Reflections inspire much of my work, both in my photography and in my writing. I’m much more intrigued by the subject’s reflection than I am by the subject itself.
My maternal grandmother Luba Abramanova (made Lilly on 1922 Ellis Island) maintained an uncomfortable truce with mirrors and cameras, anything that would reflect her image. Mirrors served an occasionally necessary function and were to be barely tolerated. Shop windows and reflecting pools were easily avoided. Cameras were–in her estimation–nothing more than mirrors that rudely captured a permanent record of the reflection. We’ve all heard stories about primitive tribes and their superstitious notion that cameras can steal the soul. And then of course we have legends of vampires and their inability to even cast a reflection. Jews have no depictions of humans in their art for fear of violating the Ten Commandment’s prohibition against “idolatry”. Narcissus couldn’t free his own gaze from the reflection in the pool and now he lives in flower pots. Medusa, rendered powerless by her own reflection, was easily slain by Perseus. The mirror defeated the Gorgon. Lilly was clearly on to something important.
Other than the customary bathroom cabinet mirror, the only other mirror in Lilly’s home was a huge Venetian smoked glass decorative mirror hanging over her living room couch at an angle rather than flat against the wall. The mirror was unapproachable. Tilting off the wall as it did, it seemed an odd position for such a big and ominous slab of glass and as a child I often wondered when it would come crashing down on the sofa and some foolish shortsighted victim. For that reason, I never sat on the sofa. If all the chairs were taken at a family gathering, I would sit on the floor pretending to be an Indian. Adults would buy that and think it cute.
Occasionally someone would comment on the Venetian mirror’s limited decorative role. Why not hang a painting instead? Between the odd angle, the couch that kept you at a distance from the mirror and the muted lighting in the living room, you really couldn’t see your own reflection in any practical sense. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I realized that the mirror was deliberately angled in that manner so that Lilly could see the dress she was wearing, but not her own face. She had hung the mirror according to her own height so that her reflection was effectively cut off at the head.
Years before Joan Rivers and Michael Jackson came on the scene, Lilly was a pioneer in the realm of plastic surgery. And, unlike Michael, her career as a prostitute and madam did not require the spotlight of publicity, the adoration of paparazzi and promotional photography. My grandmother believed, and rightfully so, that without a photographic record, people would forget last year’s nose, the coming and going of crow’s feet and the sagging and then not sagging chin and neck. She also believed that the less she looked at herself in the mirror, the more likely she was to forget the changes herself. She truly believed in this act of self-deception. Lilly did not want to watch herself aging. At appropriate times, she would “vacation” for a few weeks at the Eden Roc Resort in Miami Beach and then return to New York more than naturally refreshed.
However, as a very successful femme de joie of many years, Lilly was also quite proud of her merchandise. As a result, she did succumb to the occasional photograph when properly incentivized with flattery and adoration. And if you look closely at those photographs from year to year, you can see the surgeon’s failures, near misses and mostly successes. As a child, I never understood the black eyes. I knew about violence and physical abuse but her boy toys were never the violent type. They may have been stupid, well-endowed or even anti-Semitic but they were never violent. So whence came the bruises?
My mother would brush off my questions about the black eyes with nonsense answers like “she was in a car accident” or “she walked into a wall”. I knew this was code for something and that “something” included “do not inquire further.” But it wasn’t until much later that I understood that Lilly was a plastic surgery junkie. Even as a young boy, I didn’t believe the walking into wall stories, but it would take years for me to understand that my grandmother was allowing men in white coats to crush, tear, stretch and reconstruct her face so that her reflection would always remain lovely.
Vanity was my grandmother’s only real fault–unless you insist on characterizing prostitution as a vice. She struggled with the camera issue, wanting to mug but fearing the historical record. She often looks angry and always uncomfortable in photographs; I can’t really recall any of her smiling which is odd considering that she had a wonderful sense of humor and was often laughing. It didn’t take much to make her laugh and even to the point of tears. Lilly loved flatulence humor and in the world of Russian and Jewish cuisine, serendipitous flatulence was a fairly common occurrence. And yet, there seems to be no photographic record of this wonderful joviality.
But Lilly also had a dark secret, one that she rarely shared. However, she did share it with me. From a very early age, I was her confidant. I was about 10 when she shared this particular secret and I remember how she wept in my arms, suddenly regaining her composure and turning steely. It frightened me. Not the secret, but her reaction. I also learned much from it, both the secret and the reaction.
Lilly would never admit to any degree of defeat or weakness. But she had never forgotten her life as a “princess” in Russia: white lace dresses, playing the balalaika for her family and their friends on a summer’s evening in the garden of their mansion in Irkutsk, French poetry, her handsome uncle, the captain in the Czar’s cavalry; all of it ending on a dreadful day in October when her mother and brother had been butchered by Cossacks and she and her sisters were dragged off to a life of prostitution. An edict had been issued by the Czar and the regional government confiscating the land of all the Jews and banishing them from a not so loving Mother Russia. All Jews were socialists and communists, even the pious and the assimiliated, the poor and, like my grandmother’s family, the wealthy. Lilly’s father was the third generation of a Jewish family that exported Siberian lumber to France and the United Kingdom. In fact, my great grandfather had been in London on business when his family was dragged from their home and mostly butchered, except for his three teenaged daughter, Lea, Luba and Sonia who were sold by the Cossacks into the broethels of Irkutsk. Between 1917 and 1921, the three girls pursued their career in Moscow, Warsaw and eventually Hamburg. In 1922 Hamburg they were rescued by the Jewish Agency and reunited with their father who by that time had made it to safety in New York. Unfortunately, when Luba and her sisters arrived in New York they discovered that their father had lost his fortune during the war and was now penniless. Fortunately, the three girls had acquired some extraordinary skills during that same war and simply opened what became one of the most successful whorehouses in New York’s East Village during the 20s and 30s.
Although Llilly continued to breathe, laugh and live for another 70 years, much of Lilly didn’t survive that day and was safely buried. However, as she explained to me, rare tears blurring her eyes, when she would dare look in a mirror she would see her mother and her brother. She would see the ghosts of that horrible day in Irkutsk. That pain was unbearable.
As I sat by her deathbed in 1977, she complained that plastic surgery had really been a complete and utter waste of time, money and pain. No matter how many attempts she had endured over the decades of her life to change her face, the mirror would always betray her and there, in her own eyes, she would see the saber bearing down on her eight year old brother’s neck and then his blood exploding all over her white lace dress. She told me that she had held onto that dress for many long years in Europe as a most precious possession but that it had been confiscated by immigration health officials on Ellis Island. As a refugee during the Russian Revolution and World War I, in the brothels of Warsaw and Hamburg she had desperately held on to her brother’s blood. On Ellis Island, after screaming and clutching, she decided that it was the price of admission to America and she finally surrendered the bit of lace to a uniform. But in 1977 she still missed the blood; it was all that had remained of her baby brother.
Growing up I soon learned that Lilly’s fear of reflections was an hereditary condition. And I was also a broken work in progress with terrible secrets.
Mirrors reflected the pain in my eyes and the faces of my parents. When I dared to face my refection, I would mostly see my father, sometimes my mother and I would hate them and therefore myself. That face in the mirror was cruel, angry and deranged and it consisted of my mother’s eyes and nose, my father’s chin and mouth and it was also me. At the worst moments, I would think of Lilly and wonder if anyone ever looked in mirrors and felt good and saw happiness? Mine was a childhood of alcoholism and sexual, mental and physical abuse. Reflections became exclamation points. Who were those people in movies who admired their own reflections? in what alien world did they dwell?
And then there was the other secret. Not the vile secrets we as a family kept from the world, but the secret that only I knew, the secret that I kept entirely to myself, the secret I came to believe if revealed would destroy me.
By the age of five I had already begun to sense that I was somehow different from other boys. I didn’t quite relate to their world. as was clearly expected. I would play their games, but never with any enthusiasm and always with detachment. I was an observer not a participant, but I did not understand why and I had no one to ask.
Within months of my first orgasm, at the age of 11, I came to more clearly understand that the difference and my sense of alienation stemmed from the simple fact that I desired an intimacy and connection with other boys that they did not share. In fact, my peers were beginning to touch themselves and talk about girls. I loved the touching themselves part, but not the girls part.
I really don’t remember when I first came to realize that my difference needed to remain hidden, but I think that it had to do with the fact that I’d been sexually molested at the age of seven. When I had gone to my mother for help she made it painfully clear to me that it was of no interest to her, it was not something to be discussed and, moreover, it was likely my fault and also my responsibility to resolve. And she reminded me that if I bothered my father with it, he would likely beat me.
To “comfort” me, my mother told me a story about how her zedeh, Yiddish for grandfather, had extinguished cigarettes on her 12-year-old breasts until she would allow him to masturbate with his fingers between her thighs. She had learned to keep this to herself out of love and respect for the venerable old man. “I should learn from that,” she explained. Strangely, while I found this story to be terribly frightening as a young boy, I could not comprehend why my great grandfather needed to place his fingers between my mother’s thighs in order to masturbate. At one point I remember thinking that it might be another of those strange things from the Torah, like not eating shrimp, waving your hands mysteriously over candles and kissing those old scrolls in the synagogue.
Some months after my first orgasm, I had a revelation. Boys moved in certain ways. I found these mannerisms to be quite attractive and arousing, but I sensed that I did not naturally manifest the same physical behavior. I studied myself in the mirror in an attempt to practice being a normal boy. I strutted in front of the mirror like the other boys. I even bounced a ball like the other boys but it would inevitably hit me in the face–not because I was gay but because it’s very difficult to bounce a ball while you’re looking in a mirror. The point is that my ball bouncing technique seemed to me to be decidedly girl like. So, I panicked. If I played ball with the other boys, they would discover the truth. I became a loner and an observer, rarely a participant.
Appreciating the dire need for secrecy, I had to repress my natural movements: the way I carried myself, the objects that caught my eye, the body language that revealed who I was and what I wanted and did not want. Mirrors became both my friend and my enemy. I needed them for practice, but they would also reveal the occasional failure, a gesture, a look that was not in my estimation “masculine.” And I would spend hours before my bathroom mirror practicing the walk, the hand gestures, the crotch grabbing, the facial expressions, the posture, the tilt of the head, all that I would so carefully and scientifically observe in “real” boys.
As a closeted homosexual child, the Pinocchio story took on something of Biblical level parable status in my life. Pinocchio’s quest to be a real boy paralleled my own. Pinocchio’s nose would betray his lie. Richard’s penis was a similar enemy. I became something of a genius at avoiding locker rooms throughout junior and senior high school for fear that my wooden nose would grow for all to see; it would betray my lie..
While my bathroom mirror was my partner in crime, public mirrors, mirrors in rooms that contained other people, were dreaded enemies. For some reason, I came to believe that the distraction of my own reflection would cause me to lose control, if only for a moment, and some gesture would hint at my dark and terrible truth.
Cameras were the absolute enemy. Cameras were the Nazis of mirrors. Cameras had the power to capture the split second mannerism that would reveal all. I used to imagine someone, anyone, looking at a photograph of me and suddenly, light bulb goes on over head, aha! Look! How could we have missed this! Richard’s a queer. A slightly limp wrist, the tilt of my head, the angle of a lip, the turn of a foot, a hip…something might give it all away. Everything needed to be carefully monitored and managed.
I couldn’t say no to every camera, but I did say no 90 percent of the time. Privately, I would go through family photos and destroy those that seemed to betray my secret. Some survived thanks to bloody stupid negatives that were beyond my reach, or photographs that my father, a photographer among other things, would enter in competitions.
In 1973 I married a woman, a so very critical part of deceiving the ever watchful and judgmental mirror. Of course, the most stressful and difficult part of my wedding was the damned wedding photographs. Even with a bride on on my arm, the Rolls Royce of accessories for a closeted man, the stress level of simultaneously hiding and posing was a nightmare.
After I was married, I actually relaxed a bit. My new marital status allowed me to be a little more physically liberal. Married men were allowed some leeway in mannerisms that were absolutely prohibited to single men. You could “camp” it up a bit with a wedding ring on your finger and a wife at your side. But mirrors and cameras remained the enemy.
And then in 1989, I came out. To be clear, in 1989, I began that long coming out process that continues through today. Certain moments stand as powerful milestones along the road to wholeness and self-confidence. Among the most powerful of course was my ultimate confrontation with and conquest of the mirror and my own reflection. In my heart, it was also a posthumous moment of triump for Lilly.
The night I came out to my wife, I discovered, much to my surprise, that I simply could not say “homosexual” or “gay” to her. The best I could do. was “sleep with men”. Fortunately, for me, she understood that “sleep with men” meant I was queer.
This was the first time I had tried to use these words and was stunned by my inability to verbalize them despite the situation. Nothing but words and yet words with extraordinary and almost magical and supernatural power.
And then I thought of the mirror. I realized that I needed to stand in front of the mirror, completely naked, look myself in the eye and loudly declare: “I am a homosexual.” This was the only way to break the spell. But I couldn’t do it. It proved to be impossible. I actually tried several times. But I couldn’t look the new me straight in the eye. I decided to live with “sleep with men” and buried this issue and moved on, penis by penis.
I’d successfully suppressed this problem for many months, but with the approach of the one year anniversary of my first consensual sexual encounter with another man, something inside of me began to stir. I knew that I needed to face this emotional and psychological challenge with determination. It might have seemed silly to others, but to me, declaring my homosexuality out loud while looking myself in the eyes, standing naked before my own reflection became the most important thing imaginable. I knew that I could not grow as a man, as a person, until I accomplished this seemingly silly and simple mission. The spell needed to be broken.
On the morning of August 5, 1990, the first anniversary of the day I lost my gay virginity, I stood before my full length mirror, the weight of all of Hercules’ labors bearing down on my shoulders. I took a deep breath, relaxed my body, looked directly into my own eyes and almost shouted, “I am a homosexual. I am a homosexual.” I exploded, a torrent of tears and great heaving sobs forced me to lean on the wall for fear of falling. I looked again and through the tears I said it to myself over and over: “I am a homosexual. I am a homosexual. I am a homosexual.” Do words like joy, bliss and exultation suffice? I felt freer than ever before in my life. I felt whole, complete. But most importantly, for the first time in my life, I did not feel ashamed in front of a mirror. In fact, something astonishing happened. Looking upon myself, I became physically aroused. I was enjoying myself naked in front of the mirror. At first I was actually a bit embarrassed by this feeling and hesitated to pursue it. But my penis urged me on and I allowed myself this wonderful pleasure, fully, all over the mirror.
I could hear Lilly laughing in heaven. I could hear mirrors shattering up and down the hallways of my past. I could hear cameras exploding. I had beaten the curse of the mirror for myself and for Lilly. I was feeling a bit narcissistic, something I had never before experienced and it felt so good and even right. And I looked in the mirror and for the first time in my life I liked what I saw. And I also saw Lilly in my own reflection, smiling back at me from Russia with love.