Becoming Nicole:The Transformation of an American Family

By: Amy Ellis Nutt

What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown.

—Marcel Proust, Time Regained

The stream of continuing creation flowed through his blood, and he could go on and on changing forever and ever.

He became deer, he became fish, he became human and Serpent, cloud and bird. In each new shape he was whole, was a pair, held moon and sun, man and wife inside him. He flowed as a twin river through the lands, shone as a double star in the firmament.

—Hermann Hesse, “Pictor’s Metamorphoses”

Omnia mutantur

(“All things are changed”)

—Ovid, Metamorphoses


Mirror Image

The child is mesmerized. Tapping his toes and shuffling his small sandaled feet in a kind of awkward dance, he swirls and twirls, not in front of the camera, but in front of the window in the shiny black oven door. It’s just the right height for a two-year-old. Wyatt is bare chested and wears a floppy hat on the back of his head. A string of colorful Mardi Gras beads swings around his neck. But what has really caught his attention, what has made this moment magical, are the shimmering sequins on his pink tutu. With every twist and turn, slivers of light briefly illuminate the face of the little boy entranced by his own image.

“This is one of Wyatt’s favorite pastimes—dancing in front of the window of the stove,” says the disembodied voice behind the video camera. “He’s got his new skirt on and his bohemian chain and his hat and he’s going at it….Wave to the camera, Wy.”

Maybe Wyatt doesn’t hear his father. Maybe he’s only half-listening, but for whatever reason he ignores him and instead sways back and forth, his eyes never leaving his own twinkling reflection. Finally, the little boy does what he’s asked—sort of. He twists his head around slightly and gazes shyly up at his father, then lets out a small squeal of delight. It is a child’s expression of intense happiness, but Wayne Maines wants something else.

“Show me your muscles, Wy. Can I see your muscles?” he prompts the son.

Suddenly Wyatt seems self-conscious. His eyes slide slowly from his father’s face and settle on something—or nothing—on the other side of the kitchen, just out of camera range. He hesitates, not sure what to do, then, ignoring his father again, turns back to the oven window and strikes a pose. It’s a halfhearted pose, really: With his two little fists propped under his chin, he flexes his nonexistent muscles. He knows he’s not giving his father what he wants, but he also can’t seem to break the spell of his reflection.

“Show me your muscles. Over here. Show them to me.”

Wayne is getting frustrated.

“Show Daddy your muscles, like this. Over here. Wyatt. Show me your muscles.”

At last, the appeals have their desired effect. Wyatt turns again toward his father, hands still under his chin, arms still against his sides, and looks up at him. But that’s it. That’s all Wayne Maines is going to get. With a look of part defiance, part apology, the little boy turns back to the oven window.

“All right. That’s enough,” the disappointed father says and clicks the camera off.

BEFORE LOVE, BEFORE LOSS, before we ever yearn to be something we are not, we are bodies breathing in space—“turbulent, fleshy, sensual,” Walt Whitman once wrote. We are inescapably physical, drawn to the inescapably human. But if we are defined by our own bodies, we are entwined by the bodies of others. An upright, moving human being is endlessly more fascinating to an infant than any rattle or plaything. At six months, babies can barely babble, but they can tell the difference between a male and a female. When a feverish infant rests its head on its mother’s chest, her body cools to compensate and brings the child’s temperature down. Place the ear of a preemie against its mother’s heart and the baby’s irregular heartbeat finds its right rhythm.

As we grow and mature and become self-conscious, we are taught that appearances—who we are on the outside—aren’t nearly as important as who we are on the inside. And yet beauty beguiles us. Human beings are unconsciously drawn to the symmetrical and the aesthetic. We are, in short, uncompromisingly physical, even self-absorbed. The philosopher and psychologist William James once wrote that man’s “most palpable selfishness” is “bodily selfishness; and his most palpable self is the body.” But man does not love his body because he identifies himself with it; rather, “He identifies himself with this body because he loves it.”

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