In the first part of my experiment in meta with personal narrative, I limited myself to talking about how Lesley’s sense of identity and choice is affected by losing her face. But there’s another major motif (in Lesley as a character and in the books at large) that is deeply affected, even wholly catalyzed, and that is the place of compassion in her and Peter’s vocation.
Peter goes out of his way on several occasions to mark the difference between his attitude toward members of the public and Lesley’s: she “has a much lower opinion of humanity than I do” (WUG), and considers it a mere hazard of disturbing the peace if someone is really hurt by a taser (BH)—which is contrasted with Peter’s facility for creating relational space with the people he meets in his investigations, both for good (e.g. Joseph in Skygarden Tower, Zoe Lacey) and ill or dangerous (Simone). This is set up as a difference from the first, when he and Lesley are comparing their approaches to policing in general; each of them thinks the other is all wet, or at least somewhat damp behind the ears, though Peter is much more defensive about it since all the senior cops seem to agree with Lesley.
It seems pretty clear that the narrative is setting up to vindicate Peter, both his curiosity (about things and people) and his communitarian approach to policing. Peter is better at sensing vestigia than Lesley (WUG), who would probably walk slap through a lacuna without noticing (MoS). Lesley doesn’t approve of following rabbit trails or indulging in contemplation (“Moving on,” she says, predictably), a strength that, like Peter’s, doubles as a weakness.
There are clearly things to be said about how Lesley’s utilitarian attitude and impatience with stupidity make her particularly susceptible to the temptations that the Faceless Man represents—curating exploitation, soft-pedaling ruthlessness, setting up communities as adversaries, etc. But I want to push back against the tendency to interpret those things as static character flaws, or indicative of an unfeeling self-centeredness. On the contrary, I think they started out as standard features and became distorted just as the features of her face were distorted.
In BH, on the night Sky was killed, Peter is about to give chase to the tree-killers when he hears Lesley calling to him, in a voice he has only ever heard twice before—when the baby was thrown through the window in RoL, and just before she lost her face. The first incident was when she was exposed to the sequestration, and the last was when it ended, and in all three, an innocent object of intense pity is present. That one of those objects of pity is Lesley herself is significant.
In the last part I described my particular experience with seeing a horror in the mirror and feeling that my identity had been criminalized. I’d like to extend the meditation for a moment to include the other mirrors I encountered during that time: i.e. other people. The thing about other people as mirrors is that the reflection doesn’t just go one way: while you’re seeing yourself in their response to you, they are seeing themselves in your response to them. The more intimacy there is between you, the more strength those reflections carry. But when you are suffering a visible affliction, any reflection is liable to be magnified, and the sheer volume of those reflections can have a distorting effect.
So it won’t surprise you to hear that I came to hate expressions of sympathy, to avoid intimacy while at the same time craving to be seen and acknowledged, and to recoil from the visible suffering of anyone else. It was years and years before I realized that this was not a bug but a feature. Humans function by attuning to each other; if that connection introduces too much dissonance, it becomes trauma and repair systems come online—the psychic equivalent of lymphatic swelling and protective muscle cramps and hyper-lots of things like tension, ventilation, and arousal. And ironically, this very integrity of human function was what made me feel subhuman.
To be seen by another without distortions; to be given touch as a gift without tortured diplomacy; to be somewhere where self-forgetfulness is possible: these were my needs, roused to desperation at that time, and I did not know how to get them met.
There’s that very poignant moment in BH where Lesley explains that she found it restful to be in the fae bar because nobody cared about her face there—and then off Peter’s reaction, she adds, “Other than you and Nightingale, of course.” But it’s different and Peter knows it.
My hat is off to Peter as a character, honestly. He takes Dr. Walid’s advice to heart—to accept Lesley’s injuries for what they are and move on as quickly as possible—and does his best with it; and he knows instinctively that to let Lesley tune in too much to his own grieved reaction is to hurt her afresh, so he mutes it. He lets her dictate the intimacy with which they deal together (and when she’s drunk and off her judgment, he resists putting her in a position to regret it later). He responds with equanimity when she’s mean to him. He encourages her, as much as he thinks she (or he) can stand, to eat and play and work with him without using or thinking about the mask. He gets between her and horrified onlookers outside the goblin market, as unobtrusively as possible. When he asks Beverley about a cure for her, and Beverley responds that he shouldn’t care about her face, his simple answer is: “She does.” Peter wants to be the best possible mirror for his friend, and she knows what work (albeit very passive work, as she thinks) he puts into it, and such knowledge would bring shame on more than one level.
So she finishes up by snarking at him about Beverley and his own attractive assets or lack thereof.
As I see it, all of that is what a person of quite ordinary sensitivity and capacity for compassion looks like in the aftermath of a physical trauma. And then there’s the narrative significance of her magical trauma. Under dissimulo, Lesley-as-mouthpiece rouses the mob at the Opera by tossing them a lot of conservative red meat about the ingratitude of the lower classes, who treat the beneficence of the state as an entitlement despite their total undeservingness &c. &c. Peter observes that that’s an astutely expedient way of getting the desired result, but what it also does is inflate, break, and distort Lesley’s own shrewdness about human beings, leaving behind no structure to proportion it. Sequestered people, it’s pointed out, think they are still themselves; and Lesley’s the only one who survived both the incident and any subsequent temptation to suicide. It’s remarkable she’s even functional; as it is, she’s not the “impossibly perky” young copper we’re introduced to, with a natural talent for policing and the—what’s the word I want, like joie de vivre only applied to vocation—joie de travaille, maybe. The perkiness is now spikiness, the talent for decision and strategy shadowed by a knack for dissimulation, and the joy of work sacrificed for a means of living bearably. “She was the best of her generation,” Seawoll says, “and you broke her.”
I don’t know where that narrative goes, but I suspect it gets worse before it gets better. I do know you can’t have action without contemplation, or vice versa; that you can’t have compassion without detachment, or vice versa; and you can’t have gumption without teachability, or vice versa. And I know that none of that happens without community. So if this story ends as a story of a destroyed vocation, it’s also a story of a community’s failure.
Much depends on Lesley’s agency. Much also depends on her vulnerability.
Possibly more, by and by.