Trick Mirror

We are living in the era of the self, an era of malleable truth and widespread personal and political delusion. In these nine interlinked essays, Jia Tolentino explores her own coming of age in this warped and confusing landscape.

From the rise of the internet to her appearance on an early reality TV show as a teenager; from her experiences of ecstasy – both religious and chemical – to her uneasy engagement with our culture’s endless drive towards ‘self-optimisation’; from the phenomenon of the successful American scammer to the extravagance of wedding culture, Jia Tolentino writes with style, humour and a fierce clarity about these strangest of times.

Following in the footsteps of American luminaries such as Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Rebecca Solnit, yet with a voice and wisdom all her own, Jia Tolentino writes with a rare gift for elucidating nuance and complexity, coupled with a disarming warmth. This debut collection of essays announces her as exactly the sort of voice we need to hear from right now – and for many years to come.


You know when a book is almost too good to review? Where a writer has accessed a level of insight so profound you could never possibly do it justice?

I refer you to Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, a book of essays that blew my mind, made me uncomfortable, made me laugh out loud and, you know, casually reassess basically everything about my life.

In the first piece of Trick Mirror, ‘The I in Internet’, Jia lays out her thesis statement for everything that is to come – and still, I wasn’t ready. Trick Mirror is a book about consequences, and moving the larger part of our lives online has come with some we never could have anticipated. Perhaps the most distressing of which, Jia argues, is the commodification of the self (“capitalism’s last natural resource”), and the inflation of the importance of personal identity that followed. As Jia writes, “It’s as if we’ve been placed on a lookout that oversees the entire world and given a pair of binoculars that makes everything look like our own reflection.”

In this world, having an opinion is conflated with taking action; feminism isn’t about the collective so much as #GirlBoss-style individual advancement substituted for progress – or as Jia puts it, “A politics built around getting and spending money is sexier than a politics built around politics” – and we have generally accepted the notion that maybe the best way a person can spend their life is to identify areas of potential profit and take whatever they can under the guise of ‘disrupting’ (or, more accurately, “dismantling social structures to suck up cash from whatever corners of life can still be exploited.”)

Generally speaking, the only way to make it through the day and remain sane is to have a problematically high tolerance for fucked up things. Trick Mirror lowers that shield, and demands the reader’s discomfort as we are brought face to face with the hypocrisies and glaring dilemmas of the system we have agreed to live in. No one is allowed off the hook – not even Jia, who readily implicates herself in a conversation that refuses binaries. It’s as refreshing as it is distressing to read.

It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite from this collection, because they are so impactful in such different ways, but ‘Always Be Optimising’ struck particularly close to home. A sprawling essay taking in the history of barre, beauty standards, influencer culture and the failures of the mainstream feminist movement, it lays bare a lot of the bullshit you encounter day to day as a woman.

“It’s very easy, under certain conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organising your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible. Women have known this intimately for a long time.”

As the world has expanded we’re dealing with not only unrealistic beauty standards, but unrealistic lifestyle standards (My Morning Routine and What I Eat In A Day videos, anyone?), where a relentless pursuit of self-improvement is advertised under the guise of female empowerment and ‘self-care’. In one of the many throw-the-book-across-the-room moments (those can be good too) I had during reading, Jia highlights the irony of the rebrand we’ve gifted the impossible standards women are expected to achieve. It’s no longer mid-century magazines imploring us to “spend time and money trying to be more radiant for our husbands, we now counsel one another to do all the same things but for ourselves.

Like I said before, everyone is implicated.

With Trick Mirror, Jia has cemented herself forever as one of my favourite writers. I have already read most of the essays multiple times, and writing this I got lost in them all over again. I really can’t recommend this book enough.

She Said

On 5 October 2017, the New York Times published an article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey that helped change the world. For months Kantor and Twohey had been having confidential discussions with top actresses, former Weinstein employees and other sources, learning of disturbing, long-buried allegations. The journalists meticulously picked their way through a web of decades-old secret pay outs and non-disclosure agreements, encouraged some of the most famous women in the world – and some unknown ones – to risk going on the record, and faced down Weinstein, his team of high-priced defenders, and even his private investigators.

In She Said, Kantor and Twohey relive in real-time what it took to break the story and give an up-close portrait of the forces they were up against. They describe the experiences of the women who spoke up – for the sake of other women, for future generations and for themselves.

Their stories have never been told in this way before.

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite A Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey details the journalists’ investigations into Harvey Weinstein. A work of non-fiction that reads like a gripping thriller – it feels like a movie – the book explores the day-to-day of investigative reporting, and it is fascinating. As a reader, you’re invited into the trenches of reporting with Jodi and Megan as they fit together each horrifying piece to build a picture of Weinstein’s serial abuse of women.

From approaching celebrities to finding the unknown women who worked for Weinstein behind the camera (many of them muzzled by non-disclosure agreements so restrictive they hadn’t even told their loved ones what Weinstein had done to them), seeing from the inside how Jodi and Megan built up trusting relationships with the women they were asking to go on the record – and take on all that would mean for their lives – revealed the intricacies of the journalistic process. Jodi details how she got Rose Mcgowan to speak to her despite her reservations because of the NYT’s previous ‘shabby’ treatment of her by explaining her own track record on issues of gender (Amazon, Starbucks and Harvard Business School had all changed their policies as a result of Jodi’s investigations into their gender equality issues). Simply explaining what she was about and letting Rose make her own choice, Jodi reasons, was the best way forward. She was right – Rose quickly wrote back and agreed to meet. This is just one of many examples of Jodi and Megan thoughtfully building up relationships with their sources – they never came over as anything but empathetic and patient, even when they were desperate for someone to go on the record.

But She Said is a story much broader than the individuals that contributed to it. The Harvey Weinstein scandal was always much bigger than just one man, and Jodi and Megan take pains to break down the structures that allowed Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuse to go on for so long. They look at the more obvious details, like the way his company protected him from exposure. Buried HR reports, half efforts by Harvey’s brother and business partner, Bob that clearly rank the importance of the company over that of the women that work for it, and widespread knowledge among the higher ups of Harvey’s behaviour all paint a picture of a structure built to facilitate abuse. But beyond the specifics of the Weinstein company – and how those same structures that allowed Weinstein to hurt so many women can be observed in the wider culture – Jodi and Megan dig into the specific immorality of non-disclosure agreements.

Lots of the women that Harvey subjected to abuse signed these agreements. They are generally accompanied by a pay out in lieu of an apology – and an assurance that this is the most justice any woman can expect, so she should really just accept it and move on (ew) – and weave such a complicated legal trap that the women who sign them can’t tell anyone (there is one woman who hadn’t even felt able to tell her husband) what they went through. There was one example where the woman involved didn’t even have a copy of her non-disclosure agreement herself – the terms of the agreement meant that she had to go to her lawyer’s office if she ever wanted to look at it. She Said makes clear that the use of non-disclosure agreements needs to stop. They serve only one purpose – to facilitate abuse. As Harvey’s story demonstrates, losing a bit of his fortune was not enough of a deterrent for him to stop hurting women. Everyone finding out what he really was and his crimes being reported to the police, on the other hand…

Well, if you want to know how that went I’d recommend you read the news.

She Said is a wide-ranging, extensive look at the #MeToo movement from two reporters at the centre of it. It breaks down victories – taking Harvey down – and tragic backslides – Brett Cavanaugh – and the women from all walks of life who have been affected by sexual assault and sexual harassment. You’ll be gripped, you’ll be angry and you’ll be in awe – of the authors and of the women who agreed to go on the record (one of whom was going through a divorce and cancer treatment all at the same time as raising kids by herself).

It is vital reading.

(No, I haven’t read Catch and Kill yet but it is on my list. I love me some Ronan Farrow.)