How do you see yourself? How do others think of you? And to what extent is their view of you shaped by your conscious manipulation of your image?
Why am I thinking about these questions? Three reasons: sanding furniture, a murder mystery set in a monastery, and Gone Girl. (What can I say? My brain connects strange things, and I may spoil the Gone Girl plot twists if you’re unfamiliar with the book and movie.)
A Saint Without a Miracle
The murder mystery in question is Louise Penny’s A Beautiful Mystery. Inspector Gamache is tasked with finding the murderer of a monk in an isolated monastery. The monks are in the Gilbertine order, so named after Saint Gilbert of Sempringham. As in all of Penny’s novels, the whodunnit is only part of the story. There’s past tragedies and relationship issues between Gamache and both his boss and his second-in-command; there’s profound thoughts on religion and music, seamlessly intertwined with the plot and characterization.
As Gamache reads a biographical plaque about St. Gilbert, he’s puzzled, then startled: the man appears terribly boring—long life, no miracles—but for one short footnote: he was charged with aiding the current archbishop, who had fallen from the king’s favor. That archbishop’s name? Thomas Becket.
His image (dull, boring, run-of-the-mill monk) changes when that one fact is revealed.
How do we view others? It depends on how much we know, and there are always parts of a person, even those closest to us, that we never know.
An Unreliable Narrator
Or should that be narrators? Gone Girl’s points of view alternate between Amy and Nick, a couple in a troubled marriage. When Amy disappears, Nick is suspected of her presumed murder.
Between Nick’s self-justifying version of events, we read entries from Amy’s diary. According to her, she’s afraid of his temper. The tensions in their marriage run high. But has it resulted in murder?.
Halfway through, we find that Amy has lied. She isn’t dead.
She’s disappeared—deliberately framing Nick for her murder. Every detail has been planned in advance: the diary entries, the blood traces on the kitchen floor, a fake pregnancy, the scavenger hunt and clues she always plans for their anniversary. She casually tells us that she’s always thought she’d be good at murder, because most murderers are caught because they aren’t patient. She is patient.
Everything she tells us is unreliable. She is consciously manipulating her image to give her power over others, including the reader.
Moreover, our view of other characters is manipulated by her. The ex-boyfriend, his mother, her parents, her former roommate, the neighbor, Nick, his mistress: all are viewed by her with that same hostile and disdainful attitude. Unreliable. And because Nick is unreliable as well, it’s hard to know what is the truth about any of the characters.
Diary Amy is different from Real Amy (she tells us, I hope you enjoyed her), but is the Real Amy telling us the truth about herself or other people? Or is that, too, a manipulation on her part?
Most people don’t manipulate their image like Amy Dunne. She’s a sociopath, right? We’d never be that hostile, that disdainful, that cruel in our view of others, right? We aren’t like her, right?
A Llama Sanding Furniture
Actually, that should be L.A.M.A. It’s an acronym for the title of the group of do-almost-everything women for our daughters’ school, and our biggest fundraiser takes place in November. Southern Tradition features upcycled furniture for sale, donations that are sanded, painted, and beautified beyond recognition. There are various booths selling particular pieces, each booth with a slightly different focus and “their” own furniture to sell (usually along with other items, such as jewelry or clothes or baked goods).
So for weeks, the Lama Mamas have spent every Tuesday sanding furniture. Got to get the gloss off the wood, I was told, because paint and primer won’t stick to glossy wood. It’s dirty work. I come home coated in sawdust and sweat, and it ain’t pretty.
One day, a few weeks ago, the volunteer coordinator asked me to help someone else. She had lots of pieces to sand, no helpers for her booth, and a crazy schedule that prevented her from being present each Tuesday. I agreed to help.
Then I was shown the furniture. Chairs. Dining room chairs. Chairs with spindles.
Those are the detested pieces, the object of every Lama Mama’s dread, the pieces that no normal Lama wants to sand.
Why? Those wretched spindles. There are little crevices all along the curved legs, and they are difficult to sand with an electric sander. So the unlucky Lama has to sand each spindle by hand. And these particular ones had spindles on the back of the seats, too, narrowly spaced.
There were five or six of these chairs. I spent all day sanding them. In the late August heat, no less. By myself, refusing all help. “No, I can handle this,” I said. “I’ll do it. It’s okay.”
Notice what I was doing?
Pulling an Amy Dunne, that’s what. Letting other people see my selflessness. Of course, I’d be happy to sand. Of course, I’d be happy to do it. Of course, I’ll take care of it.
Letting other people feel sorry for me: all those terrible spindles! I feel so sorry for you!
Saint Laura of the Spindled Chairs, martyrdom by sandpaper.
(Incidentally, I became sick afterward, too, paying for my heroics with a severe allergy attack that wouldn’t have happened had I not insisted that I would do all the chairs. Serves me right.)
My original motives weren’t bad; I wanted to help.
But it became manipulation of other people’s image of me.
If I had told the other Lamas how I felt or let someone else help, wouldn’t my image have changed? It would be the reverse of Gamache’s perspective of Saint Gilbert.
I wouldn’t be a selfless martyr, or even the person who can be relied upon to do the hated task. I’d just be an ordinary person who complains when she’s coated with sweat-and-sawdust and who’d rather be novel writing than sanding spindles, thank you very much.
Unlike Amy Dunne, I wasn’t doing it consciously.
But it was still there.
(Photo Credit: peachyqueen, morgueFile.com)