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The Atlantic Monthly, June 1999, Notes & Comment

The Mirror of Dorian Gray, by Cullen Murphy

Mirrors never lie, they say. But how much truth do we really want?

Freud. Durkheim. Levi-Strauss. Mead. Lorenz. Bettelheim. Spock. Skinner. And now the Walter siblings, of Manhattan, whose names may one day join these others on the edifice of self-understanding. John Walter, whose background is in physics and computer science, and Catherine Walter, whose background is in cultural anthropology, are the progenitors of the Hair Part Theory, and exploration of psycho-behavioral dynamics to which a friend recently drew my attention. The Hair Part Theory states:

The way a person parts [his or her] hair is related to many subconscious associations when assessed by others. Each hair part type initiates cycles of behavior toward, and response from, the individual. Over time, these cycles affect personality development.

The underlying premise of the Hair Part Theory is that parting one's hair on the left calls subliminal attention to left-hemisphere brain processes - associated with logic, verbal acuity, and "activities traditionally attributed to masculinity in our culture" - and tends to be regarded as natural for men. Similarly, parting one's hair on the right evokes right-hemisphere processes - associated with visual, artistic, and musical skills, and "nonlinear tasks traditionally attributed to femininity in our culture" - and tends to be regarded as natural for women.

I don't intend to get drawn into a debate on differences between the sexes: the Hair Part Theory has to do with cultural perceptions, not biological realities. The Walters' point is merely that the "wrong" hair part can play against type, sometimes in a way that proves subtly advantageous but more often in a way that creates vague discomfort in onlookers and may lead to being shunned. Being shunned, in turn, may reinforce eccentricity and other abnormal behavior.

Margaret Thatcher's left-side part supposedly enhanced her aura of strength and will: Hillary Clinton's left-side part seems to produce a more brittle version of the same effect. The right-side parts of Robert Kennedy, Laurence Olivier, Gary Cooper, and Lou Gehrig added an intriguingly soft dimension to otherwise solid, confident personas. But Jimmy Carter's right-side part may have reinforced perceptions of inadequacy: he didn't switch hair-part side to the left until halfway through his presidency - too late. Overall, six American Presidents maintained right-side parts throughout their term in office; three of them (James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Warren G. Harding) are deemed by historians to be among our worst, and two others (John Tyler and Chester Arthur) are deemed to be inconsequential. (The sixth was Ronald Reagan.) Bill Clinton's brushed-back coiffure defies rigid analysis, but manifests a "right emphasis." Other well-known right-parters: Major Frank Burns, of M*A*S*H: John Tesh: MAD magazine's Alfred E. Neuman: Al Gore: Macaulay Culkin: Regis Philbin. In the movies Clark Kent parts his hair on the right. Appropriately, Superman parts his hair on the left. The origins of the Hair Part Theory lie in John Walter's adolescence, when he remedied a seemingly intractable deficiency in social standing by the simple expedient of changing his hair part from right to left. Simultaneously, Walter experienced an epiphany regarding the insidious role played by the common household mirror, which had shown him in reverse all those years.

Moved by his experience, Walter embarked on a crusade to create a mirror that would show objects not in reverse but as they actually appear to observers - an effect one sometimes encounters accidentally through a freak alignment of mirrors in a hotel bathroom. A patent for a nonreversing mirror had in fact been issued in England, in 1887; an actual prototype has never been found and may never have been made. Walter tacked the problem anew. The result is the True Mirror, which "shows you what you look like to others" and thus "allows you to gain an accurate sense of yourself."

Not long ago, finding myself in New York City, where the Walter siblings have set up a workshop, I decided to buy a True Mirror. The workshop fronted on a dark alley a block or so off Broadway, near City Hall. [The new shop is located in the East Village] Following Catherine Walter's instructions, I called from a pay phone nearby. She brought my mirror down to the street. It is a bulky, heavy object in a deep, boxlike frame: a precise opposition of two ordinary mirrors is required to create the correct effect. The True Mirror will not soon be available for use with handbag cosmetics, or, unless you are a hippopotamus, in dental instruments.

My new mirror came with an assortment of testimonials. "So that's what I look like! I look better than I thought" "It is like looking at someone who looks familiar, but who I've never seen before." "Is this really who I am? My entire persona is 180 degrees from my own perception." "Thank you! This is the correction of life-long deception of other mirrors." "I saw a person I'm not sure I know, but would like to."

In an ordinary mirror your right eye stares at your right eye and your left eye at your left eye - the opposite of the right-left, left-right connection we employ for assessing one another in the wild. The image in a True Mirror can come as something of a shock. You tend to look the way you do in photographs, which for many people is also a shock. (This is the flop side of the start you sometimes get when looking at the reflected image of someone you are accustomed to seeing in person.) A newspaper headline held up to a True Mirror doesn't appear backward - it reads just fine. But your own face may seem oddly asymmetrical. Facial mannerisms nurtured in front of a normal mirror (that shy, knowing smile of bemusement tinged with mystery) may in a True Mirror be revealed in a different light (a flaccid gash of self-doubt). "It is a wholly new view for many," the True Mirror's promotional literature concedes, "and not surprisingly, some don't like or feel comfortable with the new look." Such people may think they have come upon the Mirror of Dorian Gray.

Another issue: in a True Mirror you seem to have far less control over the figure in the glass than you do in a normal mirror. If you turn to the right in front of a normal mirror, the image turns with you and ends up facing in the same direction, completing the visual palindrome. In a True Mirror the image faces the other way, as if you were about to begin pacing off for a duel with yourself; and when you take a step, the image steps away from you. In a normal mirror your reflected finger comes out to meet your real one until they touch, like Michelangelo's God and Adam. In a True Mirror the reflected finger comes at you from the other side of the glass, as if pointed by the other hand. Ordinarily, you have no difficulty looking at a normal mirror and guiding your hand to an object reflected in it. Try this with a True Mirror, and your grasp will prove errant. Shaving becomes a blood sport. If all the rearview mirrors in America's cars were suddenly replaced by True Mirrors, there could be a very special episode of ER.

The True Mirror is intended to restore a sense of reality; in truth it adds elements of perplexity to an object that offers plenty of them already. Mirrored images have always been a reliable portal into the twilight zone - the tradition runs from the myth of Narcissus through Lewis Carroll to Groucho's mirrorlike transaction with Chico in Duck Soup. London's National Gallery last year mounted an extraordinary show, pulled together by the director and critic Jonathan Miller, called "Mirror Image," which traced the influence of mirrors in Western art - real mirrors, implied mirrors, reflections, reversals, glints of light on apples and eyes. Rene Magritte's La Reproduction Interdite was there - the famous painting that shows a man looking at the back of his own head in a mirror. Some lesser-known works are more quietly preposterous. A sixteenth-century painting by Hans Suess von Kulmbach shows God seated in heaven: why does the crystal orb in his hand reflect a mullioned window?

In the book that accompanied the exhibit, On Reflection, Miller notes that the size of the mirrors in paintings has gradually grown larger over the centuries - indicating some combination of ascendant Western Hubris and self-discovery, no doubt, but also the simple fact that technological progress has made bigger mirrors possible. The Russians have been planning to build an array of giant space mirrors to serve as artificial moons and provide extra light during long northern winters. (The first of these experimental mirrors was launched into space in February, but failed to unfold.) The largest reflecting surface of all my eventually be the entire planet, if one doomsday scenario comes to pass. Were the polar ice cap ever to reach a latitude as far south as Boston, something called the albedo effect would kick in: the amount of solar energy reflected out of the atmosphere (and therefore not retained by the earth) would increase so dramatically that the rest of the earth would freeze over in a snap.

Reflectivity is about surface images, and especially about images over which one can exercise some control. But control over image may have reached a high point from which it is rapidly receding. The future belongs not to reflectivity but to "transparency." The idea crops up everywhere now, the word "transparent" being used metaphorically to mean some combination of "visible through and through," "totally aboveboard," and "what you see is what you get." A non-profit organization called Transparency International now produces an annual Corruption Perception Index - a survey that tracks public impressions of the extent of venality in some eighty-five countries. A New York Times story describing a murder last year on Vatican soil, and raising questions about the integrity of the investigation, noted that the secular world "remains deeply suspicious of the Vatican's commitment to modern standards of transparency." The U.S. Treasury has proposed the creation of an "international transparency standard" for global financial dealings. To highlight what one newspaper commentary calls "postwar Germany's overriding preoccupation with transparency," the new dome on the rebuilt Reichstag building is made entirely of glass.

As the Reichstag example suggests, the notion of transparency is fast moving from the metaphoric to the literal to the surreal. Last year the Gill & Lagodich gallery, in New York, Mounted an exhibit devoted to picture frames, titled "One Hundred Years on the Edge." The frames were hung empty, creating seductive windows onto a void. The recent news that a team of scientists in Massachusetts had succeeded in artificially slowing the speed of light (to thirty-eight miles an hour) apparently heralds another triumph of transparency. According to press reports, the slowdown somehow means that the opacity-piercing night goggles of superior power will now become a reality. More ominous, Attorney General Janet Reno is looking into establishing a national DNA registry, even as computer makers press to encode all digital information with identifying user tags - measures that threaten to raise transparency in the form of personal permeability to an unprecedented level. Commenting on the implications, the chairman of Sun Microsystems stated simply, "You already have zero privacy - get over it."

Given what transparency has in store for us, we may look back on the Age of the True Mirror, and the Hair Part Theory, with a certain wistfulness. When we do, a corpus of social-science research will be available for study. Catherine Walter has been relentlessly gathering data. Her analysis of hair-part side and nationwide electoral patterns is already complete. One highlight: as of last fall, the ranks of governors, senators, and representatives were devoid of right-siders in fifteen states, mostly in the "rugged cowboy" West or in the "highly traditional" New England. "When I pulled that map together," Catherine Walter says, "it was like, 'Whoa!' " Walter maintains an ambitious roster of future research tasks, including a study of high school yearbook photographs since 1900 to tabulate hair-part trends, and, more tentatively, a study of correlation between hair-part side and Myers-Briggs personality type.

The Walters will continue to spread the word about hair parts and the True Mirror. They turn up at trade shows, and maintain a Web site (www.truemirror.com). They fully understand that their work is delicate. "Men in particular are reluctant to change their hair part," Catherine observes, "and you can't just begin walking up to people in the street." No, but if you call from a pay phone nearby, she'll be happy to come down.

Illustration by Greg Clark