The Silhouette Artist


Arts & Culture

© Riko Best –

When I was twenty, a man broke into my bedroom in the middle of the night. He’d busted the dead bolt of the house, where I was alone inside. Asleep. The doorknob clicked; I stirred. A yellow glow pooled into the dark of my room. By the light of the hallway, this stranger saw me in my underwear. They were leopard print. He was the first man to see me that way. All I could see of him was a silhouette.

His shadow: hazy, rough. It sighed. Said, “Oh.”

He shut the door, and then I heard nothing. It was 2001. I had no phone, no computer, no fire escape. Petrified, I waited the four hours until dawn to open the door and found that he had gone. All he left behind was a broken dead bolt and a trail of muddy footprints turned red by North Carolina clay.

By midmorning, a police officer arrived and asked me to describe the man. Tall, short. Fat, thin. Old, young. I told him I couldn’t see more than a shadow. My glasses were out of reach. The light had stunned me.

Surely, the officer said, I could remember something—I could, perhaps, draw his silhouette.

“You don’t understand,” I answered. “He saw me, but I couldn’t see him.”

This, more than anything else, is what still haunts me: All I have are questions about that night. He has all the clarity.


A silhouette artist can cut a portrait in under two minutes. A traveling silhouettist told me this last February, as she cut a profile of my four-year-old son at Howell Living History Farm in New Jersey. Historians say the allure of the form is in the paradox of black against white—what appears on the page, as well as what doesn’t. In her introduction to Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, National Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet puts it like this:

“Consider black versus white, what is seen versus what is not seen, the positive space of the paper versus the negative space of the cutout. To ‘black out’ can, of course, mean to temporarily lose consciousness, vision, or memory, but it can also be defined as keeping something—or in this case, someone—in the dark, or even erasing them from history.”

You can tell a lot from a shadow, it turns out.

When a silhouettist cuts a profile, she makes two copies: one for her subject, and one for herself. In other words—one public, one private. It seems so simple, to carve the dark memory of someone, paste it onto brilliant white paper, to see the outline develop in stark relief.

Two minutes, and it’s done.

For over ten years now, I’ve been trying to write about what happened the night of that break-in. Like Peter Pan’s shadow, the memory has a mind of its own. At times, it clings to me—usually when I have to leave home after nightfall. I rush to lock the door to my car; I fumble with my keys. Panic sets in when headlights trail me in the rearview mirror. But when I set myself the task of writing the memory down, it scatters. Refuses to be collected into any knowable shape. There is so much I remember clearly—the light turning on, the red footprints leading to my room, the black soot the police left behind after they’d dusted for fingerprints—and one thing I don’t. Him.


I also remember this: calling my mother just the week before, telling her that this was fun. I’d gotten an internship at IBM in Raleigh for the semester, and I loved having an official voice mail with my name on it, cc’ing people on emails, paying for my dinner with the paycheck in my pocket, and having a roommate, Sarah, who also worked at IBM.

Sarah, the only person I knew when I arrived. She owned the townhouse we shared. Our silhouettes: similar. You two look so much alike, everyone at work said—my manager, Sarah’s officemate, and John, the temp who worked down the hall. The morning after the break-in, the police figured our matching height, long hair, and fair skin was what led the burglar to us. He thought we were the same person.

Sarah often spent the night at her boyfriend’s place across town. The detective reasoned that the intruder had watched her leave at dusk and assumed the house was empty.

“He’s probably been watching you for a long time,” he said to me. “And you surprised him as much as he surprised you.”

Sarah hadn’t wanted to contact the police.

“They didn’t take anything,” she said, after arriving home and inspecting the broken dead bolt on the front door. “So there wasn’t a crime.”

She called her mother, who insisted we call 911.

“I can’t believe I have to miss work for this,” Sarah said, as we waited for the squad car. “I hate that this happened to me, just because I’m a woman.”

It didn’t happen to you, I wanted to say, though I knew it wasn’t fair. It happened to me. Even Sarah had started to conflate her experience with mine, just as everyone else had.

Other details: We paid three hundred dollars to have Stanley Steemer clean the red clay from the carpets. We spent the afternoon scrubbing black dust from door handles and light switches. Our new security system beeped, and the police said the case would probably never be solved.

The intruder didn’t take anything, Sarah said.

Didn’t he?


The first recorded silhouette was drawn in ancient Greece by the daughter of Deburiades, on the night before her lover left for war. It’s said that she held up a candle to his profile and drew it into a stone wall with a piece of charcoal. It’s also said that her father, upon seeing the drawing and admiring it, took it upon himself to perfect it.

It was hers, first, but Deburiades couldn’t help but leave his fingerprints on it. Even then, there were two versions of the same silhouette—one private, for the daughter, and one dressed up by her father, for a crowd.

So let me try. Here’s a portrait of me, a few months after the break-in, for you:

I started to ghost everyone around me. I stopped going to church, and didn’t show up at get-togethers with the few friends I’d made. I slipped out of work at four o’clock to be home in time to watch “Sister, Sister” by four thirty. I began telling people I was allergic to sugar, which wasn’t true. I signed up for a ballet class, which I couldn’t bring myself to attend.

My father called to tell me that this “thing” had me around the neck. He meant the burglary—if it could be called that. My supervisor stated that she was satisfied with my work, but I wouldn’t be asked to return for full-time employment. I wanted to change universities. I wanted to switch majors. I just wanted out. Press reset. Go. To run from my memory the way I couldn’t run from the intruder.

There was one friend—John, the temp at the office—who listened to me. I confessed to him that I was afraid to leave the house. If I got a flat tire, what would I do? Who would I call?

“You can call me,” he said.

Then weeks later, John told me that sometimes, late at night when he couldn’t sleep, he called my work voice mail just to hear the sound of my voice. He meant it as a compliment. I took it as an attack. How long had he been watching me? I told him I never wanted to speak to him again.

And now a portrait of me, for myself:

Almost everyone who heard about the break-in insisted on telling me how lucky I was—and it was this, more than anything else, that stalled my grief and drove it deeper. The truth was, I did feel lucky. I also felt targeted. It was profoundly selfish of the burglar to break into my house. It was also startlingly empathic for him to leave after he discovered me. I drew my own profile of him as I needed him to be—a family man, a dad, down on his luck—because that was an easier task than trying to know myself.

But it was never the burglar I needed to understand, it had always been me. The thing I struggled to see was the shape of what I had lost that night.


More than fifteen years have passed since the night I woke up to find a stranger in my bedroom. His silhouette faced off against mine, before it fled. I’m still hoping to trace some kind of meaningful narrative from it.

There’s a certain kind of silhouette that illumines what’s no longer there. It’s called a hollow cut. The artist slices away the shape of an object until the object itself falls away, and only its frame remains. The frame is then placed on a contrasting piece of paper. We can see the portrait only because of the object’s absence.

After the break-in, I flew home to Pennsylvania to spend the weekend with my parents. When it was time to return to North Carolina, my mother told me to call her when I got back to the townhouse.

“We’ll go room by room, on every floor,” she said. “Look in every closet, so you’ll know no one is there.”

If there’s anything I want to pull out of those shadows now, it’s this: the memory of how my mother knew just what I needed when I didn’t. I can still hear the sound of her voice encouraging me to open another closed door, to look at every old haunt in the light, to see for myself that it was empty.


Amy Jo Burns is the author of the memoir Cinderland. Her novel, Shiner, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.