When You’re Smiling 😄😄@JMmystery

Jeanne Matthews happily announced the arrival of a new historical mystery, Devil by the Tail, released in July 2021.  Jeanne has a yen for travel and a passion for mythology, which she works into her novels whenever she can.  Originally from Georgia, Jeanne lives in Washington State with her husband, a law professor, and a Norwich terrier named Jack Reacher.  Information about her books, including the Dinah Pelerin international series, can be found on her website. http://www.jeannematthews.com 

When I was in my twenties, I dated a guy whose best friend was a dentist – Joel.  If you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail and if you’re a dentist, every wisdom tooth looks like trouble.  Joel convinced me I’d have problems unless I got those impacted molars out pronto.  He promised an easy fix and offered me the “family” discount.  I agreed and scheduled the appointment.  The day arrived and, after a few reassuring words, Joel administered the painkiller and set to work.  It was a long procedure.  Way longer than I’d expected.  My jaws felt stretched wider than a crocodile’s and my bottom felt bonded to the chair.  Time dragged on.  How deep did those roots go?  How worried should I be?  I was numb and drooling when Joel leaned over me and said, “Encountered a bit of difficulty with a nerve.”


“Ith it therious?”

“The thing is, Jeanne…you may not be able to smile again.”

Researchers estimate that there are as many as fifty different types of smiles, but only six convey happiness.  Other smiles can express pain, shock, embarrassment, disbelief, fear, horror, misery, and the pleasure of revenge.  Whatever my face said following Joel’s announcement, I’m guessing it communicated a mix of all of the above.

“A smile is the chosen vehicle for all ambiguities,” said Herman Melville.  Writers have a thousand ways of describing the reactions and emotions of our characters, but the nuances of the smile are almost infinite.  The ideal smile, that lovely pas de deux between the zygomatic major and the orbicularis oculi is called the Duchenne smile.  In the 19th Century, Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, the son of a French pirate, got interested in facial expressions, which he believed to be the gateway to the soul.  In his zeal to decode the meaning of various smiles, he inserted electric probes into his subjects’ faces to stimulate the muscles.  It hurt.  In fact, it was so excruciating that nobody volunteered to participate in his neurological studies.  He was forced to experiment on the freshly severed heads of executed prisoners until, as luck would have it, he chanced upon a mental health patient who had no feeling in his face.  Duchenne’s electric jolts yanked the man’s cheeks up, jerked his eyes down, and stretched and twisted his features like a rubber mask.  Duchenne photographed the results.  He identified thirteen primary emotions and the muscles and muscle groups that controlled them.  It seems that crow’s feet, those pesky wrinkles branching out from the corners of the eyes, are the sole proof of genuine, profound happiness.

Alas, we live in a post-truth age and, wouldn’t you just know it?  The “genuine” Duchenne smile can be faked.  All you have to do is turn up your mouth, hoist your cheeks, squinch your eyes, and voilà!  The selfie will show you beaming on top of whatever dangerous monument you happen to be posing.  Who’s to know that perfect smile hides a fervent wish to be elsewhere?  Neuroscientists now say that Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile was forced – the right side at odds with the left.  Leonardo, who hung out in the morgue peeling the skin off cadavers and studying the facial muscles and nerves, made a tiny anatomical error…or perhaps he kept his model motionless for too long and her mystery is tinged with annoyance.

Photography has had a significant effect on how we smile.  In the camera’s early days, slow exposure times required people to remain stone still, no twitching of the lips.  But there were other reasons for those stern faces in old photographs.  Wide smiles were considered uncouth, more indicative of madness or drunkenness than happiness.  To make their subjects’ mouths appear small and genteel, photographers instructed them to say “prunes.”  But then the dental profession started to improve, teeth became straighter, notions of propriety changed, and photographers told their subjects to say “cheese.”   The word produced a smile guaranteed to make you look pleasant regardless what you were thinking.

Interpreting the true meaning of a facial expression can be challenging in real-life, in art, and in law enforcement.  Analysts noticed a telltale tug of the zygomaticus major in certain individuals filmed pleading for the return of a missing family member.  Detectives investigated and found they had killed their relatives, themselves.  Anyone planning a murder would do well to practice flexing the orbicularis oculi – the sincere muscle.

When facial mobility is lost, through disease or nerve damage, it’s no laughing matter.  All the yellow smiley faces and emojis in the world can’t compensate for loss of the ability to smile.  Fortunately, in my case the problem was temporary, as evidenced by my author photo.  I don’t recall what the photographer said to elicit such a grin.  But one sure way to bring a Duchenne smile to any author’s face is to say, “I’ll read your book and I’ll write a review.”