Trick Mirror - Jia Tolentino


I wrote this book between the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2018—a period during which American identity, culture, technology, politics, and discourse seemed to coalesce into an unbearable supernova of perpetually escalating conflict, a stretch of time when daily experience seemed both like a stopped elevator and an endless state-fair ride, when many of us regularly found ourselves thinking that everything had gotten as bad as we could possibly imagine, after which, of course, things always got worse.

Throughout this period, I found that I could hardly trust anything that I was thinking. A doubt that always hovers in the back of my mind intensified: that whatever conclusions I might reach about myself, my life, and my environment are just as likely to be diametrically wrong as they are to be right. This suspicion is hard for me to articulate closely, in part because I usually extinguish it by writing. When I feel confused about something, I write about it until I turn into the person who shows up on paper: a person who is plausibly trustworthy, intuitive, and clear.

It’s exactly this habit—or compulsion—that makes me suspect that I am fooling myself. If I were, in fact, the calm person who shows up on paper, why would I always need to hammer out a narrative that gets me there? I’ve been telling myself that I wrote this book because I was confused after the election, because confusion sits at odds to my temperament, because writing is my only strategy for making this conflict go away. I’m convinced by this story, even as I can see its photonegative: I wrote this book because I am always confused, because I can never be sure of anything, and because I am drawn to any mechanism that directs me away from that truth. Writing is either a way to shed my self-delusions or a way to develop them. A well-practiced, conclusive narrative is usually a dubious one: that a person is “not into drama,” or that America needs to be made great again, or that America is already great.

These essays are about the spheres of public imagination that have shaped my understanding of myself, of this country, and of this era. One is about the internet. Another is about “optimization,” and the rise of athleisure as late-capitalist fetishwear, and the endlessly proliferating applications of the idea that women’s bodies should increase their market performance over time. There’s an essay about drugs and religion and the bridge that ecstasy forms between them; another about scamming as the definitive millennial ethos; another about the literary heroine’s journey from brave girl to depressed teenager to bitter adult woman who’s possibly dead. One essay is about my stint as a teenage reality TV contestant. One is about sex and race and power at the University of Virginia, my alma mater, where a series of convincing stories have exacted enormous hidden costs. The final two are about the feminist obsession with “difficult” women and about the slow-burning insanity that I acquired in my twenties while attending what felt like several thousand weddings per year. These are the prisms through which I have come to know myself. In this book, I tried to undo their acts of refraction. I wanted to see the way I would see in a mirror. It’s possible I painted an elaborate mural instead.

But that’s fine. The last few years have taught me to suspend my desire for a conclusion, to assume that nothing is static and that renegotiation will be perpetual, to hope primarily that little truths will keep emerging in time. While I was writing this, a stranger tweeted an excerpt of a Jezebel piece I wrote in 2015, highlighting a sentence about what women seemed to want from feminist websites—a “trick mirror that carries the illusion of flawlessness as well as the self-flagellating option of constantly finding fault.” I had not remembered using that phrase when I came up with a book title, and I had not understood, when I was writing that Jezebel piece, that that line was also an explanation of something more personal. I began to realize that all my life I’ve been leaving myself breadcrumbs. It didn’t matter that I didn’t always know what I was walking toward. It was worthwhile, I told myself, just trying to see clearly, even if it took me years to understand what I was trying to see.

The I in the Internet

In the beginning the internet seemed good. “I was in love with