I’ll Have a Double

Today I launch my public Facebook page as Barbara Black—writer. A page which exists like a mirror-image in virtual land facing the other me, the so-called “private” me on my personal Facebook page. Together we form a “we” that may or may not be me, but which partially is. Which brings me to the matter of mirrors, doubles, and doppelgängers.

The doppelgänger, or “double goer”, a replica of you. Same face, voice, walk, soul—well, we’re not sure about that part. It pops up in movies and literature as the lurking look-alike, the other you just around the corner whose footfalls sound just like yours, only as an echo. It pursues you or you pursue it. Sometimes the double competes with you or impersonates you. Or portends your death. They rarely want to shake hands and be friends. Think Dostoevsky’s “The Double,” or the films “Black Swan” or “The Prestige.” Or the famous Müller poem where the speaker’s double stands outside his once beloved’s house, mocking the speaker’s anguish over his lost love. Most stories about doubles are inevitably described as “haunting.”

The famous playwright Goethe recounted a moment when he and his double passed one another on horseback. I saw my own quasi-doppelgänger once at a bus stop in Ottawa. Twice, actually. I was on the bus in a window seat riding through the sleety streets when…there he was. Standing by the curb. Yes, he. Blonde, same age range, same height and body type (minus the female features). The same—how can I say—gaze. When I looked out at him I saw me. He did not get on the bus. As it pulled away he glanced at me but his expression never changed. I saw him again a few weeks later at the same stop and again he did not board the bus. Thereafter he haunted me as if he were planted there for the express purpose of unsettling my existence. Yes, it’s all a bit Hitchcockian isn’t it?

My own double was unsettling, but other people’s, while they look like their counterparts, sometimes have vastly different personalities, usually not the meek or cheerful countenance of their look-alike but something bolder or more sinister. That is the thing. It’s like looking at your reflection minus your personality.

My father, an intelligent man who suffers from dementia, has recently developed an intense dislike of his own reflection. This is a common effect of the disease. When he sees himself, he says, “That guy, I hate his guts.” He thinks the man steals his hat, because of course, the man is wearing it, too. So my father scowls evilly at the man. And, of course, the man scowls back, reinforcing his theory. In this case, my father’s reflection has become distrustful, to be feared. It strikes me as a strange and disturbing phenomenon to no longer recognize your own reflection. But it raises questions.

For example, does it really matter? Ultimately, if we never consulted a mirror or other reflective surface we would still have our own private sense of who we were, but not an accurate visual representation. But we don’t know that. In this case we would never be frightened by our doubles. But then again, we might see others who don’t actually resemble us but who match our inner sense of what we look like. These things keep me up at night.

So, welcome to “Public Me.” And do look over your shoulder when in dark alleys.