Book Review: Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir

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I enjoyed this book very much, but confess that the window during which I was most likely to write a review had passed. But today it’s due back at the library, and I picked it up and looked at the many passages I had meticulously flagged and thought, “Well, I might as well write something.” Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe not. Who knows if half the things I write on here are actually true?

Every time I read a memoir, especially the ones that have very detailed scenes from early childhood, I think to myself, “How the hell did they remember all of that?” My memories from childhood are short and fleeting. What I felt the day we thought we’d lost our brother and then found that he’d gone to the store with our parents. The terror when I ripped my leg on a barbed wire fence and thought I might need stitches. My favorite place in the woods behind our house to imagine I was famous and in love. I remember these things, but if I sat down to construct a coherent scene out of any of them, I would, of course, be making most of it up. I would be projecting my best guess at what I had been feeling in that moment, of what was said, or what the weather was like. And that’s not even getting into the memories that I believe are based on things that I probably never actually saw and maybe didn’t actually do, but that have become standard parts of family lore.

So why not just cede to the dishonesty of memoir and lie your way through it? This is the conclusion Lauren Slater comes to in Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. Slater may or may not have had epilepsy. She may or may not have had brain surgery to sever her corpus collosum in order to stop her seizures. She may or may not have gone to Breadloaf and had an affair with a famous writer. Who knows? Is a metaphor a lie? Is fiction? Is an essay? Every time we sit down or open our mouths to translate experience into language, have we not taken one small step away from the truth? Or are the lies we tell actually closer to the truth than the facts? As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell the Truth but tell it Slant/Success in Circuit lies.”

I liked Slater’s voice. I liked her narrative. I liked the premise of this memoir. I liked the way her battle with the truth and lies kept interrupting like an insistent and annoying voice, and those are the passages I mostly flagged in my copy, which may or may not be due back to the library today:

About truth, lying and memoir:

For my part, her predictions confused me, because they didn’t seem to match the facts of my mundane life–the facts, the facts, they probe at me like the problem they are…

That was the night I started to steal. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I really started to steal a few days after that, or a few weeks before. Maybe it’s just certain narrative demands, a need for neatness compelling me to say that was the night or and this led surely to this, my life as a long link of daisies, a bold of cloth unbroken, I wish it were.

Now we get to a little hoary truth in this tricky tale. The summer I was thirteen I developed Munchausen’s, on top of my epilepsy, or–and you must consider this, I ask you please to consider this–perhaps Muchausen’s is all I ever had. Perhaps I was, and still am, a pretender, a person who creates illnesses because she needs time, attention, touch, because she knows no other way of telling her life’s tale. Muchausen’s is a fascinating psychiatric disorder, its sufferers makers of myths that are still somehow true, the illness a conduit to convey real pain.

And I felt bad, because, finally, lying is lonely. No one knows you.

I am toying with you, yes, but for a real reason. I am asking you to enter the confusion with me, to give up the ground with me, because sometimes that frightening floaty place is really the truest of all. Kierkegaard says, “The greatest lie of all is the feeling of firmness beneath our feet. We are at our most honest when we are lost.” Enter that lostness with me. Live in the place I am, where the view is murky, where the connecting bridges and orienting maps have been surgically stripped away.

About her mother:

The year I turned ten, the year of what I called my colored hearing and my smells, my father gave her his surprise. I think he loved her, or, like me, her unhappiness was his.

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