IN HIS SHORT STORY ‘The Liar’, Tobias Wolff’s narrator is a 16-year-old boy who can’t quite confine himself to the truth. Most upset by this is his mother, a woman who ‘did not consider originality a virtue’ and whose healthy existence is frequently rewritten in her son’s hands. She finds she’s been reported as coughing blood, or suffering from leukemia; there are people ‘stopping her in the street and saying how sorry they were’. The doctor and family friend she turns to tells her he’ll grow out of it. ‘What if he doesn’t grow out of it?’ his mother asks. ‘What if he just gets better at it?’ James is her last son at home, his father has died, his siblings are dispersed, and he makes her feel ‘like a failure.’ So James is sent to his brother, Michael, in San Francisco. Naturally he lies to his mother, and takes a different bus to the one she expected.
This bus goes on a long circuitous route, and when it breaks down, the passengers start to chat. James moves effortlessly into a performance. He says he works with refugees from Tibet (his parents, until their death, being missionaries out there) and, in possession of his audience’s rapt attention, he mesmerises them all with his rendition of the Tibetan language. His lies clean of criminality in the moment, James is transformed into an entertainer, an oracle. The liar has become a storyteller.
The term ‘fiction’ looks two ways at once, its products both legal and illegal. People who make things up compulsively often become writers as often as they become law-breakers. There is a difference, some may insist, between a lie and a story, for with the former there is intent to deceive. And yet, fiction writers often intend to mislead and startle their readers; they play their cards close. The real difference is in reception, with readers seeming to know instinctively that lies in the form of stories are necessary. If we need fiction, it makes more sense to ask ourselves, what’s good about lying?
The Talented Liar
Tobias Wolff is, by his own account, someone who just got a lot better at it. The theme of deceit and its consequences recurs across his works, and is exquisitely elaborated in his memoir of childhood, This Boy’s Life. It’s the story of a young boy who dreams up a life of wealth and adventure to write to his penpal, who refuses the blame for graffiti in the school toilets which he most certainly put there himself, who grows into an adolescent who makes it into a fancy school on the basis of an entirely faked application and letters of support. You can’t help but admire the persistence, the tenacity with which he hones his skills, the innovation with which he finds new outlets for them.
Of course the paradoxical beauty of such a memoir is that it remains transparently honest to the narrator’s dishonesty. The story of a liar’s career can only be told truthfully. The young Tobias (or Jack, as he prefers to be called, after his hero, Jack London) lives with his divorced mother, and he loves her very much, though her bad luck with men frequently gets them into trouble. His father, who we learn elsewhere was a consummate liar himself, is sorely missed by his neglected son, who is forced to make him up ‘out of dreams and memories’. His stepfather, Dwight, is violently abusive. In the midst of this mess of absent and over-active fathering, the stereotypes of the daredevil alpha male lassoe Jack’s imagination. He likes to dress up in the army greatcoat of one of his mother’s boyfriend and lie across the sofa, aiming his rifle through a gap in the blinds. He hangs out with male friends at school, breaking windows, throwing eggs at convertibles, smoking in the toilets and exchanging ‘interesting facts not available to the general public about women.’ He is a stud, a rogue, an outcast, though really, he likes The Mickey Mouse Club.
‘Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me’, Wolff writes. And it’s a common thing, this rehearsal of possible roles, this testing of reality against the imagined options. Jack gains a friend, Arthur, who is ‘a great storyteller’. Arthur ‘refused to accept as final the proposition’ that his ordinary parents were his real parents, attempting to convince Jack he was adopted and descended, in fact, from the followers of Bonny Prince Charles. Jack then decides he comes from Prussian aristocrats. ‘We listened without objection to stories of usurped nobility that grew in preposterous intricacy with every telling. But we did not feel as if anything we said was a lie. We both believed that the real lie was told by our present unworthy circumstances.’
But what, then, if he didn’t grow out of it but just got better at it? As he turns adolescent, so he becomes ever more unmoored, unhinged, unanchored. His carefully practised ability to evade the law reflects a world that won’t prevent him from indulging his worst flaws. The idea of faking an application to a prestigious school starts with the ridiculous ease of doctoring his sinking grades. ‘The report cards were made out, incredibly enough, in pencil, and I owned some pencils myself.’ And the stakes in the identity games just get higher. As the gap between his reality and his ambitions increases, he finds himself ‘wanting, at any price, the world’s esteem’, and feeling ever more reckless and desperate.
The problem is that he keeps getting away with it. In his essay ‘On Getting Away With It’, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips recalls Freud’s remark that the child’s first successful lie is both the moment when s/he realises that s/he is not in fact the subject of omniscient deities who read minds, a eureka of freedom; and also the point when s/he realises s/he is alone, abandoned, adrift. ‘If you get away with something,’ Phillips writes, ‘you have done well and you have done badly. You are released but you are also unprotected. You have at least provisionally freed yourself from something, but then you have to deal with your new-found freedom.’ What will Jack Wolff do with his? There is a logical progression for those who limbo under the bar of morality, Phillips says: ‘The Good Person would be replaced by the Impressive Person.’ And this is precisely Jack’s aim, and the destination his exquisite memoir confirms. The liar, who must keep his lies a secret to evade punishment, becomes the storyteller, whose command of fiction is both impressive and protected, made viable, worthwhile, enviable. He’s found a way to get really good at it.
The Compulsive Liar
A compulsive liar goes to see his psychoanalyst and recounts to him a typical event. That morning, he had been late for work because of a row with his wife, who was threatening to leave him. When his boss asked him what happened, the liar said he would scarcely believe it. His car was pulled over by the police and he was handcuffed and shoved into the back of a van. From there he was taken to the local precinct and placed alone in a cell, indignant, afraid, but also curious. After about an hour, a plain-clothes detective arrived and apologised for the confusion; he was free to go. Talking to his analyst, the liar is astonished at his boss’s gullibility. ‘I don’t know why I said what I did. I could easily have said I had a flat tyre. But instead I chose this outlandish story. And the poor fool believed me. He believed me. You see, as long as I can do this and get away with it, then I have no worries whatsoever. What is reality if I can do this?’
The analyst is Christopher Bollas, the patient called Jonathan, the case history is called ‘The Liar’, and the question is indeed, what is reality?Yet if the liar has to tell an analyst about his behaviour, there must be some desire to reconnect with the real world, to stop getting away with it quite so convincingly.
Bollas says that Jonathan is more truthful than he at first seems; the trick is to read the lie as a metaphor. Had Jonathan said his journey to work had been like a horrible incarceration, it would have been quite sane and negligible; a story without impact. Instead he said that it was a horrible incarceration, arousing a much more vivid response in his listener, and expressing an encoded truth. Bollas knew that Jonathan was afraid of how he might react if his wife actually left him; in many previous sessions he had expressed fear of his desire to kill her and keep custody of their children. He knew such actions would likely end in his arrest. But in the story he told, although he played with the possibility of arrest, he was then set free, innocent and absolved, by a plain-clothes detective. His fear had been soothed by the fantasy of a different kind of escape. On hearing the story, Bollas understands that the plain-clothes detective, the man to set him free, must be Bollas himself.
The metaphorical lie is a way of accessing a far more powerful and intriguing reality than bald facts suggest. Bollas recounts how: ‘Jonathan’s lying brings him to life and coheres him in a way in which his narration of actual lived events does not. He lies, he often tells me, because lying is living. It is only by lying that he remains alive.’ Jonathan does not like to tell the kind of lies that are the stuff of normal social living, the lie that hides a little secret, that protects another person. Such lies make him almost as anxious as the thought of telling the truth. No, Jonathan likes the big, complex, entirely unnecessary lie, the ongoing saga that can be sustained and exaggerated over weeks. His lies are not to protect his self and his truths, but to create his self and his existence; they are grandiose and extraordinary. He doesn’t want to be a Good Person; he wants to be an Impressive Person.
What could have caused him to behave this way? Jonathan’s background was a secure and moneyed one. His parents were ambitious intellectuals who had met with much success in their careers, and so his early childhood was divided between various members of household staff: a housekeeper, a maid and a rather sadistic nanny, with brief visits from his mother at each end of the day. His father he never knew very well, as he was busy and didn’t have much time for him. It’s not a very impressive genesis for a pathological liar, with no abuse or trauma to awaken a ready sympathy in the listener, nothing, on the face of it, that will explain or excuse. As a story, it lacks impact.
In one ‘particularly intense period’ in analysis, Jonathan asked Bollas about the nature of confidentiality in their relationship. He wanted to know what circumstances would cause him to disclose protected information. After much discussion on this topic, Jonathan admitted that he was planning the murder of someone he knew well. Bollas was not at first convinced, but as Jonathan provided ever more elaborate detail as to his methods and strategies, Bollas began to fear that he might have genuine intent. The situation quickly became intolerable, as he was not sure what to think, what to do. Eventually he took the problem to a colleague who suggested he tell his client that he would certainly inform the police if he did murder anyone. Bollas was relieved to have this solution and then baffled at his own inability to come to it. It was, he felt, because he had been in such confusion over what was truth and what was fantasy.
Having told Jonathan of his intentions, the murder plot was not spoken of again. And Bollas had a particularly provocative experience of how it felt to be on the receiving end of a lie that has been exposed as such. Like others who had caught Jonathan out, he felt betrayed. He wondered if he would ever manage to achieve a proper relationship with him. His trust was shattered. He felt anger at his own gullibility, and sadness that whatever made Jonathan behave this way was not about to stop any time soon. And Bollas realised he was caught up in the experience of a powerful, extended metaphor. He felt, in short, the turbulent and bewildering emotional responses of a child repeatedly abandoned by his parents: the loss of trust, the sense of betrayal, the anger against his own hopeful beliefs, the sadness that he could not prevent it happening again.
Jonathan had created for his analyst a situation that illuminated his feelings of extreme inadequacy and insecurity, and which could help Bollas to understand the ‘crime’ of the lie: here was a child who was never with a parent long enough to create a real relationship, who had to fall back on his own fantasies time and again until the fantasies themselves seemed more solid, more enlivening, more realistic than the truth, which was only anxiety-inducing. Telling the lie gave Jonathan a safe place to be, hearing the lie, when revealed as a lie, put the listener in the place that Jonathan could never find the words to explain to another, in the midst of the emotions that had created him.
The Confused Liar
For just about seven years, between the autumn of 1998 and the winter of 2005, I was a compulsive liar. I gave an account of myself to everyone outside my immediate family that was very far from the truth. I said that I was fine, when in fact I was suffering from a debilitating chronic illness.
I had fallen ill with viral pneumonia over the Christmas of 1997. At that point in my life I had a three-year-old son and an almost-completed doctoral thesis. I also had a post to take up at a Cambridge college in the autumn of 1998. When the illness dragged on for the best part of a year, and there was no explanation for why this should be, or any obvious cure on the horizon, I began to understand that the illness had become unacceptable. I was not cured, yet there was no reason why I was still ill. For this situation, I understood that I was at fault. The term ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ did not have much currency back in 1998, and what it did have was of an outlawed and reprehensible nature. There had been cases among the students and I had heard how they were described. They were malingerers, cowards, or just plain lazy. Now this was not someone I wanted to be. I was a hard worker, a reliable friend, and a person who kept her promises; I wanted very badly to be a good mother and an admirable academic. These were truths in desperate need of preservation from an illness with the power to wreck them; I never even felt I was lying, just keeping the faith with what I knew above all else to be true.
About a year after the pneumonia, I found I could appear like my normal self in public for a while. The fact that the symptoms of chronic fatigue – racing heart, low blood pressure, nausea, dizziness, headaches, sore throats, muscle ache – were all invisible was extremely helpful. The trickiest problem was that I felt energetically like a leaky car battery. The longer I acted myself, the quicker my vitality drained away, and in no time at all I would be running on empty and afraid, knowing the symptoms would steadily increase in severity. But no matter how ill I felt, I still got away with it. Does that sound implausible to you? Well, people are ridiculously easy to fool when there’s nothing much to see, and I was good at self-discipline, a natural dissembler.
But I admit I was confused. As the years went by, and I kept on pretending and getting away with it, it became harder and harder to distinguish my own reality. I was strung out between two contrasting images of myself that held mortal sway over me: an Impressive Person, who was good and reliable and held down a demanding job while bringing up a child. Lots of ticks in boxes there. Or a Weak Person, who gave in to a nameless, invisible illness that most people didn’t believe existed. My mother often told me with loving exasperation that I was ‘doing it to myself’. My mother-in-law told my husband it was ‘all in my mind’. I felt like the worst placed person to figure out the truth. Most of the time I was too busy sustaining my façade to have any energy left over for philosophy.
Seven years. Everyone wanted so badly for me to be well; that helped prolong the lie. But what the experience felt like is so hard to explain, I can’t do it without metaphors. When I forced the symptoms out of my way, I could attain a sort of cruising speed, which was a lot like driving without brakes, propelled by momentum itself, exhilarating in its way but fraught with the imminent danger of a crash. In those cruising moments I was alive in a grandiose way, against the odds, but when I crashed and was too ill even get myself out of bed, I wondered what the hell I thought I was playing at. What exactly was I doing to myself? This was an illness where I could never clarify my role as either culprit or victim, but was constantly a mind-bending amalgam of both.
Eventually, I developed a symptom that was non-negotiable. When I struggled through brain fog to recall the details of the texts I was teaching, a moment of reckoning came. I went to see my doctor – something which in its futility I had abandoned as helpful years ago – and described my condition as truthfully as possible. It was the scene for my final lie. ‘How long do you think you’ll need to take off work to recuperate?’ he asked me. And I said, ‘Two weeks.’ It was in fact three long years before I would be well enough to return.
During that time, my perception of myself executed a radical u-turn. Whereas before I had never breathed a word about chronic fatigue, now I told everyone upfront, far too often, that this was what I had. Which meant: this was who I was. In the first year or so, when I spent most of my time in bed, it did indeed wreck the identity I had so carefully – and at such cost! – preserved. I was just an invalid, with an illness that still carried a great deal of stigma. But I was functioning at the level of what was undeniable and issuing a big, bold bring it on. Let them call me malingerer, coward, sloth. I was sick and tired of lying. Finally I could tell the truth and be bad.
The Playful Liar
Readers tend to be picky about the truth content of the memoirs they read, especially after the furore that greeted James Frey’s admission that A Million Tiny Pieces was somewhat embellished and embroidered. So what to do with a memoir that states its intention to be dishonest and tricky from the outset? Lauren Slater’s creative non-fiction memoir, Lying, recounts her experiences with an unusual form of epilepsy, unusual in that it may not be epilepsy at all. But to describe what she suffers as epilepsy provides a powerful extended metaphor for the deepest, most twisted realities in her life, and a way into a story that has been ‘eluding me for years.’ The book begins with an introduction written by Hayward Krieger, professor of philosophy, that is also a warning:
‘[U]sing, or suggesting, the use of metaphor as a valid vehicle to convey autobiographical truths – thus her insistence that this book is, indeed, a nonfiction memoir – is a new and unsettling idea. Perhaps more unsettling and exciting is the writer’s insistence on not revealing to us which aspects of her disease are factual, which symbolic, which real, which fantastical, and by doing so asking us to enter with her a new kind of Heideggerian truth, the truth of the liminal, the not-knowing, the truth of confusion, which if we can only learn to tolerate, yields us greater wisdom in the long run than packaged and parceled facts.’
Naturally, Hayward Krieger doesn’t exist.
But in the afterword to the memoir, where Slater acknowledges the reader’s desire for the ‘real facts’, she points out that her diagnoses through the years have been ridiculously varied, from borderline personality disorder, to epilepsy, to Munchausen’s, depression, OCD and autism. ‘All I know for sure,’ she writes, ‘is this. I have been ill for much of my life. Illness has claimed my imagination, my brain, my body and everything I do I see through its feverish scrim. All I can tell you is this. Illness, medicine itself, is the ultimate narrative; there is no truth there, as diagnoses come in and out of vogue as fast as yearly fashions.’ Not that this cuts much ice with some critics. Janet Maslin in her New York Times review said the reader could be ‘forgiven for wanting to throttle the narrator’, and the memoir could be considered as ‘either postmodern fun and games or pure exasperation between hard covers.’ Yet what about that Heideggerian truth of confusion that the fictional Krieger mentions? Is there a better way for readers to understand it than to experience it?
When she was still a child, Slater claims, she developed a form of temporal lobe epilepsy which is described in a medical paper included in the memoir as ‘both a seizure and a personality disorder. A significant number of patients, although by no means all, display a series of dysfunctional character traits that include a tendency towards exaggeration and even outright disingenuousness (mythomania)’. At first glance, the personality disorder seems to belong more to her overwhelming, attention-seeking mother. On a holiday in Barbados, Lauren’s mother embarrasses the hotel audience with her loud criticisms of the piano player, who then invites her to take his seat and do his job better. Lauren is well aware her mother can’t play the piano at all, but her mother allows her bluff to be called, seating herself at the keyboard for a while before finally saying, ‘I suppose not,’ and walking away. That night is the first night Lauren has a seizure, as if it were the first serious faultline opening up in her mother’s powerful grip on the family.
Her mother is ashamed of the illness and determined not to take it seriously. ‘“If you pay attention,” my mother said to me, leaning in close, “if you try very hard, you’ll be able to stop these seizures.”’ But as puberty comes around, everything gets worse – her seizures, her relationships, her sense of self. Finally she is sent to a specialist who operates upon her brain, leaving her with just the powerful auras she experiences before a fit, no longer the fits themselves. She’s also left with a personality disorder – the tendency to lie or exaggerate or dissemble. Unable to find her place in school and missing the attention her epilepsy brought her, Lauren takes to staging fits in hospital emergency rooms, fascinated by the effect she can produce.
And at this point, the narrative begins to dissolve, as Lauren starts to lie more openly – in front of her readers, that is. In late adolescence, writing takes on a major significance in her life, and she writes a short story about falling out of a cherry tree when she was a child, an incident her mother (not too strong on the truth herself) denies outright. When an unhappy affair with her writing tutor ends, leaving her in turmoil, she goes to her college counsellor who takes her life story – and the medical paper on her epilepsy – apart. The epilepsy she describes does not exist, he says, no such operation would be performed, there is no specialist called Dr Neu. When he asks to see her scar, Lauren accuses him of sexual misconduct and leaves, never to return.
So what are we to believe? Slater regularly calls a halt to the narrative to tot up the balance sheet so far. Maybe this is an orthodox narrative, 99% true except for the odd memory glitch. Or maybe it’s the epilepsy that causes her to lie and exaggerate. Or maybe she is just her mother’s daughter, brought up to have a fluid relationship to the truth. Or maybe the story she is telling is a metaphorical one, designed to get to grips with an experience for which she has no other words. In a letter to her editor, entitled ‘How To Market This Book’, she argues ‘I am giving you a portrait of the essence of me.’ And what if ambiguity really is the essence of Slater’s life? What if she is more honest than most of us about the half-truths we live with, the uncertainties we turn into firm convictions, the character flaws that we iron out for our personal self-inspections?
What if all our identities were composed of a mix of half-remembered events, powerful and distorting emotions, memories, fantasies and dreams? What price truth then? Storytelling and its metaphors would be the only honest expression we had left.
The thing about lies – or we can call them stories if you prefer – is that they are just too essential to our survival to be given up. They hold cherished parts of ourselves that have been driven out of sight; they allow us to express the truth of experiences that no facts can convey; they are often the repositories for realities that no one really wants to face. We want the lie to be a unit of genre fiction, a nice, clear readable chunk of badness, when really it is a highly complex literary construct. A thing of layers and implications and irresolvable paradox. And in the desire to master our lives, to be the people we want to be, and to explain ourselves as best we can, we all get really good at them.
Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).