Wow. This one. There’s a lot to unload here. First off, Jia Tolentino is incredibly smart and insightful. This was not a book that I flew through in a day, because frankly, she’s way smarter than I am. I don’t say this to be self-deprecating or to underestimate myself. There’s always gonna be someone smarter in the room. That’s partially WHY we read, right? To get a glimpse into the brain of intelligent people, to learn something. Jia is wise and skilled writer, and thus, a lot of her thoughts were deserving of a reread and reflection. The title Trick Mirror is so fitting, if you’re aware of trick mirror photography, which is done by placing a subject between two mirrors to create four reflections. The purpose was to enable a person to see themselves the way other people might see them, to see all angles. Jia has certainly approached a multitude of subject from a multitude of perspectives in Trick Mirror.
c. 1905. Dittrich Studio, Atlantic City, New Jersey. IMAGE: COLLECTION OF CHRISTOPHER B. STEINER
“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.”
Here’s a warning for people that might be thinking this is an uplifting self-help book… this book gets uncomfortable. It’s about shedding self-delusions. It’s about the necessity, at times, of self-delusions in a cruel world. It gets depressing. It’s poignant and raw, and a slap in the face at times. It’s also necessary and important at a time where we have media, the internet, influencers, politicians, and trolls alike shaping our world and discourse. This book is really Jia working through her inner feelings towards a range of topics: the internet, feminism, sexual assault, marriage, religion, drugs, reality tv, body image, marriage, scams of the century. I’ll tell you, I’m super happy that I read this on kindle merely because I highlighted over 200 quotes… it was almost comical the amount of things I related to, the revelations that I had.
We start out with the internet and the good things that have come about because of it. People found a way to express themselves, creative outlets, ways to promote their business with satisfying and quick results. We were able to connect with friends and family instantaneously. It was all new and glorious. Jia explores how things have become so caustic in the span of a decade. Instead of feeling liberated by the internet, a lot of us feel chained and insecure. Scrolling through our instagram/facebook/twitter/etc., we are exposed to tragedy after tragedy, decimation, unrealistic bodies, opinions shouted merely for the point of shouting, to tear another person down behind the safety of a screen. As Jia points out, it can be overwhelming. It can be depressing. A lot of us also rely on the internet, the business world has become so entangled unto the internet that it seems that there’s no way to escape social media usage at times. Sometimes it feels like we are forced to choose between burying our head in the sand or taking severe hits to our mental health when it comes to internet usage, we have become so reliant on it.
“Platforms that promised connection began inducing mass alienation.”
What started out as getting to know our peers, ended up being in a never-ending competition with our peers and strangers alike. Jia points out that while the internet can seem incredibly rewarding for some (in fact, for those who are alienated in real life, it can be the only place they feel rewarded, in front of an adoring audience that barely knows them), it is also incredibly harmful and alienating for others. The internet doesn’t forget. The internet doesn’t go gently into the good night… it rages. It rages over big and small things alike. It ruins lives without a second thought. Every comment, every troll, every sarcastic retweet and stray thought can be the undoing of another person.
“Online reward mechanisms beg to substitute for offline ones, and then overtake them. This is why everyone tries to look so hot and well-traveled on Instagram; this is why everyone seems so smug and triumphant on Facebook; this is why, on Twitter, making a righteous political statement has come to seem, for many people, like a political good in itself…
Few of us are totally immune to the practice, as it intersects with a real desire for political integrity. Posting photos from a protest against border family separation, as I did while writing this, is a microscopically meaningful action, an expression of genuine principle, and also, inescapably, some sort of attempt to signal that I am good.”
Moral superiority is easy when all you have to do is repost an article with an emoji or quip. For some of this, this feels like the only way that we can help, by spreading awareness. The internet was made for instant gratification. We are so used to it that we can repost a multitude of tragedies, political statement written by other people, feel-good stories while scrolling down our feeds and it seems like we’ve done our part. We are not like “the other side” —because there’s always the other side— we are worldly and we understand everything so much more clearly than THEM.
“These deranged takes, and their unnerving proximity to online monetization, are case studies in the way that our world—digitally mediated, utterly consumed by capitalism—makes communication about morality very easy but makes actual moral living very hard.”
“The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving. And, more important, the internet already is what it is. It has already become the central organ of contemporary life. It has already rewired the brains of its users, returning us to a state of primitive hyperawareness and distraction while overloading us with much more sensory input than was ever possible in primitive times. It has already built an ecosystem that runs on exploiting attention and monetizing the self. Even if you avoid the internet completely—my partner does: he thought #tbt meant “truth be told” for ages—you still live in the world that this internet has created, a world in which selfhood has become capitalism’s last natural resource, a world whose terms are set by centralized platforms that have deliberately established themselves as near-impossible to regulate or control.”
The fact is that we spend every day in our own little bubbles, our internet is shaped for our needs. The algorithms on the sites we visit are catered to us: they know what enrages us, what makes us exclaim in excitement, what political figures appeal to us. These constant feeds designed specifically to us only add to our moral superiority. It’s all designed to keep us coming back, to keep us scrolling, to keep us screaming our opinions into the pit that is the internet. And yet, like Jia points out, it leaves us with the feeling that we can’t change anything. We can yell and yell all day but we still get scammed. As a people, we LIVE for being scammed. We eat up empty promises. We are scammed by the politicians that promise outlandish things that they’ll never accomplish (because they know we want to hear it), by the atheleisure outfitters charging $90 for a pair of leggings to look good in an outfit that yells to the world, “I WORK OUT. LOOK AT HOW MUCH I’M WILLING TO SPEND TO MAKE SURE YOU NOTICE THAT.” We are scammed out of our private information. We get scammed into buying millions of products that we think make us look good because being beautiful (especially when you’re a woman) is the most important and profitable thing in our society. We get scammed into festivals that aren’t really happening because we have a fear of missing out.
This depth of what Jia discusses here is so mind-blowing that it’s never going to be feasible for me to unload it in a blog post. The woman has looked at things from all angles. She defends feminism and can blow apart mainstream feminism in one sitting, gracefully. She is proud of the feminist movement, yet can see how people use feminism to self-serve. There’s many self-proclaimed feminists that can accept the reckless, “bitchy”, bossy woman but rejects another woman fighting for our rights while building a home, or being “basic”, which totally defeats the purpose of loving women outside of the box that society expects. The “boss lady” who built her empire on the basis of female power while firing workers because of pregnancy isn’t a feminist for the collective, she’s hungry for power at the expense of other women. Jia eloquently points out that women fought SO LONG for recognition outside of the home that sometimes it can feel like we HAVE to be unruly, we have to be “nasty women.” The fact is, and it’s important to us to understand this, women don’t have to be ANYTHING SPECIFIC to be a good feminist. We can have a multitude of qualities. We can be basic, loud, alternative, domestic, married, single, quiet, kind, bitchy, etc. as long as we are supportive of women as a whole. Now, this does NOT mean that women are free from criticism solely because we are women. Jia notes how people, often people that have NO USE for feminism, will pull the “you’re not a good feminist” card when it comes to people criticizing.. say, the women of the Trump administration. Like I said, Trick Mirror. Looking at things from all angles. There’s so many facets to everything that Jia talks about and she explains it all so much better than I am. I’m just rambling about the stuff that she opened my eyes to, or articulated thoughts that I’m sure a lot of us have had.
One more interesting topic, and this is going to be a controversial thing for many, that Jia brought up was her loss of religion. She grew up in Houston: mega churches, religious guilt and shaming, private high school, conservative college, the whole lot. First off, I think this is proof that a person can make their own political and religious decisions despite their upbringing. It’s pretty amazing, actually. I guess that’s always an option as an outcome though, you have it shoved down your throat so completely that eventually you purge it out of your system.
“I have been walking away from institutional religion for a long time now —half my life, at this point, dismantling what the first fifteen built. But I’ve always been glad that I grew up the way I did.
“It gave me a leftist worldview: a desire to follow leaders who feel themselves inseparable from the hungry, the imprisoned, and the sick.
“It made me want to investigate my own ideas and what it means to be good. This spiritual inheritance was, in fact, what intially spurred my defection: I lost interest in trying to reconcile big-tent Southern evangelicalism with my burgeoning political beliefs.”
What I found super interesting is that she compared her religion to experimentation with drugs. She related the high of having faith in God to the high of ecstasy.
“Both provide a path toward transcendence—a way of accessing an extrahuman world of rapture and pardon that, in both cases, is as real as it feels.”
This sounds outlandish, especially if you’ve never experimented with drugs or had a religious experience. I haven’t had many experience with either, but the experiences I have had are extremely relatable. Everything is heightened, you feel enveloped with possibilities, the good is great and bad feels like a slap in the face. She compares a woman who had “talked to God” and experienced feelings of joy, peace, love, invincibility and said the come down from that feeling was almost painful, that she felt a feeling of being weary of oneself to the transcripts of Erowid, a site that catalogs the experiences of people who have used psychoactive substances as treatment. I find this interesting because drugs and religion are two of the most controversial subjects, often outsiders aren’t able to understand people’s need for one or the other, but people that use them are often searching for something. This may be a sense of self, safety, love, acceptance, avoidance, enlightenment. It’s also curious that addicts often go through programs where a love of God often seems to be a tool to replace that addiction. Even though that wasn’t specifically one of the points that Jia made, it makes a lot more sense to me that this actually works after reading this book. People are looking for a reason to be.
Alright, I feel like I could ramble on for ages about this book and I haven’t even began to scratch the surface. Jia discusses Trump, the way he has scammed the US into voting for him, his various scams over the years in his businesses, his treatment of women, and more. Through her bashing of the internet, she also praises it for taking us to places that never seemed possible: a revolution towards the treatment of women, the age of TRUE reckoning towards sexual predators (or at least the start of it), the livelihood many of us reap from it. The institution of marriage, the shapes that it has taken over time, her disdain for it, and finally her realization that though it may not be for her, marriage in our generation has transitioned more towards partnership instead of the ownership/loss of independence for women. She talks about our society’s need for things and people to beautiful, that even though that beauty can be inclusive of many types, we focus more on beauty than we do on things/qualities that should be more important.
“The default assumption tends to be that it is politically important to designate everyone as beautiful, that it is a meaningful project to make sure that everyone can become, and feel, increasingly beautiful. We have hardly tried to imagine what it might look like if our culture could do the opposite—de-escalate the situation, make beauty matter less.”
Just… read Trick Mirror. It can be a challenging read. You will read a passage and think you have a handle on what Jia thinks and then she will come at that from two more perspectives. Jia is the first to admit that she’s full of contradictions, but that’s the beauty of this book: we are all full of contradictions. Some of these contradictions are easily changeable, some of them require more effort, some of them are seemingly impossible at the moment and often a product of the society we live in. If you want a feel for what this book is about, definitely go check out some of the quotes on Goodreads. This is one of those books that YOU could literally make a book dissecting. It’s not gonna be for everyone. You might hate it. You might learn or unlearn a way of thinking. A few criticisms after all of the mad raving I’ve done: some of the passages we long-winded and seemed to veer off on a tangent… they often circled back to the point that she was trying to make but at times it was easy to lose sight of that point because of the sheer length of those passages. I also understand that like Jia said, this is her trying to make sense of all of these thoughts bouncing around in her head and writing is her way of doing it. Also, the passages about Jia tended to be far more interesting and attention-worthy than some of the other passages. I know that Jia didn’t want to make this all about her as part of the book’s focus was how we as a society tend to do that. It was just that in the other passages, there’s a lot of bouncing around to her various references (which she gratefully cites at the end of the book), and that could be distracting at times, too. On the other hand, it would have been impossible to make this book without most of them! This all being said, it’s pretty reasonable that this book would end up on Obama’s favorite books of 2019. Even though it’s one of my first 10 reads in 2020, it’s probably also going to be one of the most stimulating and thought-provoking for me.
WELL, that’s enough of me today. My brain is melting. Time for a fantasy read.
“I have felt so many times that the choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional—to be wrecked, or to be functional for reasons that contribute to the wreck.”