This square is one of 21 paper backgrounds Sheila Heti discovered in a 1940s-era paper-doll set called Make a Picture Story, developed by psychologist Edwin Shneidman. On top of the square are three paper dolls chosen at random. Telly, an actor, was asked what he sees.
Telly is an actor in his mid 20s. He sometimes gets cast in film and TV roles, but he has more talent as a writer. Though he gets a lot of pleasure from writing, he has no interest in pursuing it as a vocation, yet there is something odd about his attraction to acting—he is contemptuous of the pursuit and is never able to articulate convincingly why he wants to follow this path. Recently, his father, Johann, wrote him a raging and self-pitying letter about how he had been abandoned by his son—a letter designed to induce shame and guilt. It was not the first time Telly has received a letter like this. Johann has lived a hermetic life since his bitter divorce from Telly's mother, who Telly sides with. Johann was on his mind the day we met since, for the first time ever, Telly did not reply to his father's accusations, which resulted in Johann sending an even more dramatic e-mail disowning his son.

What do you see when you look at this picture, Telly?

This is a prince [in the middle], and his father is actually the king. What the prince does in secret—he's sort of a buffoon—is he gets dressed up in his father's clothes, just for fun, and puts on the crown, which is a massive offense, and gets his assistants to act out these elaborate political assassinations and stuff. They're totally unwilling, but they don't really have a choice because they're employed by the court. At this point, the prince has even given a pistol to this guy and had him dress up in clothes from a different country that he saw in a magazine once, and even put a blank in the gun, and he's acting out this elaborate scene where he casts himself as this benevolent and intelligent monarch who's rudely assassinated by this brutish thug. This is the woman who's going to catch him after he falls, and sob and bemoan—do this whole thing. He demands they go completely hardcore, acting-wise. He wants to see real tears. And if he doesn't feel really released in a spiritual way in the moment of the fake assassination, he'll have them do it again. He'll have her brush off her tears and reapply her makeup. He's even gone so far as to make sure that her eyeliner and mascara are not waterproof, so that when she sobs, it actually runs down her face. And this guy [on the left] is just totally frustrated that he's at the point in his life where he still has to do this shit. He thinks he is so much better than this, but they're both in the employ of the court and have to do it. They're miserable about it, though.

Does the prince know that his assistants don't like doing this?

He's so delusional that—he knows that they don't like doing it, but he actually thinks he's achieving some greater good in terms of developing his own kingliness and stuff. He has real illusions of grandeur.

Will the prince ever be king?

I don't know. I think his father knows how much of a tool he is, and he has probably made constitutional amendments and arrangements for him to not succeed in any situation, whether it's natural death or assassination or anything. But this guy is so out of the loop regarding the machinations of state that he doesn't realize that succession can be altered. He's a real buffoon.

Telly and his mother are the "assistants" who are made to "act out these elaborate political assassinations" with Johann, who sees himself as a "benevolent and intelligent monarch." Johann seems to Telly—as he says of the prince—"a real buffoon" who "thinks he's achieving some greater good" in playing the victim in these "elaborate" scenarios. Like any narcissist, the purpose of Johann's manipulations is to create energies between himself and those around him that can be "released in a spiritual way in the moment of the fake assassination"—the climax of the narcissist's game. People who manipulate others to create drama, casting themselves as the victim, achieve a spiritual high when the fantasy scenario has been realized. Such people suspect those around them of committing the very crimes they are in fact committing. Someone who is intimate with a narcissist—who is, in Telly's words, "in the employ of the court and... still has to do this shit"—often senses that they are being forced to play a role they have not chosen, that is not really them. Yet the expectation is that they will act it out "hardcore." Telly, in being unwilling to respond to Johann's letter in the way Johann expects him to, is finally refusing to play the role his father has given him, making Johann more angry than ever—his "spiritual" high frustrated as it began its climb. The narcissist, believing himself all-powerful, "doesn't realize that things like succession can be altered"—that his claims to woundedness can be overlooked.

Although Telly is "totally frustrated" and "miserable" about having to do this, he remains in this familiar dynamic by pursuing his career as an actor. When we are young, we have no control over the conditions we find ourselves in. By re-creating these conditions as adults, in such a way that they are different enough that we don't recognize them as being the same (playing a role on TV as opposed to playing in the drama one's father has orchestrated), we gain a sense of control that we lacked in the original scenario, yet accompanied by a mysterious helplessness. In pursing acting, Telly is attempting to heal a "miserable" childhood wound of being forced to "act out" these tearful scenes. Yet Telly's healing could be more complete still. He ought to put acting behind him in every aspect of his life. Instead of pursuing roles created by others, as an actor, he ought to create scenarios and roles himself—by writing. He is, as he suspects, "so much better than this," and finally can decide whether or not to continue to be "employed by the court." recommended

Sheila Heti is the author of several hard-to-categorize books, including the novel How Should a Person Be?

Don't miss the rest of this series, including "What Do You See When You Look at This Bedroom?" "What Do You See When You Look at This Bridge?" and "What Do You See When You Look at This Attic?"