Future Tense

This Monstrous Mirror Only Shows Cancer Patients Their Faces if They Smile

This is terrible.


Cancer treatments, even in their mildest forms, can be brutally dispiriting. As an article on CNN’s website reports, however, an industrial designer named Berk Ilhan thinks his “Smile Mirror” could help with that. CNN explains that the camera-equipped, tablet-like system normally shows a blank screen. But when its “proprietary software” detects that you are smiling, it springs to life, revealing your reflection—or a digital simulacra thereof.

As CNN tells it, this gadget, which retails for thousands of dollars, “was inspired by Ilhan’s conversation with a cancer survivor.” I too am a cancer survivor. I struggle to imagine a more monstrously awful product.

At core, the horror of cancer derives from the way it alienates us from ourselves by turning our own cells into something other. Treatment, even the relatively minor procedure I underwent for papillary thyroid cancer, likewise strips us of our agency. We put ourselves in the hands of those who know far more than we do, gathering knowledge where we can, but always accepting that we can only accomplish so much. For however long we live with cancer, our bodies are not entirely our own.

Under illness’ spell, we often have little more than our emotional lives to anchor us: We cannot predict how our diseases will respond to treatment, but at least we own our frustrations when they fail. Our inner worlds—here characterized by rage, there by intermittent and unexpected elation—remind us that we are not reducible to cancer. These feelings can, of course, take form on the surface of the body, though they are not always pleasant to see. Sometimes our lips curl up and we bare our teeth. Sometimes our shoulders pull forward in fear. Sometimes (often) we cry, whether or not anyone is looking. This is what it means to live with cancer, if only because dwelling within the flux of feelings is what it means to live.

Ilhan’s mirror would take even that from us. But, of course, it isn’t really for cancer patients. A mirror in name only, it is not interested in showing us our own reflections; only in forcing us to show the world that we are what it wants us to be. Unless we meet its demands, it refuses us even the spare fact of our features. If you are not happy, it suggests, you are already gone.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to know how to approach to a loved one going through a difficult process,” Ilhan says in the video that accompanies CNN’s article, his words underscored by an upbeat tune. “I heard from many people that they didn’t know how to help. They didn’t know how to offer help. They didn’t know how to ask for help. But if it was possible to gift just a smile, even that would make things better in terms of social support and feeling supported.”

This is, again, not a device designed with the interests of patients in mind. To the contrary, it asks them to ignore—perhaps even to reject—the small sanctuary of what they feel within. Cancer is already alienating, and this is alienation of another sort. Etymologically, the word patient derives from a Latinate root meaning suffering. Those who loves us can attempt to ameliorate our pain, but they should never expect us to live without it. If you would like to see us smile, tell us a joke. Surely you know the ones we like. We will laugh if we are ready to, but our smiles are not yours to claim.

There are other resonances here too, of course. Ilhan’s mirror is nothing if not an extension of the catcaller who yells “Smile!” at a woman on the street, only to express confusion when told he has no domain over her feelings. A hand-drawn flow chart briefly visible in CNN’s video suggests that patients prefer “pleasure—not forced happiness.” Ilhan’s device provides no indication that he has internalized that lesson. Instead, this is the expression of a toxic culture, one that cannot bear the thought of a woman who is not “pretty” or a sick child who loathes his visits to the oncology ward.

According to CNN, “Ilhan’s goal is to donate Smile Mirrors to hospitals.” If those institutions know what their patients need, they will politely decline.