This is mostly by way of some experimental thoughts about Lesley, who is my favorite character though I adore them all—briefly looking at the narrative through the lens of personal experience, and seeing if that adds anything once the lens is taken away.
I was afraid to read FS because I had become very invested in Lesley’s arc and didn’t want to see her get fridged in the service of some really unsatisfying manpain narrative—and was oh so thankful that instead it’s become an extension of a real and true-to-life narrative arc that actually belongs to her. So it took me a while to notice something that tugged my mental sleeve the first ten times I read the scene where Peter attempts catharsis with a tree.
“Because she lost her face, man,” Peter says, narrating his grief. “Because that had to be like having your identity ripped away. Because you’re looking in the mirror and a hideous stranger is staring back. And what would I do if I was her, if I was given that choice—like there would even be a decision.”*
This is an admirable exercise of empathy on Peter’s part—and all the more admirable because he never ever questions that his empathy is just a natural obligation, offenses notwithstanding. But I always felt vaguely while reading it that it wasn’t very…accurate. Not until I had the explicit thought, “Well, if you’ve never looked at something hideous in the mirror, how would you know what it’s like instead?” did I realize that—actually—I had.
During my college years and for a large portion of my twenties, I suffered through a case of hereditary cystic acne. I won’t bore you with the details, but it was the kind of affliction that made strangers come up to me in grocery stores with the hotline for miracle cures scribbled on scraps of paper, the kind that made people instinctively avert their eyes when talking to me. I had scabbed pustules on each cheek the size of quarters, and lots of lesser ones over the rest of the surface of my face. Mirrors and photographs were little short of torture devices; the physical pain still has its ghost in my memory, though there’s a blessed twenty years between me and the bloodstained pillowcases, and my stomach lining was probably permanently damaged by the antibiotics I took.
Lesley and I have different personalities. Even if it had occurred to me to go about my business in public wearing a medical mask, I’m not sure I would have. I made my misery itself the mask, daring people to talk to me through it. The medicines that would truly have helped were so teratogenic that the dermatologist refused to prescribe them for me without also prescribing birth control. Since I wasn’t sexually active or ever planning to be, and since I didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broke, I declined the treatment.
But I also declined the treatment for a subterranean reason that I think is relevant. What I said was that I resented the urgency of the decision that was presented to me, as if I needed to be fixed as a person as well as being healed of a particular malady. The deepest suffering for me, and the most lasting, was the sense that my outward and physical affliction was the sign of an inward and spiritual corruption. If you’d said to me that I believed I had acne because I was a bad person, I would have denied it; but I remember the afternoon I got back the pictures from the formal dance—I spent it on my knees in tears, begging and praying not that I might be relieved of my actual medical suffering, but that I might have the horridness of my inward self taken away. Scrubbed, abraded, cleansed, cauterized—any violence necessary to make me not so unendurable to myself. It wasn’t that my identity had been taken away; it was that it had been criminalized.
And how much more so if your face were an actual crime scene?
Yet there was something even worse than that, and it was why I think ultimately my choice was tipped toward refusing the treatment. It was too late not to have suffered; and if I refused the treatment, then the festering disfigurement in the mirror would be something I had choice over, and I could be a bad person because I did something, and not because badness just happened to me.
And that’s the thing that was taken away from Lesley, and the thing I think she is desperate to get back at all costs—not her face but her power to wear it, not her identity but her agency to shape it. She was taken over and used, which means, in the logic of suffering, that she was the sort of person who was to be taken over and used. To be a person you yourself chose, even if it’s bent—bent from the straightness of the law, bent on destruction—would be better than being a person that horrors just happen to and through.
So while Peter (and the Faceless Man, for that matter) talks about a moment of decision, Lesley talks about crossing a line, because it’s about the whole landscape, not any one point of divergence. It’s interesting that Peter’s thoughts about Lesley are happening in the context of changelings and other people who’ve come in contact with magical catastrophe, coming “to seem strangers even to themselves,” as he quotes Kingsley. Yet the real nightmare is seeing not the unrecognizable but the distressingly recognizable, the over-recognizable: the hideous stranger is not a stranger at all.
Because really: what would stop Lesley from brazening out her injuries, rejoining the force and being the “proper copper” she always wanted to be? She doesn’t lack the gumption, Lord knows. But she is unable to treat it as mere injury in the line of duty: she wasn’t the copper, she was the crime scene. And what makes her different from Seawoll, who also was a crime scene if not such a bloody one, is that her faith in her own identity as a good and natural and proportioned thing was obliterated—which is to my mind more nightmarish than losing the identity itself.
This doesn’t even touch the gender aspects of the thing—this doesn’t touch a lot of things I have thoughts about, like the narrative function of the FM’s face versus the narrative function of, say, Voldemort’s face, so I’ll have to return to the topic by and by. For now, though, I’ll have to say that I’m really glad that although Peter can’t find a really sophisticated way of talking and thinking about Lesley’s soul and decisions, his instincts about her are nevertheless better than anyone else’s, and the reality is (despite our limited view of it from Peter’s eyes) a fully-realized thing.
More on another occasion…
*Heh—what does it say when you open your Kindle file of FS and that’s the quote it’s cued to?