In her column, Body Language, Tracy O’Neill considers how our physical selves relate to one another and the world.
I have known and loved many faces, often in the same person. I have sensed a unity amongst those faces that some would call a soul and the less spiritually inclined might call an identity or self. Frown, smile, sneer—and though the shapes seen are different, it seems the individual is the same one of the moment before. Miraculously I do not, as the expression changes, ask, “Who are you?”
I have , too, cut faces out of my life; I am quick to do it because of the Bible. Growing up in a predominantly Irish Catholic family, I heard on Sundays the Gospel of Matthew: “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” What I’m told is that the passage means forget revenge, but I have always thought mostly about the image conjured, a face turned away, a face spurning dialogue, a refusal to face smiting.
Sometimes, the faces I cut out were of people who were supposed to be my family.
To sever ties is resignation to the other’s status quo. It’s belied by a sense that change won’t come, not by dint of your own actions, anyway. In these instances, some people appeal to the grace of God. My mother is one of them, with the angel statues and books with bursting sunset covers, a close-eyed hand-clasper with hope in divine confab, deliverance, and forgiveness.
But it has been many years since I’ve prayed, and most of the deliverance of my life I have delivered myself in the turn away.
I have known and loved many faces that my brother had. Now, after twenty-five years of him, I can’t quite remember them all.
He came first in picture form. The snapshot showed a supine newborn with a wisp of hair like black smoke emitting from the crown of his head already, and already, even with so little life accrued, looked scandalized. Then, one night, two orbs of light expanded through a glass sliding door, I heard the rumbling of the garage door, and he was a baby in front of me, bubbling spit onto a cloth diaper draped over my mother’s shoulder, a baby adopted from Korea like me. My mother lifted him into my arms. I was five and had never held an infant. Looking down into the blankets, I could see he had hands with nails small as pencil erasers. His upper lip gaped with a piece of flesh twisted like the end of a hard candy wrapper hanging down. “I don’t want him to change,” I said, because he was beautiful, my brother.
To many people, it is not merely that affect is organized in the face; there’s a sense that the face opens up, that it’s an index of thoughts and beliefs, of the inner workings of a self. In cliché, the eyes are the window to the soul. We say a face has character. The crooked nose or the wrinkle—it signifies something, we insist.
Dickens seemed always to be writing about kind faces. Characters construed as possessing “kind faces” appear in Little Dorrit, Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, and The Chimes . “Merely that your kind face and manner—both so unlike any I have ever seen—tempted me into an avowal, which, to any other stranger in this wilderness of London, I should not have dreamt of making,” says Nicholas Nickleby.
The power of the kind face is that it remarks on its own goodness like a truth self-evident. It lures Nickleby into anomalous communion with a stranger. When we say someone has a kind face, we imply that some collections of features are more or less kind than others; in other words, that certain features telegraph a personality. This proposition seems to underlie our resistance to deliberate and permanent—or putatively permanent—alterations of the face, such as plastic surgery. We do not want to be duped. In American culture, which frequently claims to prize individual choice and self-making, there is an insistence that what is real is what we are born with, not what we choose.
There is something insidious about this. Innocent people are killed in this country for faces they did not choose. I’m talking mostly about black faces, brown faces. Afterward, the legal loophole is verbalized: fear.
Michael Brown “had the most aggressive face. That’s the only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon,” said the man who killed him , Darren Wilson.
And, of course, faces—like identities or selves—change over a person’s life. To believe otherwise is fairy-tale logic. Or else, perhaps, sometimes it’s fatalism.
A doctor who thought my brother’s face was a wonderful professional challenge showed it around to advanced medical students. This face was a rare learning opportunity. People called the doctor a genius, an artist. He was a surgeon for whom the globe was crossed. We were fortunate not to have to cross the globe. The medical school students stared, lucky to see a human who would require so much pain to have a functional face.
In those days, fashionable women wore their bangs high and crispy. My cousin Mandy was going to teach me how to work the hairspray just so, but never got around to it, due to pressing commitments to imbibing smack. When I watched the television screen, high school students in pastel sweaters walked around with cell phones big as their forearms. Outside, it was New England. In school, we rolled the sides of crayons over thin paper layered onto fall leaves to catch the shape of their veins. My brother came home with one new face after another.
Usually he couldn’t eat for a time after the operations. We spoke sign language because there was too much surgical trauma to his mouth for verbal discourse. He missed a lot of school. He missed time to play. Twice, he nearly died.
I knew I was privileged because, for me, missing school was skipping it, because I could eat something hard as a bagel any time I wanted, because to fail at school would be my own doing not from losing time to hospital beds, because I could always freely ask for help out of my mouth, because medical treatment didn’t carry the risk of another trip to the ICU, because when I ate a Fudgsicle it didn’t melt and drain out of my nose, and because, after all that, my face was not insulted with the innocent mercilessness of schoolchildren, or adults.
To acknowledge all that privilege doesn’t feel good. It means facing someone else’s pain. But privilege is what it is.
This is what I think about as I watch Donald Trump mock Serge Kovaleski, a reporter with disabilities.
I have been known and loved by many faces. For most of my childhood, these faces, except my brother’s, were white.
Every year when I was a girl, my uncle Dan would throw a Christmas party, the sort of oven-muggy sweating-in-your-sweater affair with blue garland lights and casseroles, all six of the “original” O’Neills with their nuclear families dropping Rs, exclaiming over each other’s good home cooking and even better kids. These were loving people, hearty people. Hah-ty. We gathered in the neighborhood where they’d grown up—in the greater Boston area reviled in rhyme as Lynn Lynn the City of Sin—and they’d talk about the grandmother I never met, who taught my older cousins how to count by playing poker and was known to say, “Trust everyone, but always cut the cards.” When she was alive, they remembered, she explained that the lesbian neighbor was “a Lebanese.” When she was dead, I was her namesake. She was the star of the family, still is.
In the foyer, Uncle Dan welcomed us with wise guy swagger, hugging everyone, jutting his chin out to say, “Hey. Comment ça va , huh?” You’d find Polaroids under lamps collecting images up out of blackness. He was a proud company man who gave me my first camera and my parents vinyl Polaroid-fortieth-anniversary cushions meant, presumably, for sports bleachers. We rose to the surface smiling with our arms linked under the light, a family.
At some point in the evening, he retreated upstairs, only to descend in a Santa suit with gifts: mixed nuts or razors for the men, sock slippers or chocolates for the women. There would be something special for me, his goddaughter. It would freak me out at first to see him dressed as a symbol until he removed the hat and beard to show me his bald spot, his chin. I suppose the fear had something to do with the uncanny, that creepy admixture of the familiar and unfamiliar.
It is, of course, a well-documented fear. Freud wrote about it. Makers of zombie films have built an entire genre around it. What, after all, is more frightening than realizing that perhaps everyone you know means to ravage you, to chase you until you too are another endlessly hungry predator? It is, on an elaborate scale, the fear that our loved ones are not as they appear, that the individual selves of a community aren’t stable enough to withstand a transformation from that with which we are accustomed to that which is threateningly alien.
I share a last name with New York City’s Police Commissioner. His name is James O’Neill, no relation. According to the commissioner, in one year, hate crimes have spiked 31 percent in the city.
“I have no scientific evidence as to why, but if you’ve been paying attention to what’s been going on in the country over the last year or so, that the rhetoric has increased I think that might have something to do with it,” he said .
But whose rhetoric? It sure as hell isn’t the people saying, “Love thy neighbor.”
Or maybe it is.
After the election, after watching Hillary Clinton’s concession speech and Barack Obama’s address, their calls to be a “team” and to be “stronger together,” I wept with confusion. I could not conceive of how to unite the country now. I could not even conceive of how to unite my own family.
The truth is, I have torn my family apart. I have done it ruthlessly.
“It’s them or me,” I told my mother after Thanksgiving dinner six years ago. “They” were her brother Paul and his wife, Linda. “You have them home for the holidays or me. You have to choose.”
Nothing extraordinary had happened. It was only that over holiday dinner they had spoken about how it was so hard to find a doctor with an American name. All the Changs and Dongs and Vishnus . It was only that I didn’t like that they were people who called Chinese food “gook food.” For as much of my life as I could remember, I’d thought of Paul as the guy who told me, when I was three or four, “In your country, people pick their nose and eat it,” then tried to make me do it. According to my mother, this was his sense of humor. But it meant that it was harder for us to love each other. Maybe I never tried. I resigned myself to the fact that my face, which I couldn’t change, would not be loved.
But the resignation extended only so far. I thought of my brother, what it would mean for him to again be the object of denigration for nothing he had chosen, even at home, even on a holiday, and there was felonious rage charging my blood.
The adoptive family is not bound by contractual plasma or shared facial features. Its connections are predicated on choice. It’s something a group does, not something a group is. I’ve never experienced love or loyalty based on the accident of biology. It could be that this made it easier for me to cut faces out of the picture of family I had. Or perhaps it’s that Paul and Linda hadn’t spoken to my mother for a decade of my childhood. It seemed to me that I’d earned my mother, and that they hadn’t. The ultimatum issued like intercessory prayer.
“I don’t care if they’re your family,” I told her. “We chose you every day of our American lives.”
And then, though I’d feel pathetic ever saying such a thing to a romantic partner, to my mother I said, “Choose us.”
That family might act as a microcosm of the nation or that the nation might metaphorically operate like a family: This is a deeply engrained notion. Seeking to build national kinship, when talking about the armed forces, job market, and so on, politicians invoke the emotional bombs that are the stuff of psychotherapy—mothers, brothers, sisters. And though on the surface, family and nation seem to share the logic of bond by birth, both are enacted by choice: marriage, adoption, participation in ritual. We repeat a phrase: “Trust everyone, but always cut the cards.” We pledge allegiance.
There’s something comforting and folksy to the nation-family metaphor stream, until we consider how small our homes are. Two faces. Ten. When we see the edges.
Amy Kaplan, the Americanist scholar, writes: “The idea of foreign policy depends on the sense of the nation as a domestic space imbued with a sense of at-homeness, in contrast to an external world perceived as alien and threatening. Reciprocally, a sense of the foreign is necessary to erect the boundaries that enclose the nation as home.” Families delineate. Home, there. Like, other. Them, us.
“It’s them or me,” I told my mother.
It is a privilege to be able to choose division, say, “Fuck it.” If I were not able to support myself financially or were not able-bodied enough to live independently, I could never have torn my family apart. That the cutting was contingent on my own privilege did not mean it felt gratifying. The exercise of privilege sometimes doesn’t. It can be a gesture of hopelessness.
I knew I was inflicting a painful decision on my mother. My mother says her brother Paul is a good guy. She worships him a little. I see it in imitation, the way she calls bras over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders, that kind of thing. I see it in her totally false comparison of his face to that of Paul Newman. And though I get most holidays, I can hear the pride in her voice when she says that Paul loves the broccoli casserole she makes at Easter. She prays for him.
Over the past six years, I have had to reckon with my reading of his character. Paul has, when other family members haven’t, helped my parents during times of financial dearth. He has turned up for them when their car broke down, and in the years since I’ve refused to see him, he has developed a closeness with my brother. Evidently, they now play paintball together. They do carpentry. Perhaps, if I’d been willing to turn my cheek for casual racism or was kind like my brother, I, too, would have eventually built a relationship with Paul.
“I don’t know what we’d do without him,” my mother says.
It seems there is the threat of collapse, and I want for her what I want for the country. I want less pain.
There’s a part in the Amy Hempel story “Three Popes Walk Into a Bar,” in which a stand-up comedian asks how to change a life. The narrator tells him, “Start small and work up. The way you would clean a house. You start in one room. Maybe you give yourself more time than you need to finish that room, just so you finish it. Then you go on to the next one. You start small, and then everything you do gets bigger.” It’s this I think of when I call Uncle Dan after the election. I know he has voted for Donald Trump, as has Paul, but I believe Uncle Dan will offer some gracious path when I remember his face all those Christmases—my godfather, the man of miracles who could shift from the familiar to the mythological, to Santa Claus, the face of kindness. One kind face—start that way, and then everything gets bigger.
Except his voice on the phone is like a pointed finger. America is “a laughingstock of the world.” Barack Obama refuses to go to funerals for white cops. Immigrants used to have to struggle. “If you want to come to this country,” he says, “you work for your citizenship. You don't come in and expect to get free medical, free this, free that, get the license and driving cars and get in accidents and don't have insurance.” Just take the Russian woman who cut in line at the doctor’s office when his wife— a legal immigrant he is quick to note—was dying. The Russian woman didn’t even have insurance. He sees “illegal” immigrants everywhere. He says he doesn’t talk to them.
That day, swastikas are spray painted at Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn. It is reported that a man yelling “Trump!” assaults an Ethiopian cab driver. Jeff Sessions, who voted against extending hate crime protections to those targeted for their sexual orientation, gender identity, or disabilities, is nominated for Attorney General.
Yet on television, my uncle sees only male Syrian refugees in their twenties who harbor ill intent for the country. In his own town he has seen politicians send these adult men posing as children to public schools with real teenage girls. I hear a fear of being tricked, a fear of duplicitous faces.
That my brother and I were not white, as the rest of the O’Neills were, didn’t seem to matter much growing up. I was still praised for my enormous appetite. To my brother there was still plenty of jock cred given. Our hands were still taken in prayer. We thanked the Lord for each other around the dinner table.
I ask about Donald Trump’s racist remarks. Uncle Dan doesn’t think racism is a problematic characteristic for the president. “Don’t forget,” he says, “don’t forget that if you go back to our forefathers in the United States, a lot of them had slaves, and they had children with these race of people and tell me that it shouldn’t have been.”
He uses the words “anchor babies.”
He says, “You can’t walk down the street anymore and say hi to your neighbor because you don’t know your neighbor, and you question your neighbor.” He says he cannot believe so many no longer “love thy neighbor.”
I have not always loved my neighbor. I have not always even loved my mother well, believing family to be a bond not by birth but beliefs, behaviors. I have chosen division from the wrongness I perceived in her brothers and sisters. It is easy to cut. It is harder to find a way to bind.
How many times have I shaken my head, said of an event on my mother’s side of the family, “That is some kind of Munier bullshit?”
Munier bullshit is hiding the good food in the house because there was never enough when you were a kid: a stash of Milanos here, a Hydrox sleeve there. Munier bullshit is telling your parole officer the results are the fault of lemon poppy seed muffins. It is plucking up the ingenuity to conceive of newly purchased toys as weapons in a family fistfight in the middle of a street while the kids look on with their empty Toys “R” Us bags. It is stealing from your family. It is for years debating whether the one in prison is there because that gang rape ruined her or through her own choices or if the gang rape ever even happened. It is showing up at the cemetery for the funeral of your niece or son who died too young. It is knowing the ins and outs of government assistance, and it is also to be failed by a giant, vague notion of an establishment. Munier bullshit is starting a fire in your school.
You do not want to play a board game with a Munier.
Munier bullshit is giving another shot to another Munier because your big, foolish heart thumps at the word family.
Munier bullshit is to be hurt by your own sisters, brothers, children.
I have had to wonder if part of why I cut Paul out was because I didn’t know how to fix Munier bullshit. I didn’t see his face. I saw “them.”
Sometimes, the cure is brutal. At one point in his childhood, my brother suffered from a collapsing face. I don’t mean in the metaphorical sense, in which someone is visibly disappointed. This was a craniofacial disorder. His face was caving in on itself. He couldn’t breathe.
Distraction was the name of the surgical procedure prescribed. It involves cutting bones of the face, pulling a section away, then holding it in position with a contraption worn outside the head. Over several months, the bone, in a healthy person, will fill in, each side of the detached bone growing toward the other. Until then, actions like smiling and speaking are not only first impossible and later difficult, they’re frightening. The face is fragile when not unified, and you do not want ever to repeat the process.
He had to repeat the process.
He was older then, a teenager. Did he believe the doctors who said that this time his face would take? Did he believe that the two parts of his face would reach to the other, save itself from collapse? It’s difficult to know because he did not speak much, never has. Whatever the feeling, he faced it.
To face, as a verb, carries many meanings, some of them contradictory. In the sixteenth century, for example, it might denote the maintenance of a false appearance. Today, there is plenty of blame amongst progressives for the loss of the presidency. Perhaps the problem is there is too much fault and not enough facing. I mean to face in the sense of “to look seriously and steadily at, not shrink from (an issue, idea, unpleasant fact, etc.)”
I decide to face Paul. I consider the possibility that if faces change with time, so do souls or selves, hearts. I pick up the phone. When I tell him I want to understand why he voted for Donald Trump and how the country might move forward despite deep divisions, I think I am also saying that I want to understand him, how we might move forward. It’s been many years since I’ve prayed, but I want to believe that appeals to human grace, too, offer deliverance.
At first, much of what he tells me appears reasonable. He wants to see more manufacturing jobs in America. He’s interested in building more infrastructure. I recall how I always liked his voice, low in the throat and clipped, consonants getting a little caught in the lip. I think of how he’d brought my brother to hockey games.
Then he argues that there is no problem with a Muslim registry since Muslims are “the ones doing terrorism.” He complains about the effect of undocumented—illegal, he says—immigrants on American jobs. There is an elaborate explanation for how it affects him: Competitor companies will hire undocumented immigrants for lower wages, therefore enabling them to hire more workers, therefore speeding up their rendering of services, therefore making them more attractive to clients than those like himself who pay more to American-born workers. I understand the challenge for him, but I’m puzzled why the blame falls on immigrants and not the employers, his real competitors. “I don’t mind people coming into this country,” he says, “as long as they come in the way everyone else does.”
I point out that many people, people like, say, him, didn’t come into the country. They were fortunate enough to be born here. I know that I, too, did nothing to earn my citizenship. I am here because two American citizens wanted a baby. It’s pure accident. It’s how we became family or family for a time. I ask about the president-elect and race.
“Do you really think that? Do you really think that Donald Trump is racist?” he asks. It’s the only time in our conversation he sounds angry. His voice cracks.
And because I want to be hopeful against the evidence—maybe it’s Munier bullshit on my part—I ask about the future. What will this great America look like? He says he envisions the Eisenhower era, the fifties, a time when he was a kid, Happy Days . “That was back in the days when your neighbor would say something if you were doing something. They’d say hey. They wouldn’t get the bird for it. People would respect them enough to say okay great. You don’t see that anymore.”
It doesn’t sound so bad coming out of his mouth, all that respect and lack of middle finger, but I can’t help thinking about the fifties as a time when far fewer opportunities existed for people of color. “When I was a kid, black people lived in Roxbury,” he says. “And there wasn’t any blacks in where we were. The Chinese lived in Chinatown, and the Italians lived in the North End. That’s how neighborhoods went. I don’t know if it was a good idea or a bad idea, but it didn’t seem like there were the problems you have today.”
To me, it seems like Paul does believe it was a good idea, but I haven’t spoken with him in six years. I barely know him. Paul insists that race was not an issue in his voting. He says he learned from World War II. “We’ve seen how that happened before,” he says, and this master race is bogus bullshit. I think the way this country became great is because we are a melting pot.”
Four days before, a man in Ann Arbor threatened to set a woman on fire if she did not remove her hijab. One of my students wrote a piece about a halal food cart operator she saw assaulted the day after the election. Another student emailed me, afraid he will have to leave the country under the new president, though he is currently granted legal status via DACA. “Nice talking with you,” Paul says.
For a moment, an image of his face fixes in my mind. He looks like my mother. Some might say they have sad faces, sad eyes. Blue eyes that droop at the corners. His face overlaid with that of my mother urges me to return the words, to say it was nice for me too. But I don’t. The feeling is as complicated as family.
I don’t know how to make a country hold. I don’t know how to make a family hold either. Maybe the answer is something like the collapsing face, which must be fractured before it mends. The technique of distraction osteogenesis was discovered after a world war.
The times my brother came close to death, it was not the cure that was dangerous. It was the comfort drugs that nearly knocked him all the way out. Progress happened in the long moments that hurt. What was necessary wasn’t always sufficient; they prevented collapse, only to find the averting of disaster wasn’t permanent. So the doctors cut again to make the architecture bear. The face was broken or open, depending how you thought. The time it worked, the doctors looked beyond the immediate family of organs, took a bone from the hip to perch openings big enough to breathe. They called the scaffolding he wore afterward a halo, invoking miracle, angels.
Recovery is slow. It hurts. But one day you can smile again. One day you can speak. You are grateful to eat. Or you learn that seeing someone you love live freely in their face resembles prayer.
Facing can mean, as a preposition, opposite in orientation, but as a noun, a face can also mean “the acting, striking, or working surface of an implement, tool, or the like.” The face is what transforms unyielding materials as it makes contact.
I have known and loved many faces. I have sometimes seen grace in them, and sometimes seen the zombie’s endless hunger to feed on privilege, to turn the community inhuman. I’ve wondered if the kind face of unity is real and thought the only real country is the one that faces with kindness.
We live at a moment in history in which partial resurrection is possible. Surgeons reappear the dead on bodies in need. There’s the box to check on DMV applications. The transplanted organs are livers or lungs. They are faces. Through generosity, a part of the other becomes our own. Or sometimes we give. We go under the knife, and the edges between us and them soften. If I am fortunate, I become us. I become us and live. One year after receiving the world’s first face transplant, Isabelle Dinoire said, “It may be someone else's face, but when I look in the mirror, I see me.”