Both parts of my first name are associated with love: Amy comes from the French word aimée, or beloved. According to both the history of literature and most of the bouquets on offer at various florists/gas stations nationwide, roses are symbols of rrrromance. My last name, Spiegel, means mirror. For a long time, the combination of the three amounted to a fitting title for how I behaved in relationships. In high school, I tried to suss out what my partners considered the behavior of a DREAMGIRL, then did my best to imitate it. This didn’t require me to change my personality so much as to reduce it. While I made those subtractions, I was very quiet about my actual heart.
If there were some equivalent to porn for loneliness, the various fake-o ideal women I embodied would have been total stars of the medium. I got used to being Amy Rose: This One Dude’s Fantasy Edition. She was a mutable character—she changed depending on whom she was talking to, but her lines always included something like: “Yes, Craig. I also think there is such a thing as ‘the good Burger King’ in town and also ‘alternative comedy,’ and I appreciate and agree with your strident views on each. Do go on about the history of every Eric Clapton album. I’m so impressed you know so much about him—and that you have the lung capacity to deconstruct his oeuvre for hours on end!” (Wait…I just realized there is an equivalent to porn for loneliness. It’s called porn. Plus also maybe every inane movie where a female love interest’s taste in a band is considered a majorly telling character trait. There goes THAT billion-dollar idea).
Of course, refashioning yourself into someone else’s idea of the perfect girl/partner/friend isn’t a choice that you make all by yourself, even when you realize what you’re doing, which I did not at the time. Someone has to throw you a line, and you’ve got to catch it. This was easy enough—imaginary feminine ideals aren’t all that dynamic, personality-wise. (This is because they are pretend.) Every time you feel an urge to talk about yourself, you just swallow that urge and go on imitating the preferences/opinions/personality of the other person.
With one high school boyfriend who idolized Trey Parker and Matt Stone, I would casually drop that I had won the official trivia contest they used to run on the South Park website each week (NO AUTOGRAPHS PLEASE). The next dude, an adjunct literature professor with a hot, judgmental face, found the show “puerile,” so he never heard an ort from my vast database of Butters-centric erudition—instead, he got Amy Rose: How True, Thomas Mann DOES Rule Edition. I was never all the way phony, since I meant these things when I said them, but I was…selective in what I chose to reveal, in a way I now find dubious and unnecessary.
On its own, choosing not to disclose that you know the name of the Christian rock band that some fictional children were in for one episode of a cartoon (“Faith + 1,” doye) isn’t a grave betrayal, but imagine editing out of your biography anything that might not be 100 percent attractive to someone else, including things far more complex in nature than South Park (maybe). It’s bizarre at best and toxically insecure at worst. (Plus, I should have ALWAYS been proud of the Cartman boxer shorts I fought so hard to win! “We teach girls to shrink themselves,” etc.)
Hearing that you are capable of making someone happy can be a dangerous comfort. Why would I want to be my ACTUAL SELF when I could be, as one boyfriend once described me, “a girl too wondrous to be of flesh and blood”? (At 15, this was a sterling thing to hear.) The only rule of being a dreamgirl: Do not reveal your feelings or be vulnerable in any way. Since no one can totally obscure her selfhood, I allowed myself the occasional joke or wry comment, but I kept everything VERY light.
Between the ages of 0 and 17, sharing anything about myself was dangerous—sometimes emotionally, sometimes practically, sometimes both at once—because my “situation at home” was…perfect! (What if someone actually ended that sentence that way in a personal essay sometime? I would love them with my whole entire life, for the rest of my entire life, and not even in my ineffectual mirror way, either.) No, it was fraught and terrifying, because my parents were addicts, and I wasn’t allowed to talk about how sad I was or anything else involving my feelings without upsetting them, because addicts, as a rule, do not “talk.” This is still a very hard lesson for me to unlearn.
While being brought up to see communication as a form of weakness contributes to the urge to turn yourself into a mirror, anyone can do it! You don’t have to have a grim “situation at home” to want to kowtow to that self-conscious “whatever YOU want!” impulse. You can just be a teenage girl going to high school, or walking down the sidewalk, or otherwise thinking and feeling and breathing among other thinking, feeling, breathing beings. Cool, huh? One afternoon when I was 15, I was in the car with some friends when the guy driving announced, “If Amy opens her mouth one more time, I’m pulling over.” Was he kidding? He was not, he assured me. I walked home, reprising in my head a mini-quiz I gave myself each day, I guess to keep my insecurities nice and sharp: What had I done wrong, besides everything? I felt that way a lot, wherever I was.
By hiding all the potentially unsavory aspects of my character—grievous flaws like enthusiasm, curiosity, et al.—I got to be “a goddess,” instead of the clumsy, ineloquent public nuisance I felt like. There was lots of power in that. There’s a concept in game theory called “backward induction” where you look at a result you want—for me, this was to be seen as an ENCHANTING BEACON OF PURE INTRIGUE, CAMARADERIE, AND TWINSHIP OF THE HEART, and, consequently, to never have to worry about being alone—and map out the steps, from last to first, leading up to that desired outcome. Then you follow them in the regular direction. When a girlfriend I had as a teenager was super into Jewel, I took part in a ritual where we sat in the bath listening to Pieces of You for hours, which would have been fine, except that I privately thought Jewel was the aural equivalent of stale B.O. that someone had tried, in vain, to mask with patchouli. I had sex with guys in ways that didn’t turn me on because I knew they liked certain things more than others. I periodically administered tea and painkillers to one dopehead boyfriend’s terrible jam band as I sat through hour after hour of practice, nodding along to their guitar progressions. In every situation, I was agreeable, but mostly, I wasn’t there at all. (This probably worked in my favor at the band practices, but isn’t advisable in any of the other scenarios.)