I first met Jennifer May Reiland a couple years ago, when I was living in a tiny, cramped apartment in the West Village. Transitional housing. We'd been introduced by a mutual friend, and Jennifer was wavering on whether to hop on a flight to Hong Kong on an adventure some might consider reckless. I'd just visited not too long ago, and without prompting I gave her the Octopus card they use for their subway systems. Go, I said without hesitation, giving her the colorful card.
We had a lovely time after her visit; talking about the idealistic life of an artist, of a woman who wasn't bound to any one or thing. Fast forward a couple of years, she's still on adventures, currently living in Majorca, Spain, and creating consistently beautiful and meaningful art work. She is one of the most inspiring, free-spirited girls that I know, and I'm so happy to share her work here, an excerpt from a piece entitled "The Colony". It explores how intimately beauty and the concept of womanhood are intertwined, and the way beauty is constantly reflected, manipulated and utilized in mirrors and screens in modern society today.
"The Colony", An Excerpt from her novel Doppelgängers, by Jennifer May Reiland. All artwork is her own.
As a teenager, I was studious and very shy. I spent most of high school in the library, reading about biology. I was like a stork, a carpenter ant, a bacteria. I saw myself in the phenomena of nature, but I couldn't recognize any similarities between myself and my classmates. They were the fireflies I read about whose blinks of light synchronized over the course of an evening. In the hallways and the cafeteria, they all flared on and off in unison. I wasn't lonely; I was very self-sufficient. I never worried about other people's opinions of me, and I was never happier than when I was alone reading or working on a scientific problem. I knew I wasn't pretty, so I never thought about it. Other, older girls were beauties, and I admired them without envy. I never pined to be beautiful.
But in the summer before my senior year of high school, everything changed. It's an old story. By some sort of alchemical rearrangement, my features changed from being odd to being striking. Without gaining a pound, I went from being skinny to being willowy. For the first time, men started telling me I was beautiful. In the beginning, I didn't believe them, but with enough repetition I began to suspect they were right. Then I began to count upon it. Then I began to worry. In a few short months, I passed immediately from indifference to my looks to anxiety about them, with no pleasure in between. Having suddenly been granted beauty, I was terrified that it would be taken away from me.
Every glance in a mirror was an occasion for anxiety and doubt. Was I really beautiful? Better never to look in mirrors. Like a vampire, I avoided them. I began to compare myself with every girl I passed on the street. Are her thighs skinnier? Her lips, fuller? Her eyes, prettier? Often I wished I had stayed unremarkable. I saw a new side of myself that I did not like. In addition to the shy and serious girl that I had always been, there was a new person inside me, hungry for attention and contemptuous of the people that gave it to her. Before, I knew no one and liked everyone. Now the reverse was true. The popular kids at school told me that they “didn't know how they had never noticed me before” and my father's friends were suddenly sweaty and uncomfortable in my presence, wiping their foreheads and rearranging their belts. One cornered me in the church pantry on Good Friday and tried to convince me to run away with him. I was discreetly invited to dinner by many of our town's pathetic big-shots— mid-level oil executives and local politicians
I quickly realized I had a specific type of sex appeal—it made boys my own age terrified and tongue-tied, and men my father's age fantasize about leaving their wives. Middle-aged women glared at me when I swam laps at the public swimming pool. Their husbands smiled at me over the candles and wine glasses as they told me they “wanted to show me the finer things in life” (restaurants where you held your fork in your left hand, hotels with room service). They “wanted to help me” with what they euphemistically termed “my career.” I made fun of them, often to their faces, but I let them buy me dinner and spend the night with me. It was more interesting than staying home, where my dad was watching football and my mom was reading grocery-store religious books. I wanted to see what would happen. Nothing interesting had ever happened to me before, and I was drunk on my own story, which I retold each night in bed—reviewing my life as a plain, precocious schoolgirl, then counting up, with wonder, the men whose hearts I had broken, the number who had said they would leave everything for me, the ones I had slept with and never called back. I made myself the heroine of an imaginary novel, which was half A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and half Nana. My favorite thing to do was to open Photobooth on my laptop, moments after returning home from a sexual encounter, and look at my own face. The fear I felt about looking the mirror disappeared then, and I saw my own face as that of a hero, a shy girl changing into conqueror. That's the face of a girl who can get anything she wants, I thought.
The new world I was entering, the world of the Beautiful Girls, was fascinating, but it also terrified me. My life had changed so quickly that I waited, worried, for it to change back. I was happy to be the center of attention but the way everyone's behavior toward me had changed disgusted me, and gave me a lifelong distrust of other people. I saw them for liars and small-town-hypocrites that they were and I more or less despised everyone. I saw them as subjects to conquer. I had already learned to be self-sufficient when I was plain and alone; I continued being self-sufficient when people surrounded me. Yet, because I was enjoying the benefits they gave me and afraid of losing them, I was obsessed with their opinion of me.
As a teenager, I saw a gulf opening up between the real me and the “me” other people saw. By 24, the gulf was an ocean.
So I established myself as an island nation, requiring supplies from the outside world but feeling little interest in the people across the seas. In creating my online identity, I annexed a digital colony for the less productive parts of my personality. These parts were: my avarice; my narcissism; my desire for attention; my frivolity; but most of all my contempt for anyone who desired me. I felt that these parts of myself were beginning to strangle the good within me. I hoped that by creating an alternate online self who personified my bad qualities, I could have an outlet for them. I could let the dangerous parts of my personality run wild online, saving me from their tyranny. I could be normal. I could be happy.
The criminal elements of my mind were rounded up and sent overseas, where there was fertile land and money to be made. My porn site was my colony—there, I erected massive structures that almost perfectly imitated the structures of myself. I was not a human anymore. I was an empire. The money sailed in; boatloads of plunder were laid at my feet and natives gave themselves to me to keep as slaves. I took what I wanted from them and threw their bones in the ocean. I needed no one. The website became a perfect imitation of the real thing. As is usual in such arrangements, the criminal elements of my personality were not long satisfied with doing all the work and watching their civilized overlord profit. The parts of myself that I had intended to protect began to be overrun. My online identity became my Doppelgänger, confronting me in the mirror and tempting me to evil.
I stopped reading. I stopped being polite to strangers. I stopped hiding my job from my family. When my parents stopped talking to me, I started sending them monthly checks. They were all cashed. I had long ago decided that the online version of myself must be glittering and hard. Naturally shy and submissive, my online persona attracted attention because of its brazenness. The old me responded with lengthy hesitance to direct questions; the new me spoke only in crisp quips. I dismissed everyone, unless they had money in their hands. I spent hours studying my own videos, seeing the image of myself as an independent entity. I was attracted to myself, but only when I saw myself in a video. My own body seen without the intermediary of a screen disgusted me. Looking down, I saw flabby, blemished flesh; looking up and into the screen, I saw unattainable beauty.
My body is not a temple; it's my business. Pharisees banned, moneylenders welcome. I attended some college courses in Biology and Chemical Engineering, then stopped going. The colony was my future, not the Academy and the Old World. I checked my page-views every fifteen minutes, then every fifteen seconds. I bought a big loft apartment in the West Village, like an investment banker or a Condé Nast editor. I became incapable of leaving home without an iPhone and headphones with which to separate myself from the unconquered and unwashed continent that threatened my isolation every time I boarded a train or entered a supermarket.
Before long, the revolution was complete and my corporeal presence was entirely defined by my online persona. I felt like an Old World power, looking across the ocean through its pince-nez at its former colony with a mix of pride and horror. I began to feel that all the qualities that I used to love about myself were signs of weakness. Under the wide skies of the New World, there is room for everything except humility.
I had a laboratory built in my apartment to conduct experiments of my own design. The workmen I hired to build it looked over their shoulders at me and snickered. I guessed they had seen photos of me online. I snickered right back at them. Then I paid them, and off they went. It's lovely being rich. Alone in my finished laboratory, I looked over my equipment and up, through the window, to the skyscrapers which blocked the sun. The first time I saw Notre Dame, I understood at once why medieval French peasants believed in God. Arriving in Paris to sell their produce, they confronted an object whose complexity must have been incomprehensible. The great cathedral would have seemed to them impossible for men alone to construct—more like a mountain than a bowl or a plow. Face-to-face with this mystery of beauty and nature, how could they not believe in God?
But when I saw skyscrapers, I only believed in man.
Often I stayed up all night in the laboratory, smoking cigarettes, performing experiments and giving in to increasingly wild ideas. But however fantastical my ideas seemed when they first entered my head, they were, upon reflection, not so far outside the boundaries of what science could accomplish. And my ideas were quickly resolving themselves into one, great Idea.
My mother's family was German. Her grandparents had arrived on Galveston Island by ship, carrying one small suitcase in each hand and the Old World on their backs. When they died, it fell to the ground, breaking into a million little pieces that cut the feet of the progeny walking behind them. I was raised with their Old World tales of changelings, swan princes, mad kings, and, above all, Doppelgängers
My favorite: Once upon a time there was once a woodsman who came upon a pregnant woman in the forest. A demon had her by the hair, and was trying to drag her underground with him. Without a word, the woodsman chopped the demon's head off and saved the woman. He carried her to his nearby cottage and then went into the village to seek her husband. The woodsman found him in bed with the woman's Doppelgänger. Without a word, the woodsman chopped the Doppelgänger's head off and told the husband that she was an imposter. Together, the two men hurried to the woodsman's house, where the husband was united with his true wife. They lived happily ever after.
I could never explain why I liked this story. There was little plot to it, and less logic, but I still begged my mother to tell it to me again and again. The pagan Doppelgänger stories she told were at odds with her fanatical evangelical Christianity, but she didn't see any contradiction. Her mother had told her these stories as a child, and they were buried much deeper inside of her than even the religion was.
Like me, she adored stories of Doppelgängers most of all. Perhaps this myth endured so powerfully within our family because it was how my great-grandparents saw themselves. In their immigrant solitude, they comforted themselves by giving their fantasies of the fatherland a corporeal presence. Set adrift in a strange new country, they imagined another version of themselves, living out a simpler life in Germany. They struggled to expel the strange English words from their mouths; they boarded great reeking iron trains; they endured the snickers of American neighbors; and all the while, they imagined their true selves, breathing the clean, sweet air of a Bavarian forest. They themselves were the Doppelgängers, cursed to wander the earth forever. And we, their progeny, found ourselves to be split too.
My grandmother, a bundle of bonbon-dispensing cheer, hung herself when I was 12. In the moment before her neck broke, did she dream that her husband would awake holding her true self in his arms? My great-uncle joined the American army in '41 enthusiastically planning to kill the Huns. He deserted in Germany the day Berlin fell. He wasn't heard from until '89. My mother, with her blonde hair and long legs and tales of sex and murder, was terrified of all real-life passions. Each night, she huddled anxiously under a blanket reading scripture.
And, of course, there was me.
I had long ago begun to think of the version of myself that existed online as my Doppelgänger. The more energy I poured into her, the less was left for me. A creeping sixth sense (proprioception, perhaps) whispered to me that my Doppelgänger was more than a virtual reality. She was beginning to replace me within my own body. When I watched her performances online, I knew I was not looking at myself: I was watching an entirely different person. Now, sometimes when I looked in the mirror, I saw her instead of me. I was not looking into my own eyes, but into the eyes of someone else: a stranger growing inside my own body. I woke up from nightmares where the two of us roiled and jostled inside one hollow, stretched-out shell of skin. In the fluorescent-lit nights in my laboratory, I began to tell myself that the two of us could not exist much longer within one body. And so I (or was it her?) began to imagine building my Doppelgänger a body of her own. I fantasized about creating it in the laboratory. Her personality already existed within me, and if she had a physical body to inhabit, both sides of myself would be freed to pursue their own course through the world. It was the next step of the idea that had animated me when I created my webpage: my Doppelgänger would be an outlet for the dark side of my personality, and the good, pure, true me I knew still existed would be freed. I felt myself to be at once woodsman, woman and demon.
Like a rebel colonial general trained in the Academy, I employed my Old World knowledge against itself as I planned the revolution. I returned to my biology books and used my dirty New World money to buy expensive equipment for the laboratory. As my old self contemplated the calm, peaceful world that would emerge with the transformation, my new self smelled blood and tyranny over the masses. There was still a great deal of work to be done, and much to learn. Considering the work of other scientists which I had to build upon, I estimated that it would take three years of hard work to arrive at success.
I veered wildly between thinking of the Doppelgänger as a villain containing everything bad and a hero containing everything good. I attributed this ambivalence to the thoughts of myself and of my Doppelgänger wrestling in my mind. When she was on top, the Doppelgänger was good; when I was on top, it was evil. The more work I put into the project, the more my Doppelgänger triumphed within my own mind. I considered the project not just my own salvation, but the salvation of humanity itself. The being I was creating would be the rebirth of humanity, better and stronger than any being that had come before her, with more durable skin, a more powerful heart, and a more efficient mind. Suddenly my thoughts cleared to one, and I knew it was true. In her creation, I thought, is contained the death of our species—once she exists, human beings will be obsolete.
I trained myself in nanotechnology and the emerging possibilities of biological-electrical hybrids. I would use DNA material and digital engineering to create a Doppelgänger that would, according to my growing certainty, contain all the best of humanity. The speed, the action, the free will, with none of the laziness, hesitance, or passivity that afflicted me. In every way perfect and in every way my opposite.