In a recent issue of New York magazine, Dan P Lee spends a few days with Fiona Apple, giving himself over entirely to the quirky patterns and habits of her life. The result is a compelling piece that lets the reader crawl around inside the head of one of the more impenetrable pop music figures of the last decade and a half.
First, though, she had to come downstairs and meet me.
“How are you?”
We were at the hotel bar, and Apple said she’d been anticipating that question, simple as it was. It had played some part in precipitating her mood. She told me about her morning so far. She’d chosen the table in the farthest corner of the room, beside a window overlooking Grand Street. For a long time, following her lead, we made almost no eye contact. She was simultaneously shy and outgoing. “I really didn’t know how I am,” she explained. “I couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on with my brain.”
Ten minutes ago, though, “in the nick of time, upstairs, I found the answer. All of a sudden, I thought, Mirror neurons! And I was like—”
Here she gasped. She said she’d felt like “Sherlock Holmes, finding the clue.”
She pulled out the piece of hotel stationery “that’s gonna make me look crazy.” She hesitated and said she couldn’t understand why she was so nervous. I interrupted to say I was nervous too. For the first time, she looked at me. Her eyes were huge and green, like mint chocolate chip when it melts. “That’s very” — she laughed — “mirror neuronal of you.” I asked what mirror neurons were. She said they’re what “make you feel empathy.” Here, she began reading rapidly, furiously, from the small piece of paper:
Mirror neurons Audrey Hepburn eyes drawing Funny Face empathy blind for a day Andrei’s mom yesterday quote friend naturally then again bad therapy rehash rehash retell details no! distract with laughter —
She explained: She does not typically watch TV at home. As soon as she gets to a hotel, though, she puts it on, usually TCM, with the sound off. This morning, when she woke up, the movie A Nun’s Story was on, which was funny, because yesterday, at the photo shoot for this story, she’d been thinking about Audrey Hepburn, because the photographer kept saying something to her like Big eyes! Big eyes! Huge eyes! and that made her remember that when she was a kid, she’d had this fear that she had unusually tiny eyes, and one day when she was home from school (she’d always pretend she was sick), she’d seen the movie Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn — she was afraid it was beginning to seem like she was obsessed with Audrey Hepburn, which she’s not — and she started drawing Audrey Hepburn’s portrait, over and over again, with insanely, distortedly huge eyes. Anyway, Funny Face was this silly romantic comedy, but she’d remembered this moment in it, she was like 10 years old, and Audrey Hepburn’s character starts talking about empathicism, or something.
It made her start trying to feel what other people were feeling. So if she saw a person burn his finger, her finger burned, and she’d have to run it under cold water to get it to stop. As she was thinking about it now, she wondered if maybe she’d been actually “beefing up” her mirror neurons. When she was in fourth grade, her friend Andrei’s mom died, and she remembered being in the hallway hearing the teachers discussing it before Andrei knew. And as she was standing there, she experienced herself what he was about to experience. She could still remember, too, how pissed off she felt when a nun at school admonished them to not feel bad for him, saying they were really only imagining it happening to them, which was selfish. She hadn’t imagined its being her mom, she’d felt it as him, and anyway, who cares if they were imagining that it was happening to them, that’s what empathy is, and making this string of connections now, she’d been all bored and blank and anxious upstairs, and then around the corner this comes — mirror neurons — it made her heart beat, it made her hot, and now she was so excited that she was “having, like, tics and shit—