to be a star so famous people would wish they were me."

The word "dreams," in contexts such as these, becomes something of a catch-all concept—too broad, or perhaps simply too clichéd, to be of more than passing interest.

Joanne Collings, who died December 28, 2009, had turned to writing late in life, becoming a freelance book reviewer and columnist in 2005. Her writing appeared in Washingtonian magazine, and she also wrote the "Literary Life" column for The Washington Examiner. This review was completed with assistance from her husband, Randall Mawer.

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