The Looks You’re Born With and The Looks You’re Given

The New Yorker · Dec 12, 2014

I was born cross-eyed—not all the time, but some of the time. My right eye drifted inward, especially when I was tired or daydreaming.

Meanwhile, my mother was extremely beautiful. She was one of the top Ford models of the nineteen-sixties, frequently appearing on the covers of Vogue, Elle, and all the other major fashion magazines. My father was very good-looking as well. My brother inherited their looks. I didn’t.

When I was six, my mother suggested I have an operation to straighten my eye. She said it was entirely up to me, that I didn’t have to do it. I could tell she thought it was a good idea, so I said O.K. The result of the operation was that my eye drifted outward—when I was tired or daydreaming.

When I was twelve, my mother suggested I have another eye operation, to fix the first operation. This was a new kind of operation, performed by one of the top eye surgeons in New York. It was a two-part procedure. The first part was performed while I was under general anesthesia. It consisted of making an incision in the white of the eye, tying a thread to a muscle inside that incision, and letting the thread hang out. The second part of the operation was performed while I was awake. It consisted of the surgeon pulling the thread in one direction to force my eye into a straighter alignment. The problem was that each time he started pulling on the thread, I would faint. And each time I fainted, I was carried to another room, revived, scolded by the frustrated surgeon for fainting, instructed not to faint again, and brought back in to let him try pulling on the thread again. I did my best not to faint, but I kept fainting. The result of that operation was that my eye was much straighter than before, but not perfectly straight. And with time, some of the improvement faded.

Not long after the second eye operation, my orthodontist suggested I get four permanent molars taken out (in addition to my wisdom teeth, later) because my mouth was supposedly too small for my teeth or my teeth were too big for my mouth and would cause my jaw to grow too much. My mom trusted the orthodontist, thought it made sense, and therefore so did I. A few years later, my mom was gazing at me in the kitchen and informed me that she thought it had been a mistake to remove my four permanent teeth because the result was that now my jaw was not square enough—it swooped up from my chin to my ear in too severe an incline. I was sad to hear it.

When I was about fifteen, I was chewing gum and my dad said to my mom, “Why is she chewing gum? Her jaw is already big enough as it is.” So I stopped chewing gum.

A few years later, I was in Paris and was due for a teeth cleaning. I went to see a dentist I’d never seen before, referred to me by a relative. The dentist said to me, “Well, you know, there is a surgery to make the chin smaller, but it’s really very painful. They have to break your jaw, cut a piece out, push your chin back in. The recovery is endless and it really interferes with your life.”

I looked at him in shock, not having mentioned my chin once to him. I said, “I thought I looked O.K.”

He said, “Oh, don’t get me wrong, I think you’re very cute. I’m just mentioning it in case you’re interested.”

A few years later, my first novel, Nude Men, was about to be published, and Viking sent an author photographer to take my photo for the book jacket. As soon as the photographer saw me, he said, “Don’t worry about your chin—I retouch my photos.”

I said, “What do you mean? What’s wrong with my chin?”

“Oh, you know…” he said, making a vague swooping gesture along his own jawline.

(To be fair, I’ve since spoken to other authors who’ve had their photos taken by him and they all said the same thing—that the first thing he mentions upon meeting them is some defect in their faces that will be fixed by his retouching.)

One day, my mom and I were having lunch with our good friend, the Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning, whom I’d known since I was born. When my mom left the table for a few minutes to use the restroom, Dorothea said to me, out of the blue, “Do you think the reason you’ve loved your mother so much is that she’s so beautiful?”

I was a bit stunned and depressed by this question. The answer was no, definitely not. And yet, once posed, that question troubled me, and made me wonder if, on a subconscious level, my great love for my mother might have been partly caused by her beauty. I hoped not—and I very much doubted it. She had always been a warm, loving person—nurturing, passionate about animals, and adored by everyone. The eye operations she encouraged me to have were what most loving parents would have encouraged their children to have if they’d been in the same position. I’m glad my eye was straightened. As for removing four of my permanent teeth, that was a common procedure at the time, and the dentist had made a persuasive case.

A few years later, I met a man whom I soon became interested in romantically. Nothing physical had happened between us yet, but things were going in that direction. When he visited my apartment for the first time and was gazing up at a beautiful fashion photo of my mother, taken by Irving Penn, he said, “It must be hard to have a mother who’s that beautiful.”

“No, not at all,” I said, surprised by his comment. “It’s been great. I’ve always been very proud of her.” And I meant it.

Things did not go further between that man and me.

Several years later, I noticed a disturbing pattern: many of the things I wrote about in my first three novels later came true in my life. For example, in my first novel, I wrote about a character getting a fatal brain tumor, and soon afterward, one of my best friends got a brain tumor and eventually died. I almost felt as though I had caused this tragedy by simply writing about it. In my second novel, my main character falls in love with a weather scientist who looks like Jon Bon Jovi. They have a strange and tumultuous relationship. Not long afterward, I was at a literary party and in came a man who looked like Jon Bon Jovi. I introduced myself. He was an astrophysicist. We had a passionate but stormy romantic relationship for a year. And in my third novel, the main character suffers from an ailment I’d never experienced nor heard of and thought I’d made up: she finds herself, to a painful degree, wanting nothing; she has lost her desire for all things. Soon after, the same disorder befell me—turns out it’s a symptom of depression, called anhedonia.

None of my novels had been autobiographical, but after writing them, I was starting to feel that while I wasn’t writing from life; life was writing from me.

So is it any wonder that, when the time came to write my fourth novel, I decided to fill it with good things? I didn’t mean to write a whole novel about beauty. It started out as a detail, an incidental attribute I playfully bestowed on my main character on the off chance that it might rub off on me, if not physically, then maybe at least psychologically—which would be almost as good. After all, finding oneself beautiful when one is not: Is that not the next best thing to actually being beautiful? And the detail grew. Before I knew it, I was writing a fictional meditation on beauty—a disapproval of it, but also a celebration of it. I admire beauty, both the straightforward kind—possessed by my mother—and the more subtle, magical kind that is hidden in ugliness and emerges slowly, but only to some eyes. I’ve often been able to see great beauty in physical ugliness and have not understood why not everyone could.

In case anyone is wondering how the experiment turned out, here’s the result: despite my track record with my past novels partially coming true, this did not happen with beauty. I spent the past few years writing “The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty” (it comes out in February), which required me every day to imagine myself in the skin of a main character who is gorgeous, and yet there has not been a detectable improvement in my physical appearance. I did not even acquire a delusion of an improvement, which would have been nice. The explanation must surely be that the effect was cancelled out by another character I couldn’t resist putting in the novel—a young woman so ugly that she can’t find love. Even her extraordinary talent can’t make up for the disadvantages that she suffers at the hands of her ugliness.

For many people, even intelligent and brilliant ones, why does beauty count for more than anything else in their appreciation of other human beings—particularly of women? Why don’t other qualities count for more? And yet, am I not one of the culprits? For every scene expressing my disapproval of someone’s love of beauty, I wrote another scene in which I took great pleasure in imagining and describing that beauty. I revelled in my love of human beauty while frowning upon that love every step of the way.