The Stranger in the Mirror.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Leeven, Martina
Pub Date: 01/01/2012
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: Jan, 2012 Source Volume: 23 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: The Stranger in the Mirror (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Shilling, Jane
Accession Number: 288874186
Full Text: The Stranger in the Mirror Jane Shilling. (2011). London: Chatto & Windus

I was approached to review this book not as a woman deeply identified with my middle age, but because I had previously conducted research into women's experience of their changing appearance in middle age. As middle age seems to be a construct oddly fluid and open to interpretation, I find myself somewhere in the no-man's land of no-longer-young and not-yet-old, and therefore perhaps felt an uneasy distance-yet-proximity to the topic.

My initial expectations were quickly lead in a particular direction by the combination of title and image on the cover, which took me to Simone de Beauvoir's writing in The Second Sex (1949) and The Coming of Age (1971). In the image, we peer like a voyeur through a slightly open door at a naked woman from the back, caught in a private moment posing, putting her hair up while looking at herself in a mirror. There is an instant intersubjectivity implied in this image between the subject, perhaps the author, and reader, while also pointing out the subject-object relationship between the woman in the photo and her own reflection in the mirror. In one image we are confronted with the body as subject, the body as object, and the body as seen through the gaze of the other.

The title brought to mind what has become widely termed 'the mask of ageing', which suggests that as we grow older there is an increasing split between how we see ourselves and what we actually see in the mirror (Featherstone & Hepworth, 1991). 'The stranger in the mirror' alludes to a kind of imposter, a disorientation or sudden jolt in one's identity--a once familiar reflection no longer recognisable.

All of this led me to expect a memoir of a woman's embodied experience of middle age, an exploration of the changing body and identity perhaps. What I found in these pages revealed a personal tapestry of the author's search for a narrative of ageing, a sense of belonging, of reorientation in her lifespan and reconnection with her body. Linking to the image chosen for the cover she writes, '... I had been accustomed to finding my own experience as a woman reflected in the culture ...' but now '... there was apparently no one like me at all'. This book is the search for a fitting reflection, a new map, and by journeying through her personal past, memories of family figures, the surrounding landscape of her life, and predominantly through her familiar world of literature and writing, she links together threads of her own fragmented reflection. This book, written over a number of years, is a phenomenological process in itself, with a sense of a journey that certainly isn't linear nor has a particular destination.

I was reminded how ageing is a deeply personal experience, reflecting our biographical past, as well as our social, cultural and historical context. Being six years younger than the author, I was struck by my inability to relate to her experience in so many ways. I'm not British, nor do I have a literary background. I am not a mother, etc. How we experience ageing and seek to make sense of it is a reflection of our individual being-in-the-world.

Our natural tendency to seek resonance with 'the other', to ground ourselves in the soothing feeling of belonging, leads the author on a journey of comparisons, finding herself at odds with her peer group and with society's constructs of ageing women. Who can she identify with as a middle-aged woman? Who will show her the way? She peruses books of all ages to find heroines that can provide her with a role model. 'I felt once again the need for a fictional prototype to give me a lead; someone to make the process seem coherent, shapely, resonant, rather than confused and disorderly'. We are introduced to the woman who is adventurer, shrew, pitiable, grand dame, the spinster, all through the works of Jane Austen, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Colette to name but a few.

It occurred to me that the women in my research similarly sought out positive role models and archetypes as a way of orienting their own experience within a framework, to juxtapose what they often felt was the overwhelmingly negative social discourse of 'the middle aged woman'.

The author's own grandmothers provide her with two complementary models of ageing, one the secure and elegant yet distant, and the other nurturing and gentle. What strikes the author is 'their composure' in the face of difficulties, and her own difficulty in maintaining hers. She challenges the belief that ageing is circular, feeling that 'getting old does not involve a return to anywhere. It is an onward passage to an unknown destination.'

The exploration of middle age as the ending of fertility, leads the author to weave in and out of stories of her own initiation into fertility, sexuality, and child bearing, attending to the 'beginning' almost as a way of making sense of this ending, weighing up what has been accomplished versus what has not been attended to.

We move into rich tangents, bringing to life the physical changes accompanying ageing, a heightened sense of flesh and mortality, reminding us that most of our life we spend inattentive to our embodied state, what Leder (1990) refers to as 'the absent body', suddenly to be confronted by our embodiment through aches and pains and injury--the slow recovery from a fall off a horse, a slowly spreading cataract clouding vision. The body forces its way into constant awareness. She experiments with what the age-denial industry has to offer, engaging in a cosmetic procedure, healthy living, make-up, and a whole chapter dedicated to clothing. We then shift to the medical model offer, a narrative focused predominantly on pathologising middle age unfolds. Again, we are reminded of the author's search for her own path.

Somewhere here the book changes pace, losing its orientation, perhaps like the author herself. We shift into the relational realm, focusing on her relationship with her teenage son as they both manoeuvre through their own 'awkward age'; her ageing neighbour; and the lover from her youth. As a single mother, she attempts to make up for 'lost time', trying to create an ideal of family life she never managed to establish in her youth. Seeping through are feelings of loss, loss of unlived sexuality as a single parent who 'renounced a social life'. As the book moves to its end the losses begin to pile up and extend to the wider world: a relationship ends, redundancy from a job, the house that is crumbling around her, the son moves out, and finally the bereavements. 'With an abrupt shift in perspective ... I understood that all of us, in different ways, were being forced to learn the art of losing.'

However, as the book comes to an end with the melancholy reflection attributed to Cocteau: 'each day in the mirror I watch death at work', there is also a glimmer of hopefulness and curiosity of what life still has to offer.

On finishing this memoir I felt a mild frustration with not having found a role model for my own middle-age. I felt acutely aware of each person's striving for belonging and meaning, and just how alienating this can be. The experience of ageing is not easily generalised as its detail changes quickly according to the personal/social/historical context of our particular lives. While each of us would surely desire connectedness and belonging in our later life stage, the existential experience can be quite opposite--we search for like experience around us and cannot find it. It can be a lonely road, but regardless there is the tendency to seek out others to lighten the burden of isolation. The process of searching is perhaps what is significant--not that we encounter others, but if we're lucky we encounter ourselves.

This book is not a clean story, it is messy and disordered, a phenomenological reflection of a life lived, rather than an ordered tale. Interestingly, on first reading I was very focused on the detail and my inability to resonate with the author, while the second time my focus shifted to process and the meta landscape of the narrative. It was here, in connecting to the phenomenology of the account--the unfolding messy journey--that I found greater resonance and value.


de Beauvoir, S. (1949). The Second Sex. Paris: Editions Gallimard

de Beauvoir, S. (1970). The Coming of Age. New York: Warner Paperback Library

Featherstone, M. & Hepworth, M. (1991). The mask of ageing and the postmodern life course. In Featherstone, M., Hepworth, M. & Turner, B.S. (eds). The Body: Social Processes and Cultural Theory. London: Sage

Leder, D. (1990). The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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