If you haven’t read Lauren Slater yet, you should. Enough said?
But really, this book is fascinating – the writing is excellent, the story captivating, and the ideas it tussles with are ones that all writers (and readers) need to come to a peace with. (In that sense, Lying seems to be a bit like I Think We Need to Talk about Kevin, which I admit to not having read, but that seems to be complicated and troubling in all the right ways. Check out this glorious post from Tales from the Reading Room to see what I mean.)
Slater’s Lying is the story of her childhood where she battles continually with epilepsy and a great propensity to tell lies. The book is a memoir of childhood and the ways we talk to ourselves about our experiences. In the end, it’s also a book that engages with the very questions about the nature of nonfiction – where the line between truth and fact sits – and does so in a fair, honest, but fascinating way. I can’t say much more without giving away the book, but if you trust me at all, trust me when I say it’s worth the read.
Here’s a snippet to whet your appetite:
I wanted to make my mother happy, that should come as no surprise. She had desires, for a harp, for seasonal seats at the opera, neither of which my father could afford. She was a woman of grand gestures and high standards and she rarely spoke the truth. She told me she was a Holocaust survivor, a hot-air balloonist, a personal friend of Gold Meir. From my mother I learned that truth is bendable, that what you wish is every bit as real as what you are.
I have epilepsy. Or I feel I have epilepsy. Or I wish I had epilepsy, so I could find a way of explaining the dirty, spastic glittering place I had in my mother’s heart. Epilepsy is a fascinating disease because some epileptics are liars, exaggerators, makers of myths and high-flying stories. Doctors don’t know why this is, something to do, maybe, with the way a scar on the brain dents memory or mutates reality. My epilepsy started with the smell of jasmine, and that smell moved into my mouth. And when I opened my mouth about that, all my words seemed colored, and I don’t know where this is my mother or where this is my illness, or whether, like her, I am just confusing fact with fiction, and there is no epilepsy, just a clenched metaphor, a way of telling you what I have to tell you: my tale. (5-6)
This book spins round and round truth, circling in, pulling up for perspective. It reminds me of the riddle about the two dwarves/elves/gnomes at the two doors – one door leads to death, one to life. One dwarf always tells the truth, one always lies. The riddle is to figure out who to ask about the doors. . . the riddle is itself a question of truth.
Slater’s book, in addition to being one of my favorite reading experiences ever, has also given me one of my favorite teaching experiences. Once after a composition course at Santa Clara University, a student emailed me and said that she so appreciated the fact that I had trusted that the students could grapple with the complexities of truth and that I had shown her that truth is complicated. She went on to say that she challenged another teacher with this idea the next semester, much to the teacher’s chagrin. While I cringed a bit about being quoted, me – an adjunct, to a full-time professor, the larger part of me, the part of me that knows that truth is slippery but that we have to do our best to catch it in a loose net of words so that our readers can trust us, smiled a really big smile and filed that email into a special place in my heart and my hard-drive.