-Rebecca Mead, "Stranger than Fiction: Lauren Slater's Lying: A Memoir."
The New York Times, July 16, 2000
Angela Hayes: "What are you trying to accomplish in writing Blue Beyond Blue [a book of fairy tales]?"
Lauren Slater: "I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything through the book. The plan wasn’t to put the stories in a book and publish them. My goal was the same as it is in my other writing in that I wanted to create a world through words that was palpable and tangible and could stand on its own."
- A Conversation with Lauren Slater.
small spiral notebook, Summer 2005
I've been asking "why the lies?" a lot lately, and though I've found answers for many of the situations begging this inquiry, I haven't found an answer to justify -- or even understand -- Slater's lies.
Here's how I see it: you can lie to protect people, lie playfully with postmodern intent, lie 'cause you can't help it, lie 'cause you're pathological and it's what you do, lie to save your ass. I've accepted lies, overlooked stories I should've been looking over and trusted when I shouldn't have. But generally the liars I've loved are people with hearts -- thus me loving them in the first place. They display, somehow, a degree or remorse, humility, self-awareness, responsiblity or, lacking all these things -- at least a reason, even if it's a fucked up reason.
Furthermore, I've lied in my writing. I've lied to protect people, lied about a fact to get at an emotional truth, lied to clean up a narrative, lied to protect myself professionally, legally or emotionally.
But I can't seem to figure out exactly why Slater is so entitled to her lies, besides "Because I can."
"I'll tell you about lies. There are white lies and black lies and many shades of grey lies. Some lies are justified. Lies told out of kindness, lies that preserve dignity, lies that spare pain. Everybody's a liar dear."
-Abraxas in conversation with Jenny, The L Word
"What's so great about the truth? Try lying for a change. It's the currency of the world."
I said Bright Shiny Morning doesn't stand up to bright & shiny mornings themselves, which I actually love, because I'm not really a vampire as I said, it's just a metaphor for how I really feel, which is hungry and heartless and pale. That book I talk about that I'm writing is basically A Million Little Pieces with a lesbian reveal on page 256, with extra drunkenness and unemployment. It might not be about that at all, but that doesn't matter, 'cause it's a metaphor for how I really feel, which is abandoned and lost because of my mother, who was mean, and because of my father, who I never met 'cause he was on the road selling things, and then he died, thus becoming the inspiration for the book Death of a Salesman, which is actually a play, but they print plays in books now, because of the Industrial Revolution, which is a metaphor for the theater, literature, death and my father.
Anyhow back to Alex, who only read half this book. Speaking of lesbians and halves, I'm not actually gay or even a bisexual, it's just a very current marketing angle and besides, boys are impossible to communicate with and I'm tired, and bisexuality is a metaphor for how I actually feel, which is conflicted. I'm inspired by Lindsay Lohan, Haviland, and Alex who did not read Lying 'cause of the internet, which I don't believe in, but the internet is a metaphor for how I really feel, which's alienated and lost without my mother, who doted on me like a princess, but not a real princess like Tinkerbell, who might not look real, but feels very real to me.
Anyhow if you want to read a good metaphor for bisexuality you could read Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, which is one of the reasons why I'm gay, or metaphorically gay, but mostly it's because of my mother, who missed my college graduation for the WNBA finals, and is not really a social worker, but a nun, and a saleswoman, and Tinkerbell, and the only gay in the village. The End! DISCUSS.
"I love that there's a secret
behind every secret I've ever told."
-Stephen Dunn, from "Loves"
"I had not known, until then, that beauty lived beneath the supposedly solid surface of things, how every line was really a curve uncreased, how every hill was smoke."
-Lauren Slater, Lying: A Memoir
- Lying as a Valid Storytelling Device in its own right: Slater argues in her introduction to The Best American Essays of 2006 that "Sickness is the natural state in which we humans reside. We occasionally fall into brief brackets of health, only to return to our fevers, our infections, our rapid, minute mutations, which take us toward death even as they evolve us, as a species, into some ill-defined future."
Similarly, I'd argue that deception is a natural state in which we humans reside. We occasionally fall into brief brackets of total honesty, only to return to our excuses, our withholding, our salesmen and our politicians, our exaggerations, our rapid, minute white lies, which take us toward death even as they evolve us, as a species, into some ill-defined life of storytelling. I'd argue that truth and lies aren't good vs. bad, there's tons of nuance, and I find investigations of this stimulating and compelling reads. From time to time, Slater does explore this issue: "Why is what we feel less true than what is?" (pg. 162) and so forth. At these times, she's poised and interesting, vivid and educating.
But ultimately she doesn't seem to prove this point for anyone besides herself. She argues that truth is nuanced and therefore she can write an un-true memoir, but she doesn't argue that anyone else can (or should), nor does she ever explain why her story needs to be told at all, or why it matters, or why this experience is so crucial, so vital -- just begging to be addressed -- that she needs to go through all this metaphoric struggle to begin with.
-In order to make "sane" people understand the crippling nature of mental illness, we must explain it in physical terms: It's difficult to be a privileged white girl writing about mental illness without being scoffed at, call it the Elizabeth Wurtzel effect.
I understand first-hand how much more impact one's description of mental illness becomes when it's manifested physically, or visually.
When I explain I'm having a major depressive disorder episode, I get eye rolls and frustration/confusion -- "snap out of it." When I say the fibro is making my whole body throb and ache (why? 'cause I'm having a major depressive disorder episode) I'm supported and helped.
But, ultimately, this is just the point I want Slater to make. It's not the point she's actually trying to make, though the beginning gives me hope: "I wish I had epilepsy, so I could find a way of explaining the dirty, spastic glimmering place I had in my mother's heart."
Ultimately, she convinces us that her story can only be told as a metaphor rather than through the facts themselves. But beyond that ... so what? We get only that she CAN, and so she will, 'cause she's a liar, and she must. But why must she tell her story at all? I don't know.
Is it because she already told her story, and it was time to write another book and she doesn't like writing about things other than herself? If it's all one big post-modern exercise, than perhaps we should've been informed of this, rather than being lead to believe the story was somewhat true and somewhat untrue -- as in, she isn't just lying about epilepsy, she's lying about all of it. She's writing a novel with her actual self as the main character. Which is neat, and fun, and cool, but she could've done that without all the dwelling on the revolutionary self-importance of her lying and her compulsion to do so.
Does she do her subject justice? What is she doing at all? Postmodern memoirs like A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are fun, playful and adventurous, but Lying feels self-righteous, especially 'cause she fakes seizures in hospitals without recognizing the time she wastes of everoyne around her. She's so self-centered, it's hard to care much about what happens to her.
Though she's willing to cop to being a liar or a bad person, she's not ready to accept responsibility for the effect this could have on other people, or for how this reflects on her quality as a person.
Undoubtedly, she's a gifted writer. I mean, she's so good! She spins a brilliant sentence and a compelling page. I underlined, I loved the quotes, there were sections that spoke to me clearly and directly. I'd read it again in a heartbeat, I looked forward to picking it up, and I'd recommend it.
Yet at the same time, she sometimes made me feel sick to my stomach. It was often too close to home. I sometimes wanted to punch her in the face.
And the more I research Slater, the more confused I am about how I'm supposed to feel about this book. So I'll stop talking and ask you how did you feel about it.
1. In The New York Times review (The Last Word) of Lauren Slater's book "Unpacking Skinner's Box," Laura Miller writes: "[Slater] is not above manipulating her readers, while technically avoiding inaccuracy, if it will make the tale more potent. This recklessness is both the kernel of her talent and her nemesis; she is forever threatening to cross the line." Do you feel this applies to Lying?
2. In her New York Times' review of Lying, Janet Maslin writes: "It is not likely that the reader's interest in Ms. Slater's medical and philosophical condition will rival her own." Does it?
3. How did you react to the love affair with the poet teacher at Breadloaf? Haviland and I reacted very differently to it, and I'm curious how other people felt.
4. Does it matter to you if the story is true or not? Would you have read it differently had it been a novel?
5. What was your favorite scene?
6. Do you think this book would've been written differently now in the post-James Frey internet age, when facts are more easily and instantly verifiable?
7. The primary difference between a memoir and a novel, as I see it, is the meta-story implicit in the memoir. When reading Jeanette Walls' Glass Castle, to pick a popular example, the story is not only what's in the book, it's also the story of a woman who survived homelessness and insane parents and lived to tell the tale, and eloquently. If her story isn't true, then it's just the story, which is fine, but that's a novel.
There's some things I want to tell you, and you can tell me how you feel about them, and if it changes your feelings about this book.
Dr. Krieger does not exist.
He is a character invented by Ms. Slater, who -- when called out for this blatant misrepresentation -- sent a letter to the NY Times as Dr. Krieger expressing "his"/her outrage at this discrediting.
b) Ms. Slater was born in 1963 and began at Brandeis in 1981, which puts her at Breadloaf Writer's Conference in '81 -- according to the narrative she was 17 and it was the summer before college. She cites Francine Prose as an instructor and Mark Strand as a visiting poet. Prose did not begin teaching at Bread Loaf until 1984. Mark Strand's years:'73, '82, '84, '85, '92, '93. Slater did, without a doubt, attend Bread Loaf (she describes it in detail in her well-written introduction to The Best American Essays 2006), but she did not attend at the age of 17 in 1981 under a different name, as she says in this book. Consequently I doubt she had the affair she describes either.
c) Ms. Slater's memoir "Prozac Diaries" apparently is the true memoir she claimed she wouldn't be able to write. In Prozac Diaries, Slater recounts growing up with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and depression with two sisters who were not mentioned in Lying. The book was praised for its honesty and passion. Apparently she then felt the need to write another memoir about herself, but with a different syndrome than the one she already wrote about. This sort of makes my head hurt just to think about it.
d) In Lies, Lies, Lies, Yeah: Lauren Slater's book "Lying," on blogcritics.org, Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti -- who is also an epileptic -- has this to say about her description of the illness: "For all of its cinematic imagery and consistent with epilepsy symptoms (for the most part,), it's lacking some of the personal detail that I would expect from an epileptic, and also, for someone with temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition for which hypergraphia is a major concern, the book is remarkably short. It's that Slater is almost too perfect in her fucked up, epileptic fugue and the tale she tells that gives rise to doubt."
e) There was quite a stir over Slater's book Unpacking Skinner's Box, in which she "re-tells" the stories of major psychological experiments. Take a gander at this particular argument, from beatrice.com.
"Is the urge to make meaning a misguided human coping mechanism that gives a false shape to our existence? How best to live? To die?"