There are few things more elementally fairy tale than mirrors. From classic fairy tales Grimm’s “Snow White” and Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” to ancient myths like Narcissus, there is an intrinsically magical quality to mirrors.
Yet they are almost overwhelmingly sinister objects: In “Snow White,” the evil queen is moved to a black, murderous rage by the words of her magic mirror. In “The Snow Queen,” shards of mirror-glass blind Kai and infect his heart with hate. And vain Narcissus is so enraptured by his own reflection that he wastes away on a riverbank, unable to tear his gaze from the face of the handsome youth in the water.
Modern and contemporary fantasy gives us mirror-as-portal: from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass to Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. But these mirrors are hardly less malevolent. Alice’s mirror transports her to a psychedelic world where she is bedeviled by sentient chess pieces and talking animals. In Jonathan Strange, stepping through a mirror lands you in an ancient labyrinth of roads and bridges, suffused with arcane and baneful magic.
So, perhaps mirrors are simply vexing as much as they are sinister—at best, chaotic neutral.
[Content warning for discussion of mental illness, disordered eating, and suicide.]
Beyond the realm of fantasy, feminist discourse frequently paints mirrors as symbols of women’s oppression, extensions of the male gaze, or representations of shallow, image-obsessed beauty culture. “Mirrors are crafty,” Margaret Atwood writes—in this poem, the speaker is a woman trapped within a mirror, reflecting only the vain desires of her male lover. There is something undeniably poignant about this metaphor, which is why it is deployed so frequently across various pieces of media, and why it resonates so deeply with so many women.
And I count myself among those women—sort of. For years, while I navigated the hellish landscape of eating disorders, the mirror was a totem that I carried with me at all times. Capricious and cursed, it guided me, for better or for worse. It made up the order of my world. Most anorexics will echo this sentiment: we are both in love with and terrified of mirrors; obsessed but also repulsed.
Obsessed: because we believe the mirror is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Repulsed: because we believe the truth is that we are disgusting, unlovable monsters. A powerful totem indeed, imbued with some mystic knowledge that the rest of the world can’t be trusted to bestow.
The idea of mirror as arbiter of ultimate truth is one that I clung to quite fiercely—to my own detriment, but also, strangely, for my own salvation. My eating disorder grew ever-more consuming, unfolding long black tendrils in my brain. Reality began to hold itself at a distance. Shadows blurred the corners of my vision.
I had no word for it at the time, this slow but inexorable slipping. It would not be until years later that I was gifted the medical jargon to explain what was occurring. These false beliefs that hardened like diamonds in my mind were delusions; the wispy strains of darkness that disappeared at an eyeblink were hallucinations, all of this comprising a grim label: psychosis.
A month-long stint at an eating disorder treatment center passed over me like water. It did nothing to dispel the visions or voices.
Over the course of my first year in college, my mental health deteriorated quickly and drastically. There were the ordinary growing pains associated with leaving home for the first time, mingled with my own fundamental sense of unworthiness. This was exacerbated, of course, by the fact that I felt my admittance to an elite university was a fluke. I was a fraud, an idiot, and I was floundering.
The common wisdom is that mentally ill people isolate themselves because there is so much social stigma and shame surrounding mental illness. That is certainly true, and plays a large role in my own isolation as well. But I offer another explanation, which is harder to articulate, and more insidious. If you have spent the large majority of your life with a severe mental illness, you have had little time for anything more than brusque, grueling survival.
For example, the basic acts of eating and sleeping seemed to me, an anorexic insomniac, like exotic habits. I was intellectually aware that I needed food and rest in order to thrive, but I had no way of applying that vague platitude to my daily life. How one went about establishing close friendships was also a mystery. Once a conversation shifted beyond casual talk of classes and tv shows, I fell silent. What would I talk about? The month I spent tearfully sipping Ensure at an eating disorder treatment center? The shadows that flickered across my vision and the hateful voices that curled in the shell of my ear?
The cruelest trick of mental illness is the way it subtly removes you from your personhood. You become obscure to yourself. You grow to hold the world at a distance, and it does not even feel intentional. It seems only natural, because fear has built a cage around you and convinced you it is a fortress. It is not so much that you are afraid of judgment, afraid of being seen as sick and strange. You are afraid that, deep down, you are empty, save for this black chasm of terror. You are not a teenager, not a college student, not a friend, a lover, a sister, a daughter—you are the most adept escape artist.
And once you have been convinced of your own emptiness, the pain you inflict upon yourself becomes not only righteous, but necessary. Mental illness is illogical to the well-ordered mind, but to its sufferers, it has an irrepressible internal logic. And the logical conclusion of the belief that I was intrinsically worthless was to simply remove myself from the world.
The pain was there, of course. The scraping of an empty stomach, the icy pall of loneliness, and the electric jabs of fear, should never be discounted. But my first suicide attempt was engendered more by lack of feeling than by glut of it. This apathy did not break down until the electronic doors of the psych ward locked with grim finality behind me.
At eighteen, I was just a few months too old for the children’s unit, and by far the youngest person in the adult ward. The person on the unit closest to my age was a blonde, beautiful woman in her mid-thirties. She worked a prestigious corporate job that kept her glued to the pay phones in the day room, feeding them quarter after quarter so she could dial into meetings.
I never saw her cry or protest. She hardly seemed to acknowledge her surroundings; it was as if she were going through the motions of her ordinary life, oblivious to the windowless walls, the other patients’ hysterical outbursts, the squeak of our sure-grip hospital socks on the linoleum floor. To the aides, tapping her on the shoulder so they could administer her twice-daily medication in paper Dixie cups. She covered the receiver with one hand, took the cup with the other, and dry-swallowed her pills in a single gulp. In truth, it did not occur to me that this behavior was pathological. I was in awe of her competence, her normalcy. I found it difficult to imagine how she had ended up in the psych ward at all.
I was not so nonchalant about my imprisonment. Lying on the examination table, as my slashed wrist was scrutinized, a nurse in yellow Minions scrubs thrust a clipboard in front of my face. She told me I had to sign myself into the psych ward.
“What?” I asked in alarm. “I don’t want to.”
With no shift in her expression, she said, “If you don’t, we’ll send you to a state institution. You don’t want to go there. Trust me.”
I was too naïve, and too dizzy with the shuddering aftershocks of the pills I’d swallowed, to judge whether this threat was credible. So I signed myself in.
Within an hour of all my belongings being snatched from me, my sweatpants and their hazardous drawstrings being removed and thrown away, and being thrust behind the impenetrable, electronically locked doors, I was sitting on my glorified cot and sobbing hysterically.
When the attending psychiatrist, a white-haired man in a white coat, made his rounds on the first day, I was still sobbing in my bed. I begged for him to let me go. He looked down at me coldly and said, “This is why you’re in here. You can’t control yourself.” Then he left.
I remember my time in the psych ward more as individual moments rather than as a coherent narrative—thanks in part, I’m sure, to the mysterious cocktail of medication I was put on, which was different from my usual regimen. To this day I do not know what those pills were. I asked but was never told. Refusal of medication was not an option, and was punishable by a stint in the isolation room.
I ended up in the isolation room anyway, because I could not sleep. For three straight days and nights. I’ve always been an insomniac to some degree (a symptom of, among other things, bipolar mania), but in the psych ward it was more extreme than it had ever been. The staff, however, took it as a refusal to sleep, so I was put in the seclusion room. A bare chamber, about eight feet by eight feet, with no windows and blank white walls, and a crusty carpet which reeked of urine and dried sweat. In the center, a narrow bed, and me inside it, both sleepless and dreamless.
For three days I also did not eat. Strangely enough, my eating was not monitored or enforced, despite the staff ostensibly knowing my history of anorexia. My weight dropped by ten pounds during my time in the ward.
What did I do, then? Curiously, one thing that the psych ward does not offer is therapy. Aside from the daily rounds by the attending psychologist and the barrage of medications, I did not receive any other treatment during my stay. Most patients’ days were spent in the main room, watching a rotating collection of DVDs, the same dozen or so recycled over and over again. Cell phones were banned; laptops were banned; as was anything else that could connect patients to the outside world. But books were allowed. So I read.
Both to compensate for the fact that I felt like a complete idiot and a failure, and to try and maintain some semblance of who I’d been before, I read philosophy and poetry. Nietzsche and Sylvia Plath. But, mostly, I read Shakespeare. The Tempest was my favorite. Miranda, isolated on an island with only her all-powerful wizard father and his army of sprites and monsters. Naïve but desperately curious, lonely yet so easily moved to passion.
Slowly, I also started to talk to some of the other patients, mostly the beautiful blonde woman who took incessant business calls. She, too, had been hospitalized against her will after a suicide attempt. Surreptitiously I looked for scars on her wrists, wondering if I would find cuts there that mirrored my own. We would spend whole afternoons talking, and sometimes even laugh.
“You’re so pretty and so smart,” she told me. “You’re going to be okay.”
With the rational wisdom of hindsight, I can see how pathological this comment was, too. Yet in the warped reality of the psych ward, in the perverse mind of a not-quite-recovered anorexic, it brought me a flicker of joy. Here was someone else, I thought, who saw the truth of the world the way I did. Who saw that physical beauty was essential to one’s humanity.
My emotions were still warped and blunted by the unknown array of medication, but I came, in a strange way, to love her. When she was discharged, I cried.
Yet the strangest thing of all was this: despite everything, my experience in the psych ward did not isolate me. Until then, mental illness had been my own private torture. Doing leg-lifts in my bedroom at night. Carving scars into my skin and then covering them with my sleeves. I wrapped this isolation around myself like a cloak, warm but impenetrable.
The psych ward ripped that cloak off, leaving me cold and revealed. But being exposed also meant I was no longer alone.
There are no mirrors in a psych ward. Broken glass can too easily be fashioned into a weapon—as the fairy tales will warn you. Despite this, I still saw myself reflected back. In the woman whose wrist bore the same scars as mine. In Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song” and “Lady Lazarus.” In Shakespeare’s tale of a girl trapped among bizarre beasts, made infantile by her seemingly omnipotent captor. Miranda’s, her wizard father; mine, that Charon in a white coat.
A book is a portal, much like Alice’s mirror. But unlike a mirror, which reflects only physical reality, a book builds its own symbolic world around you. It can be the shelter of a grand castle. It can be the promise of adventure at the prow of a ship. It can be the mystery of a gloom-cloaked forest. As Ursula K. Le Guin said, a book is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. There has always been a castle, a ship, a forest. So I began to trust this world within the pages—slowly, shakily, but irrevocably.
And so, although I did not know it at the time, the foundation of my own book, A Study in Drowning, was constructed behind the locked doors and within the windowless walls of the unit.
“I refuse mirrors. I refuse them for you, and I refuse them for me.”
A Study in Drowning opens with this quote from the Fairy King, the novel’s villain and a sinister chthonic spirit who has haunted the main character, Effy, for nearly her entire life. As in Britain’s traditional fairy ballads, the Fairy King seeks out vulnerable young women, plies them with magic and the pretense of love and devotion, then kidnaps and abuses them. The first rule he impresses upon his victims is this: no mirrors. They can only know themselves through his ancient and all-powerful eyes.
Within the set-dressing of fantasy and threaded through the arc of romance, A Study in Drowning is a book about mental illness. Effy fears that her hallucinations of the Fairy King will have her deemed insane, locked in an asylum and left to rot. It is not an unreasonable fear. While straitjackets, icepick lobotomies, and padded cells are now mostly the garish fare of horror movies, the core inhumanity behind these practices remains—in the form of 5150 holds and, of course, the mirrorless cells of the psych ward.
What saves Effy is seeing herself reflected within the protagonist of her favorite book—her world’s version, say, of Miranda. What saved me is much the same. We often talk, in media reception discourse, about a book itself being a mirror, and the power in that. The power in knowing you are not on an island, adrift. The power in knowing you are not alone. The king within the castle knows its walls are strong. The sailor at the prow of the ship knows it will reach the shore. The wanderer knows the forest can be traversed. And, if you allow yourself to feel the weight of the crown, the spray of the sea, the chill of the mist, you can know it, too.
In A Study in Drowning, a mirror is a symbol of power reclaimed. In the mirror Effy sees herself, truly—not through the eyes of the men who abuse her, or the world that stigmatizes her suffering. Yes, her pain is thrown into agonizing relief. But so is her strength.
Perhaps mirrors will always be the stuff of fairy tales, objects imbued with so much byzantine magic. Its broken shards can wound. The glass can crack like ice, plunging its victims into Wonderland. Dark-tendrilled vanity can lurk at its edges, waiting to poison wayward souls.
But maybe in some stories, the girl in the mirror can rescue herself.
Ava Reid was born in Manhattan and raised right across the Hudson River in Hoboken, but currently lives in Palo Alto. She has a degree in political science from Barnard College, focusing on religion and ethnonationalism.