The Shadow in a Selfie

Source: Tony Grist/wikimediacommons

“I was at the Performing Arts Center last night,” Hillary begins, “and my sister was out of town. Or so I thought.” 

Already I’m on high alert: Hillary’s sister Marta has become a symbolic figure in her life.  Marta moved away from home years ago, while Hillary stayed in California, close to where the sisters were raised.  As a young girl, Hillary learned to respond to the tension between her parents with compensatory cheer. As she was growing up, her father Bill, a gregarious businessman, focused on work, golf, and extra-marital affairs, while her mother Lillian, an unfulfilled artist, was bored by suburbia, and increasingly full of resentment.

Silence was the main means of communication about the deep, sharp tensions that sliced the fabric of family life. Her older sister Nina’s anorexia caused new tensions for Hillary and Marta as they grew into adolescence and saw their sister shrinking away.  One time when Hillary was talking about her family, I commented: “Unlike Marta, Nina’s not vivid in your description, not quite alive.  You talk about her very little.” 

Hillary looked startled.  “I never learned how to talk about her,” she said eventually.  “Her anorexia was a taboo.  She spent a lot of time in her bedroom or in the hospital.  The only time our family ever talked about anything was when she was hospitalized the first time, and we all had to participate in family therapy.  And that was all about Nina, not about any of the ways the family system affected me.” And then an afterthought: “Or Marta.”

Hillary believes that her sisters, and to some extent her parents, envied her cheerful personality, even as they relied on it to calm the familial storms.  “They called me “Happy Hillary,” she tells me.  “And gradually, over time, Happy Hillary became an insult, an implication that I was superficial. As they all became more depressed and bitter, my optimism and humor were ridiculed. Even my father, who was closest to me, would tease me about my tendency to see the sun through the clouds.”  She pauses a moment.  “Like that’s a bad thing to do! I’ve actually come to feel that maybe it is a bad thing to be able to hope and laugh.  Do you think I’m superficial?” 

We talk about how and why she has internalized her family’s judgment of her.  “My family never got talked about the stuff that mattered, and I certainly never had a chance to talk and be heard. Marta continues to use silence to make me disappear. I tried to talk with her about what happened to our relationship, to find out why, after she invited me to share a house with her and she introduced me to her friends, she suddenly stopped talking to me and made me feel that she really didn’t like me.  It got so bad that I had to move out, and she said my leaving was irresponsible, selfish.  It was actually an act of survival; she was killing me with her silent hostility and brief explosions of anger.” 

She pauses again.  “I feel like maybe she is jealous of me.  I became friends with some of her friends, and I think maybe some of them like me better than they like her. I think I’m more fun. I think I have more interests. I think I don’t need adoration.”  She looks at me.  “And I’m not half as intense as she is.  Maybe because I’m superficial.”  She grins. 

Hillary wants to figure out what happened to her relationship with her sister.  It was never a strong relationship; Hillary had come here to be close to Marta after their father’s death in an effort to strengthen family ties, away from the site of the neglect they had both suffered.   She had come at Marta’s invitation.  When Marta turned against her, she felt not only rebuffed, but abandoned and betrayed.  She feels, in her deeply engrained role as middle sister and bright light, that it is her responsibility to rectify the relationship; Marta is good at putting the onus on others. 

“She sees herself as this Shaman rising above it all,” Hillary comments.  “Whenever anything goes wrong with her clients, it’s because they aren’t doing what she recommends.  Whenever anything goes wrong with her friends, it’s because they aren’t as enlightened as she is.” 

“Do you think she is so enlightened?” I inquire, curious to see if Marta’s charisma reaches her sister.  Hillary looks a little abashed, ashamed even, as she says “Not really.”  She looks at me and I nod, encouraging her to say what she really feels rather than politely preserve the mythos Marta has created around herself.  “I don’t think her behavior toward me suggests that she is as wise and loving as she thinks she is.” 

“I notice that she doesn’t seem to be trying to reconcile with you,” I comment.  “Right.  And I have reached out to her several times, in different ways: I sent her a birthday card, I told her I’d take care of her dog when she goes away, I’ve referred a couple of my massage clients to her for naturopathic treatment.  And she says nothing—that old, old silence.”  “Not very kind,” I say.  Hillary shakes her head, tearful.  “No.”

When I ask about the experience at the Performing Arts Center the night before, she shakes her head.  “It was really weird.  I was there with a friend.  I knew that Marta would have been at the performance if she were in town, but since she wasn’t, I could go.  At intermission, I took a selfie of my friend and me with our backs to the stage, which had a really cool set.” 

“At the end of intermission,” she continues, “I ran into a mutual friend, who doesn’t know that Marta isn’t speaking to me.  He said, ‘Did you see Marta?  It was so great she could come tonight!’  It turned out that she had cancelled her trip, and was there. ‘Right there!’ he told me pointing.  And there she was: three rows in front of me, wearing one of her big hats and a cape she loves.”  “A hat and a cape,” I repeat.  “Yes,” Hillary says.  “The witch. And you know what, when I got home and looked at the selfie—this is creepy—there she is, practically on top of my shoulder, in her hat and cape.”  She shows me the picture: Hillary’s face glows in the circle of light cast by the flash, and Marta’s blank silhouette, facing away, perches over Hillary. 

“Sitting on your shoulder, Hillary,” I comment.  “It really scares me,” she said.  “It feels like an omen.”  “Because you see her as a negative force, a witch who doesn’t like you.”  She nods, tearing up again.  “I see it differently,” I tell her.  “I wonder if she might be, symbolically, your shadow in the Jungian sense: the part of you that is hidden.  Maybe the part of you that hasn’t been allowed to be expressed, but is waiting, present, needing to be acknowledged.”  She stares at me. 

“My dark side.”  “Well, maybe dark, but I’m thinking more your hidden side.  You weren’t able to have anger or resentment or fear as a kid.  You had to be Happy Hillary.  You feel saddled with the identity you have used to cope, and I think you’re ready to become more authentic, more integrated: Happy Hillary can connect with the rest of Hillary and become a whole person, one who has lots of different reactions to the world. I think that shadow self might be sitting there on your shoulder, trying to be recognized.” 

We sit silently for a moment.  “So, this image might be a sign to me. Not about Marta, exactly, but about me.” I nod. “Symbolism works like that.  We find meaning when we’re ready for it.”  And suddenly she is weeping, flooded by the potential of becoming her full self, happy and angry and sad:  human Hillary.

Source: Mikhail Nesterov/wikimediacommons

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