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Tweet Little Lies: Embracing False Selves In The Internet's 'Trick Mirror'


It can be hard to acknowledge the real reasons we do the things we do. Jia Tolentino has a new essay collection out about that very thing. It is called "Trick Mirror: Reflections On Self-Delusion." And it's out tomorrow. In it, she looks at the lies that we tell ourselves. And she started off our conversation by telling me how she ends up in the kinds of situations she lies to herself about.

JIA TOLENTINO: All my life, I've been attracted to situations that seem conducive to giving me an idea of myself, like a picture of myself that seems likely enough to be completely wrong. And so the book is about these situations. Like, when I was 16, I convinced my school to let me skip school for a month and go film a reality TV show in Vieques, Puerto Rico. And, you know, I basically played myself on TV. And I found it so natural. And one thing that I had always told myself about the show was that I had gone on it by accident. Like, I was like, oh, I was just at a mall, waiting for my brother to get out of hockey practice. And, you know, someone approached me and told me to make a tape. And then, you know, it just - it's so crazy. I ended up on this show. And then, you know, I realized, you know, actually, I think I had told myself that story as cover for my real motivations, which is that, you know, I wanted to be on TV.

MARTIN: Yeah. And you were comfortable there.

TOLENTINO: So this is one thing that I think about. So I am 30. I started writing on the Internet. And, like, every social media platform has personal identity at the very center of it. And I have - I've taken to these systems that I find kind of structurally monstrous, in many ways, in the same way that I - when I was 16, I took to, you know, being on camera 24 hours a day, you know, without a second thought. And, you know, I wanted to examine that at length as a central structure of contemporary life.

MARTIN: It's really easy for people now to say, the Internet is the end of humanity. And everything's toxic. And we don't talk to each other in real life anymore. But I would like you to just ruminate a little bit about how you think it has changed us.

TOLENTINO: You know, I think most people remember the first time they use the Internet. It felt like magic. You know, it felt like this world where anything could happen. You know, it was like a little garden, a little strange garden where you could make a little home, you know? And I think now it's become a truism. You know, over the last 10, 15 years, the Internet has gone from being something that made people excited and happy and curious to something that most people, I think, understand as sort of corrosive and - you know, both on an individual and societal level. And I do think that a central reason that the Internet went from seeming really good to seeming really bad is that it became increasingly structured around social media.

MARTIN: You write a lovely description of this, if you don't mind reading from the book.

TOLENTINO: Sure. (Reading) I give myself arbitrary boundaries - no Instagram stories, no app notifications - and rely on apps that shut down my Twitter and Instagram accounts after 45 minutes of daily use. And still, on occasion, I'll disable my social media blockers. And I'll sit there, like a rat pressing the lever, like a woman repeatedly hitting myself on the forehead with a hammer, masturbating through the nightmare until I finally catch the gasoline whiff of a good meme.

MARTIN: I think that's just so good.

TOLENTINO: Anyone out here - anyone out there feel me?


MARTIN: As I hit my head against the table.

TOLENTINO: Well, and I think, you know, also, what was important for me to understand is, you know, the Internet - even as we can, I think, feel it eroding our attention spans and, you know, just the quality of our daily life, there are still pleasures to be found in it. And I think one thing that I was trying to do with this book is understand the pleasures that are woven in with these systems that we know are bad, you know (laughter)?

Like, one essay is about the idea of optimization and how it maps onto women's bodies and how there's this sort of false idea that we're supposed to be getting more beautiful and efficient until - you know, every day until we die, which is an idea that I find monstrous but that I'm also attracted to and that I also try to work to my advantage in a lot of ways. You know, like, I work out. And I go to, you know, like chopped salad chains and try to, you know, force nutrients down, you know, so that I can live a more efficient life.

I - you know, there's - a lot of this book is also a critique of sort of commodified feminism. And that's something - you know, the sort of feminism of conferences that people pay $500 to attend and listen to talks about feminism - you know, like all these products that are marketed as empowering. But yet I would not have a career if not for the fact that feminism has been marketable. And I am lucky that it has been.

MARTIN: So I read that chapter about optimization as, like, you lambasting it. But it sounds like, no, you saw it as somehow reflective of how you were managing your own life in the patriarchy.

TOLENTINO: I'm attracted to writing about situations that I find extremely attractive and extremely repulsive almost in equal measure.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: Every situation that I find kind of horrifying in the abstract holds its pleasures for me in lived reality.

MARTIN: You write in the book that you wanted to be a person who is famous for writing a book. And now you wrote a book.

TOLENTINO: (Laughter) Yeah, I didn't remember saying that. I interviewed someone I was on that reality TV with - I interviewed my former castmates, and one of them remembered me saying - like, 'cause they all wanted to be famous. You know, they came with headshots. You know, they wanted to be actors. That was never something I was interested in. I thought that I didn't want to be famous. And then my friend - you know, this castmate - he was like, I remember this conversation where you said, I want to be famous for writing a book. And it was a reminder to myself of how, sometimes, truths emerge much later than we think they will.

And yeah, part of the book is trying to see clearly against all of these incentives that, you know, were provided - that are provided by, you know, let's say, like, the Internet and, you know, the world of barre classes and chopped salad. And it's trying to understand - you know, trying to see myself clearly against these distortions and also to see those distortions for what they are and to be able to sit with the contradictions that they create. I think that was important to me.

MARTIN: The book is called "Trick Mirror." It's written by Jia Tolentino. She joined us from our studios in New York. Jia, thank you so much for your time.

TOLENTINO: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF XANDER'S "CHERISH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.