Persona: (Latin, “actor’s mask”) One’s social role, derived from the expectations of society and early training. A strong ego relates to the outside world through a flexible persona; identification with a specific persona (doctor, scholar, artist, etc.) inhibits psychological development. ~ Mario Jacoby The Analytic Encounter
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth. ~ Oscar Wilde, quoted in The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images
It started with a dream about red lipstick.
Bright red. A color I’ve never worn, except maybe during my onstage past.
When I woke up – I let my mind wander, and could almost smell my grandmothers lipstick, the blot of red lips imprinted on the tissue paper that floated down toward the wastepaper basket from the vanity.
My maternal grandmother – a farmer’s wife – put on her red lipstick, her girdle, her clip on earrings and sensible shoes before church on Sundays, or maybe in anticipation of a day trip up north to the city. By the time the car pulled off the rural route and back up the driveway home, the girdle, the earrings and the lipstick were all off – removed in the car on the trip home, if not even earlier in a powder room somewhere, stuffed in her handbag.
My paternal step-grandmother – on the other hand – wore red lipstick, and carried a long black cigarette holder in every photo and every single time I ever saw her (which was not all that often) at home with a martini playing bridge or for dinner at the Lafayette country club.
Their red lips marked them as surely as their affectionate kisses marked their grandchildrens’ cheeks: as women of a certain age and era, as women who were beyond thinking what the young thought of them – in the early 70’s the young wore heavy eyes and no lips – or no make up at all – and as old women who had no further interest in current fashion or trends.
Perhaps, in their twenties and thirties in the 1920’s and 30’s the same crimson mouth carried different connotations. Maybe at first a certain youthful, flapper-esque daring, and later a hat-wearing-lady-like respectability.
I thought of it as the fire-mouth, a severe slash of horizontal seriousness and propriety, as a war-face applied before heading into the fray. You took grandma seriously when she wore it. When the lipstick was on, she meant business, and would put up with no truck from a whining child. Red lips meant she had expectations of you.
I’ve never worn red-lipstick, because I associated it with elder maturity, the mark of the Crone, the kiss goodbye to youth and girlhood. For me, red lipstick is what white-haired old ladies, who you do not want to mess with, and who don’t give a shit about looking young anymore, wore when they meant business.
As I dozed and remembered the smell of my grandmother’s lipstick, the eye-watering pain of clip on earrings, and the click of a string of costume beads or the tap of the black cigarette holder in the ashtray and brittle looking ankles rising out of suede high heels I laughed to myself – realizing that already, twenty years younger than I ever remembered either of them being – I am already a white-haired woman, who doesn’t give a shit any more.
And who is done putting up with nonsense.
Time to bust out the red lipstick – and claim my own fire-mouth.
All transformations are invested with something at once of a profound mystery and of the shameful…. Metamorphoses must be hidden from view, and hence the need for a mask. Secrecy tends toward transfiguration: it helps what-one-is to become what-one-would-like-to-be;…. The mask is equivalent to the chrysalis. – Circlot: A Dictionary of Symbols.
As a kid, I was “taught” make up at the local community theater where I spent as much time as possible – as part of the actors craft. It made me younger when I needed to play a smaller child, could change my coloring and ethnicity when coupled with a blonde wig, and could turn me into a boy when needed. It’s first application marked the transition from rehearsal to performance. I once even raced from the theater, still covered with painted freckles, to my mother’s second wedding.
The directors who led our motley troupe – in a pick up truck and gun rack town – were older men: actors, opera singers, musicians who had modulated their big dreams to fit into an underfunded ramshackle theater in small town suburbia. After three or four years of loyalty and hard work as part of the repertory, at 14 or so I was invited to my first “grown up” cast party. The front door opened and I saw men known to me in the rehearsal hall as beige, gray, unshaven, and irritable, in all their glory: A silver turban, a sparkling purple beaded robe, an ivory kaftan with golden thread… and those rosy faces, cosmetically shaped jaw lines, flushed cheeks, dramatic eyes…
and of course, bright red lips.
The finicky and easily exasperated “old” men (probably younger than I am now) who barely tolerated a precocious child actor and regularly shushed me in the wings were suddenly alive, smiling, embracing me – offering me my first ever sip of their gin and tonic: “Just one sip! I do not want your mother to hate me!”
As beautiful as butterflies, as shimmery as peacocks.
Their painted masks introduced me to who they really were.
There are aspects of self that are only accessible and able to be revealed through a mask – as the external image and persona is manipulated to reveal aspects of our true selves that would remain hidden otherwise.
Since the mask stands between one’s self and the world it has a dual nature: It looks both in and out. A mask can disguise, cover, veil, lie, capture, release, reveal, project, protect, disown, recollect, deceive, dissociate, embody and transform. ~ The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images
Winnicott speaks of the True and False self in the same space that Jung speaks of persona and for both the false socialized self is seen as healthy and necessary to some degree for social functioning – without it we would say and do things impulsively, selfishly, that could expose our vulnerable true self or harm others. Healthy false selves keep us from killing when we feel murderous, or initiating sexual contact with everyone we are attracted to.
It also protects what lies underneath: Winnicott says that the False self often brings the true self to treatment – like a protective babysitter – to make sure that the therapist is safe enough, and has created a safe enough environment to let the True self emerge.
Aggression, rejection or distortion aimed at someone’s consciously crafted persona is annoying, but the same act committed upon a True Self is utterly annihilating.
Winnicott also chillingly describes the pathology of the False self:
A False Self that has convinced itself it is the True Self.
It is common for clients to present in therapy in great distress when they have become lost in their persona – when their relationship to their external facade has become disrupted, uncomfortable or painful as internal pressures, changing life-stages, or external events require the surrender or adjustment of the face they have constructed and presented to the world.
Clients can lose their jobs, their function, or their standing in the community that they equate with their identity: How will I recognize or myself if I am no longer wearing the mask of a philanthropist, a church volunteer, a doctor, an artist, a lawyer, a psychotherapist?
Some attach to their role in the family system: as spouse, son, daughter, parent, sibling. When the family system is disrupted by death or separation, divorce, adoption or reunion – they find themselves disoriented in relationship to their own persona.
Internal prods, the insistent Unconscious eruptions of the psyche, the push of pain and the pull of hope also can put us in a dissonant relationship to our mask of choice:
“I never thought of myself as some one who would have an affair”
“I used to love my profession, but I’m so burned out I think I may have to give up teaching”
“I’ve become someone who only takes care of children – if I don’t figure out who I am other than a mother – I’m going to explode – I can’t take it anymore!”
Suddenly, the soul demands that the old persona retire itself and a new mask must be painted that creates a face that matches and protects newly emerging aspects of the self.
Age and body changes associated with adolescence, mid-life and old age should move us through our make up and wardrobe transformations as well – some of us accept such mandated role and costume changes more willingly than others, and for some they evoke profound identity disturbance as their appearance no longer fits how they think of themselves.
There are darker functions served by masks as well:
Masks are also instruments of lies, tricks, and self-deception Our culture endorses the manufacture of many “good” and “branded” personas which mask greedy, devouring and destructive behaviors. Many of us think of ourselves as exemplary citizens while we have hidden from ourselves or flat-out ignored the destructive effects of our cars, consumption habits, institutions, corporations and governments on unseen or disenfranchised others and on other species, and upon the planet itself.
Pigs wearing lipstick abound:
Our culture denies bias, racism, and heteronormativity even while it remains manifest, food labeled “healthy” masks toxic farming practices. Clean coal. Industrial growth is the face of the dark trickster that depletes planetary resources.
Disasters emerge to pressure us to shake off our collective, cultural facades and bring our false fronts into alignment with our realities: terrorist acts, war, extreme weather events, gun violence. But, too often it seems that our collective cultural and national False Selves have usurped the Truer collective spirit.
We all lie to ourselves and to each other continuously. Those who hold on to their personas lightly are willing to adjust their sense of self to accommodate new information about their effect on others. Those who cling tightly to a false self, delete and deny any information that disrupts their status and sense of public persona.
Therapist’s very often find themselves sitting with clients who are actively consciously, or unconsciously deceiving themselves. Sometimes, they choose to maintain the front at all costs, as they hang on to a persona at the expense of their souls. Re-painting the house while the pantry is empty: Staying in dead marriages for fear of the neighbors’ judgement, managing to other parents competitiveness rather than to their own children’s needs, arranging outer-appearances to look just so while mess, chaos, and destruction storm within.
A mask is a disguise which transforms the wearer, hides or heightens his personality, or identifies him with the character of the mask. Purpose: Impersonation of deified natural forces, spirits of the dead, totemic, hunted or phallic animals, respected or derided human beings for:
1) arousal of a desired emotion: bravery, self-esteem, prophetic trance
2) exorcism of baneful sprits
3) coercion of more favorable spirits.
4) Social prestige
5) Moral control and social therapy by fright or burlesque
6) Entertainment by presentation of stories, sacred or secular or by laughter producing satire
Usually more than one motive is involved.
~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend.
I still put on my make up when it is time to perform.
Not much really, it’s the ritual that I require, the transition from the comfortable introverted privacy of home to the extraverted bustle of the city and the rigors of the office.
It puts my impinging vulnerabilities away inside. It draws out my sense of strength for those who need to see me as stronger than I may be.
I stand in front of the mirror as my grandmother did, as I did for years in the dressing room before curtain.
I stand still and look squarely in my own eyes: I pull out my brushes, with long black handles. Like my grandmothers cigarette holder, like the set of brushes that waited for me in the drawer at North County Community Theater.
I put on clean smelling lotion, and some translucent powder. (interesting slip – I first wrote “power”) I apply some mascara- I need big eyes to see deeply into complex problems.
And the last thing before leaving the house: I apply my fire-mouth:
For screwing my courage to the sticking point.
For telling difficult truths.
For giving voice to intuitions from the edge of awareness.
For calling bias, contempt, racism, objectification, and abuse by their true names.
For finding words for the destructive realities that we hide from ourselves.
And for reminding the world that I have expectations, and I am well past the point of putting up with nonsense.
copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford