My life has been marked by lies.
Addled by a mother who was both startlingly open and compulsively deceitful, I grew up warped by them. I spent my twenties running from the lies. I became a lawyer, maybe in
an attempt to bury myself in other people’s problems, rather than confront my own. While I sometimes glimpsed in my peripheral vision a vague awareness that a momentous discovery lay ahead, it wasn’t until my thirties that I turned to face the truth head on.
Now, after eight years of practicing law – a profession that requires you constantly to evaluate the truth claims of others – I have returned to my childhood love of writing. In writing we can play out the journey from untruth to truth, from not knowing to knowing. We can explore the struggle to tell the truth while misinformed. We can confront the subjectivity in which human experience is bounded.
In one of my formative lies, I am nine and my mother is leading me by the hand across the oval of Fairlea Women’s Prison. She shows me a tennis ball nestled in the grass with a slit across its side. ‘That is how drugs get into the prison’, she says. She explains that the women call the prison officers ‘Screws’. And I learn that vegemite, somewhat incongruously, is contraband. Rumour has it that this is because it is capable of being injected. My mother has told me that she is innocent of the offences she has been jailed for. Even when she is imprisoned a further nine times in as many years, that is what I believe.
Like a child who trusts her mother, a reader embarks on a story reliant on the narrator to divulge all the necessary and relevant facts. We have to trust her, as she is our only way into that fictional world. She feeds us morsels of truth and we do not guess that the main course is cock-and-bull. Unreliable narrators appeal to our fundamental need to trust others; our natural desire to believe what we are told. They manipulate our tendency to seek confirmation of our beliefs and overlook information that contradicts them. The narrator in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending warns us of this. ‘You might think this is rubbish – preachy, self-justificatory rubbish,’ Tony says of his own account.
You might even ask me […] what damage I had suffered a long way back and what its consequences might be: for instance, how it might affect my reliability and truthfulness. I’m not sure I could answer this, to be honest.
Despite his caveats, we trust Tony. When his narrative is exposed as wracked by omissions and distortions, it catches us unawares. Likewise, we trust Rosemary, the narrator of Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The little girl describes her family as she understands it and it is not until well into the story that we realise the vast chasm betweenher perceptions and other people’s.
In another lie, I am ten and my mother has sent me to stay with the family of one of my school friends. She has told them that she is in hospital, a story I am expected to maintain. One afternoon I walk to the local shops with the family, a letter to my mother in my hands, the prison’s address carefully printed on the envelope. When the letter box draws into view, my friend holds her hand out. ‘Let me put it in,’ she offers. ‘No,’ I say, hating the churlishness of the words, but worried she will look at the envelope. As it transpires, the family learns the truth anyway, after an attempt to visit my mother at the hospital. ‘They know you’re in jail,’ I whisper to my mother on the phone, after sheepishly confessing the truth to them. I had told her from the beginning that such a lie was unnecessary anyway. ‘You’re innocent,’ I reasoned. ‘So you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.’
Pseudologica fantastica, or pathological lying, is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders as a stand-alone disorder, as well as a symptom of other disorders such as psychopathy. People who lie habitually or compulsively do so for internal reasons, to bolster their own self-image, rather than for any external motivation like financial gain. Sociopaths tell manipulative lies. Narcissists tell lies designed to elevate themselves. Although lies are a symptom of several mental disorders, there is little agreement among experts about the relationship between dishonesty and mental illness.
I don’t know any of this when I am twelve. My mother has applied to rent a property under a false name. As we stand in the real estate agent’s office, I watch her play the part of a divorcee reluctantly eluding to her recent marriage breakup. She has it down pat, with a slight choke over the words, as the woman she is pretending to be gives her details. ‘Lynda with a Y,’ she says, as if she has been saying it all her life, and the real estate agent writes it on the application form and shakes her hand. As I understand it, these are lies of necessity. Lies to elude a police force that is unfairly persecuting her. Lies to avoid difficult explanations to people unlikely to understand. She lies to strangers; people who cannot be entrusted with our secret; people who aren’t involved. People who don’t matter.
You’re such a good judge of character, my mother sometimes tells me. She often laments about all the times she has trusted people who have proved untrustworthy. She predicts that I will never make such a mistake.
The experience of being duped by a parent is a bit like the moment a reader realises that the narrator whose story she has been trustingly absorbing, has been less than candid in the telling. It’s a mixture of indignation and betrayal and belated comprehension. Aha! we cry. So that’s what really happened. Now, at last, all those seemingly innocuous events are exposed as the carefully constructed plot devices that they always were. We look back and belatedly understand how our perceptions have been manipulated, the facts carefully curated, to produce such a state of credulity. After a childhood marooned in the spaces between a multitude of falsehoods, I am slowly writing my way to the truth.
Photo by The Roaming Platypus on Unsplash
Fernanda Dahlstrom is a writer, editor and lawyer based in Brisbane. She has won awards for short stories and flash fiction and has a particular interest in writing about childhood.