Doing Love and the Act of Lying
My truest narrative of my father is this: in trying to teach me life lessons, he used to balance a couch cushion atop his two open palms. It would sit there, overstuffed and chubby with metaphor, held out like an offering.
“Try and touch the cushion,” he would say.
I reached out. I touched the cushion.
“No,” he said. “Try and touch it. Don’t touch it. Try.”
So I strained in the direction of the cushion, performing effort without meeting the thing with my fingertips. My arm flailed in the air between him and I: an irresolute act; a failure.
“See?” he asked. “See how trying doesn’t get you anywhere? You have to do.”
“What if I try,” I asked, “and I try, and then I do it? Without trying to touch the pillow, I never would have touched it. Right?”
“No,” he said, and walked away.
My father was at the back of every school concert with his video camera. He pays for my phone bill, my car insurance and my petrol. He sent Mum and I to Paris when she was dying though they were long since separated and for him this is the act: he is doing love.
What I wanted was for him to reach and strain for that space between the act and the attempt at loving. To flail towards me and say I don’t know, yet, if I’m going to be able to love you well. But I’m trying.
On my wall is a picture of my dad and I. I’m holding a wooden dog by a brown string leash and my dad is holding me, his arms tucked about my three-year-old waist, my head a buffer for his chin.
The way I’m slotted in, it’s like I’m a part of him. He still knows me like that. So he knows that there are times I refuse to tell him the truth, but he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know that I’ve substituted memories with stories and can’t always see the difference; doesn’t know that I’m so afraid of making him angry that often I tell fruitless, clumsy lies to skirt around his disapproval.
When I talk about my childhood with my brother, he says that we were subject to the same trauma as the rest of our Epsom neighbours; that families were falling apart in each patch of our quilted suburbia; that we’re just a by-product of the post-divorce generation.
I remember it a little differently. I remember yelling at my brother to call the police some nights, too afraid to call myself. I remember him shaking with the phone in his hand. I remember holes kicked in walls and whispered conversations between the pair of us about which parent we should comfort. I remember us hiding in my wardrobe, safe in small spaces, and I remain a person who likes walls against me, closed doors and little rooms, though I panic when those places are filled with people.
I panic, in fact, all the time. I have an anxiety disorder, the main result of which is a bend in the way I’ve been able to communicate with people. I strive for utter honesty now but still find myself slipping into half-truths when I have to confront financial matters or situations that may result in another’s condemnation.
So I embellish. I twist. I find a way to sit within the crepuscular depths of an altered reality, and though I know my moral compass should point me out of the woods, I’m comfortable there. In that shadowy place, where nothing is certain.
I am also an essayist. My writing tends to be intensely personal. It exposes and confesses. I have come to believe that in making myself vulnerable I offer something to others – to the people reading – and while this seems inherently arrogant I have also found it to be true, for me. I cling to the words of Sontag, Jamison, Solnit, and Daum: brave women telling true stories that have changed me. My hope is that the things that I write, these stories of catharsis, can sit alongside them.
But then I have told many lies. I am not sure that I can claim this genre of reality. Maybe no memoirist really can – one person’s truth is another’s wild hyperbole. The conscious way I’ve lied, however, isn’t just a blurring of memory and ego. It’s an attempt at reconstruction. It’s an attempt at being known by my father, and knowing him. And I keep screwing it up.
Case study: The Garden
My father is walking towards me and I’m hiding behind my mother’s leg. He’s swinging a black glass mug in his hand. I learn later that he swallowed sleeping pills. A lot of them.
It’s a hot, hazy day, and there are grapefruit from our trees between my toes. My father points and says “you did this” and I think he’s pointing at me.
There is no sequence, only my father’s slurred legs, the lights of an ambulance in the driveway, and my aunt crying.
This scene is something I forgot. The memory returned when I was twenty-one, on the other side of the world, on an underground train flossing through a dark tunnel.
The recollection’s sudden presence hurt like period pain -- an inevitable, certain and distinct ache I felt, but didn’t want to acknowledge. What I had always known had been obscured from me by myself.
“The best way to keep a secret is not to know it in the first place,” write psychologists Freyd and Birrell. They have labelled the ability to forget or ignore traumatic life events ‘Betrayal Blindness,’ and say “systematically not seeing important incidents or treachery and injustice is an observable, ubiquitous psychological phenomenon.”
This explains the way I forgot what happened in the garden that day. But I question the accuracy of my recollection of it, all those years later. Did my father really point at me? Did he actually shout with his finger outstretched? Or is it just a story, dressed to validate my fear and disquiet?
My aunt certainly cried. This I can ascertain from present-day fact: my aunt cries at dog food commercials, hugs and the blank, glassy stares of porcelain dolls. She cries for any pain experienced by any other and she cries when she remembers cold nights in Tokoroa as a child.
But where is the integral truth to the memory? Without knowing, do I have the right to tell it?
As a child I also claimed that my father was sent to prison. While this lie was easily disputed by anyone who saw him at the school gate, it was in saying the thing that I found a frame for how bad things were at home. Behind the moments of crisis were daily fights that shook our hallway, in which my mother and father advanced toward each other in steps and decibels. I remember being terrified, frustrated and unbearably sad. I remember being ferried to counsellors as a result of court orders. But I also remember a pretty standard childhood, complete with weekend trips to the zoo and baseball games in the backyard. So the idea that my dad was in jail – both absent and present; wrong but seeking absolution; a bad citizen in a safe place – offered a language I could speak in that articulated the man I felt he was.
I learned this way to lie to protect myself from my own internal monologue, but it grew into a daily art. Children lie all the time, but my lies were extreme in their content and brilliant in their delivery. Most of the time people, even adults, believed me.
I claimed to be allergic to all kinds of things. I carried around various innocuous vitamin tablets that I swallowed according to a strict schedule, and claimed a mysterious medical condition. I falsified vomit through a combination of banana and juice boxes. I invented boyfriends, gave myself hickeys, claimed long-lost siblings, fabricated overseas trips through hospice-shop souvenirs and subtly implied the advent of financial windfall, then loss. My childhood kidney operation became the loss of one of my organs.
I wanted to be looked at, admired and pitied in equal measure. While some of my falsities did protect my narrative, or me, others had no measurable benefit.
Perhaps I am a mere storyteller and, perhaps, to those like us, to embellish is almost to breathe. But story is not truth, even if truth can be found in story. Writer Lee Gutkind was perhaps the first to use the term ‘creative non-fiction,’ and it’s ‘creative’ that is the contentious aspect of the term. “Making stuff up,” he writes “...endangers the bond between the writer and the reader.” He goes on to discuss how many writers fabricate nonetheless.
The problem with absolute truth in a personal essay is that there are numerous relationships at risk: the writer and her subject, the writer and her family, the writer and her community and the writer and herself. When confession puts a person at risk and when secrets are kept safest when they are not even known, why wouldn’t I play with the arc of my life’s story? And if the goal of my work is an emotive response, should I not expound emotion through event?
The stories that we choose to tell may be no more than metaphors: my father filmed my school concerts; my father hurt my mother. My father accused me of driving him to a very dark place on a manicured Epsom lawn. These anecdotes, juxtaposed without sequence, construct a narrative of who we were. They are stand-ins for true confession because memory, by its nature, is so unclear. But they are a reach toward it.
If I write them all, and write them well, the fragments become something close to whole by circling; by perceiving what could be the truth from a variety of angles; by navigating the vast waves and holes that memory leaves in its wake.
And perhaps empathy occupies that same empty space. “To love someone,” writes Rebecca Solnit, “is to put yourself in their story…and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art.”
Empathy is a precursor to compassion. Though the terms are often conflated, it’s compassion that is a call to action, while empathy remains internalised. Compassion makes one do but it’s empathy that flails for understanding -- the attempt at feeling enough to enable change.
I am not the reason that people read my work. It’s the lyric I that readers desire. It’s almost a mirror, or at least a window, half-reflective in the night, in which the reader sees herself, and makes that leap.
My father is one of many fathers who have loved and hurt their daughters. I love him and I feel for him, but maybe I feel for those other girls even more, tucked within their wardrobes, waiting for their little war to end outside, in the hallway.
In the introduction to Riverteeth, a nonfiction journal, writer David James Duncan says this of memory:
“There are hard, cross-grained whorls of human experience that remain inexplicably lodged in us, long after the straight-grained narrative material that housed them has washed away. Most of these whorls are not stories, exactly: more often they're self-contained images of shock or of inordinate empathy; moments of violence, uncaught dishonesty, tomfoolery; of mystical terror; lust; joy. These are our "river teeth" - the knots of experience that once tapped into our heartwood, and now defy the passing of time.”
Case Study: The Paddock
A bull is at the top of the paddock, scraping the earth with a hoof. I’m in the paddock, where I know I should not be, and the time between knowing that the bull will come and his presence only metres from me does not exist. I hold up my tiny fist. Being a farm girl, I know that you’ve a chance with a bull if you punch him in the nose, but even in the act of preparing for the hit, I am surrendering to my inability.
My uncle Niels comes out of the sheep yards beyond as a blur. Never has a man of such girth moved so fast. Six dogs fly with him, over the fence and towards the bull with snarling jaws. Suddenly my uncle has a shovel in his hand.
The shovel finds its arc like an arrow. It soars and lands just short of the bull, who screeches to a stop in a flurry of dust and spittle.
“Come and have a go at me, ya fucker,” Niels says. “Pick on someone your own size.”
The bull and my hulking uncle appear to regard each other for a moment. The air is either silent or imbued, and I can’t remember which -- in some versions of the memory the dogs are still snarling at the beast’s ankles and in others there is only quiet and the extra-human exchange of understanding between two animals burning with malicious respect.
The bull turns and retreats back to the top of the hill, where the beehives vibrate beneath a totara tree.
I have come close to situations in which I could have died several times, without truly being near death. I tell these stories often, but never with as much passion as when I recount the tale of the bull. Because if my life was truly saved, it was by a man who kept me in the corner of an eye. The great protector, my Uncle Niels, who became more than himself in his need to guard me. “Pick on someone your own size,” he said, and this was the first time in a tricky childhood that it occurred to me that there were some fights I should not have to engage in; some battles I was too small -- too young -- for.
Is it any surprise, then, that most times I’ve retold this particular tale, it is not my uncle that saves me, but my father?
In that memory, the one least true, the doors to the killing shed are open. It was a corrugated, icy box at the back of the sheep yards, where carcasses were strung by the ankles, their cavernous ribcages hollow and swaying from the rafters. I only entered once or twice as a child and it was never a place that would have been left open to the flies and the elements.
I am certain that the killing shed represents my chest. Wide open to it all, when I’m honest enough to say that I wish it was my dad who saved me. There’s a whorl in me that is not a story but a heady kind of need, which came as a result of a lie. The only way to be true to it is to relay both the reality and the fiction, and thus confess. What we want something to have been was not always as it was.
The desire is true, even if the story is not.
My act of confession – its truth, and its lies - may lead to my father’s humiliation. He may refuse to read my work and to speak to me. He may feel deeply betrayed.
I believe that he may also cast himself in the role of the saviour, just as I want to. We place ourselves in each other’s story, in the only way that finds verity within the great narrative arc of who we think we are – who we want to be.
If I want to be honest, then the act prior to ink hitting ream must be to imagine: how he aches; how long he’s been hurting for; how deeply he loves.
In that story, he loved my mother, very much, and I’m his little girl. I hurt him more than I could ever understand, and he tried to love us right as he watched it all fall apart.
In his story, he doesn’t understand my dishonesty. I am the act of lying, not the attempt at truth. I am not doing love.
Maybe the truth is the space between us. My failure, or his. A reach between concrete things, without conclusion.
Because I don’t know, yet, if I am going to be able to tell the truth well.
But I’m trying.