Emily, Eyes Shut


“As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew.”

The Scarlet Letter


She—let’s call her Emily—is the one leaning forward. Eyes shut when all the others are looking. Her hair pulled back and smoothed across her head. The room is hot, the lens on her microscope has fogged, and with her right hand she adjusts it, bringing it closer to the sample on the stage. She had recently read H. G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes, in serialized form, and Edith Wharton’s strange and dark-patched novel The Custom of the Country, and its line about “the need of feigning complete indifference” has somehow wormed itself in her head. These books have unsettled her in a way she doesn’t quite yet understand, and when she first sees—moments before this picture is made—the spider’s leg through the microscope, with its hair and the way it appears broken or maybe just bent at a joint, something in her tremors, falters, and then corrects itself.

Emily understands already that looking through the microscope has changed her, reaffirmed what she always felt: that the visible world is not as it appears. Her father is a preacher, and this thought (“for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face”) has been the subject of many a sermon, but she means it in a different way, and it comforts her to think that her perception is so limited that it captures only one small sliver of reality as it is. To look inward, at the smallest of things—this is what novels do. And now microscopes.

The women with her in this photograph will fall out of her life gradually with the exception of her young teacher—Ruth—standing, whose views on marriage will not so much challenge Emily’s views on the subject as re-affirm what she has felt for a very long time but could never put into words. But there is something more that will keep the teacher and Emily close for the next fifty years (until the week before Kennedy’s assassination, when they both will die days apart) and that is a fierce darkness that seems to reside within Ruth, a darkness whose depths Emily has never fully plumbed, a darkness that repels and attracts her, and that even on the day of this photograph she felt, as Ruth passed behind her, as if she had fogged Emily’s lens with her very presence, or sucked the light away from her microscope.

In fact, if Emily had ever seen this picture of her and Ruth, which she never did, she might notice that the real subject of observation is not the slides in the microscopes, but rather the young women themselves. They are the experiment, and Ruth its director. And of those in the photo, only Emily will be selected for further study, and when, twenty minutes after this image is taken, Ruth befriends her in the copper-colored hallway (copper-colored because of the way the late afternoon sun at just that moment comes in from the high windows and reflects the light off the newly tiled walls) it will mark the beginning of a new experiment, with Emily as its subject.

At what point did Ruth cease to think of Emily as the subject of an experiment and begin to think of her as a true friend? In truth, never, for these two ways of thinking co-existed in Ruth’s mind from the beginning, even as she steered Emily into ever deeper waters of doubt. There was a passage from Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century affixed to Ruth’s writing desk, a passage that was in fact the basis of her experiment:

Union is only possible to those who are units. To be fit for relations in time, souls, whether of Man or Woman, must be able to do without them in the spirit. It is therefore that I would have Woman lay aside all thought, such as she habitually cherishes, of being taught and led by men.

An experiment in control, the complete control and direction of one human being by another. And it was this desire that Emily detected in Lucy and thought of as darkness (“oh, dark Lucy” she would write in letters during their separations). At Emily’s marriage—which followed Lucy’s by one year—Lucy sang an old hymn by Isaac Watts whose last verse went like this:

There are no acts of pardon past
In the cold grave, to which we haste;
But darkness, death, and long despair
Reign in eternal silence there.


And there is another clue in the photograph that, had she seen it, might have brought Emily to the understanding that, subsequent to befriending Lucy, no major decision she made in her life was really hers. The clue is the small, square-shaped object in the background, a frame holding a photograph of two women—she and Lucy. They are gazing out of the frame of the photo towards something that seems to have startled them both. The photograph was taken—must have been taken—prior to the photograph it appears in, the one that is the subject of this writing, and yet Lucy and Emily had not formally met each other, let alone posed for a photograph together, prior to this one.

That the framed photograph is there, impossibly, in the background of a photograph taken before the framed photo could possibly exist, is something hinted at least several times in letters from Lucy to Emily, whom she sometimes still addressed as “My dear Student.” In one letter, from 1921, Lucy writes that “I knew you before I knew you,” which Emily interprets as yet another of Lucy’s taunting aphorisms in the spirit of Fuller or Emerson or even one of Lucy’s playful but dark New Testament-like mockeries, her reminder to Emily that her father was a preacher, a man who refused to give communion to the non-believing. In another letter Lucy writes the cryptic line “that first day at the school lab I glimpsed you out of the corners of both eyes; you spread my vision wide,” referring, probably, to the fact that from where she was standing at the moment the photo was taken she could glimpse Emily—simultaneously—to her right, where she was seated with the microscope, and to her left, where she appeared in the far photograph.

The saddest truth about the impossible photo within the photo is that Emily, eyes shut, of all people, would have marveled at its existence. Would have marveled to discover that she actually had met Lucy before she met her—and that there was photographic evidence to prove it. Most of all Emily would have, much like she did with the stories she so loved by H. G. Wells, curled it into mystery, a mystery as vast and many chambered as anything she could possibly imagine.


The photograph featured was taken sometime between 1890-1926, and is from the New York Heritage Digital Collections

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →