I remember the first time I lied. It may be my earliest memory. There was a plastic watch I wanted that a friend of mine owned. I don’t remember why I wanted it particularly. I think I was captured, somehow, by the idea of its movement; it seemed very noble and very adult to me, to own a watch, and I of course had no way of recognizing how childish this particular watch looked. It was pink, or orange, with a pink plastic strap and a clear plastic cover over its face instead of glass. Still it must have had some actual metal parts inside it because I remember it ticking, I remember the second hand moving. Unless I have added that part in my memory to make the watch seem more desirable, to explain my theft. It is possible that its hands didn’t move at all.
My mother at some point had stopped me from playing with her watch, the one with the thin, scuffed band that she wore everywhere. It was part of who she was when she went out into the world; it went into a shallow bowl she kept on the table beside her bed when she slept, along with her earrings (she wore the same pair every day) and the necklace she had made after melting down the ring my father gave her for their engagement. These were the only pieces of jewelry she wore; she kept a few other pieces in a safe box in the bank, which I only learned about after she died. If there is an image of me before the fall, I suppose it is of a girl of three or four years old playing with her mother’s watch, lying in bed with her; she took it from me, chided me that I might break it.
Perhaps that was it – it seemed unfair that my friend had something that was specifically prohibited to me (every story of a fall begins with a prohibition). My friend had been showing it off, and then had gotten distracted. When she couldn’t find her watch at the end of the day, she started bawling. I remained quiet. Perhaps that was my first lie, although it was a lie of omission; no one asked why my friend was crying, or what had happened to the plastic watch.
That night, my mother saw me playing with the watch. Of course she knew it wasn’t mine, or that she hadn’t given it to me. I had not considered my actions so far in advance; I hadn’t thought that I would need to continue to hide the watch once my friend, its former owner, was no longer around. My mother asked me where I had gotten the watch, and I understood my mistake: as soon as I answered her I would be punished for it. In the next moment however a huge, sudden possibility opened before me: with my answer I could make the world other than it was. My friend had given it to me, I said. Why? my mother asked. Because I wanted it. My mother accepted this explanation without further questions.
After that, each time I held the watch it was as if I held a small flame. I knew then, though of course I could not yet put it in these words, that my mother could neither read my mind nor ultimately control me. There was a lack, a gap, in my mother and her omniscience – and if she was not all-knowing, it followed that neither could she be all-powerful. The first lie that the child tells thus begins the process of the parent’s death.
And then several years after that first lie, another memory. This one was in school, in first grade. It was a new school, a non-denominational Christian private school. My mother had pulled me out of public school out of disgust for my kindergarten teacher, a woman who, according to my mother, could neither write nor speak English correctly, and was teaching me her bad habits. ‘You went in speaking perfect English, and after the first month you came home speaking dis, dat, and du’nt’ – which I understand now to mean that I had picked up certain aspects of the teacher’s African-American dialect. My mother was not especially racist, or rather, she had no conscious intention of being so, but it would have been nearly impossible for her to accept that whether someone spoke ‘proper’ or ‘improper’ English was caused by anything other than a lack of education or possibly intelligence. The teachers at the new school, all white, spoke proper English, as my mother verified.
At that time, the primary difference between public and private schools, at least the difference that mattered to students, was that private schools were allowed to use corporal punishment, which was illegal in public schools. We existed with a constant, low-level awareness of violence. And violence was the guarantee behind each of the teachers’ words. Nietzsche claims that violence and pedagogy are intertwined, as physical violence is the only means we have of assuring that someone else learns – what they learn, however, we can never be quite sure of. I didn’t make friends easily at the private school. I felt that there was some sort of barrier between me and the other children, who seemed to share a knowledge I didn’t have.
Our science teacher was a Mr S— (since I can’t remember his name, rather than out of any concern for the privacy of this violent little rodent, I’ll take advantage of the convention of naming characters anonymously in romans-à-clef or those novels that pretend to be) who taught us about the beginnings of the earth using a colorful textbook that made continual reference to Genesis. One day he brought to class, in demonstration of some point of natural history, several pieces of petrified wood. He had us line up and walk past these, as though we were at a museum. He stressed to us that the objects he had brought in were from ‘his own collection’ and difficult or impossible to replace, and that we were absolutely not allowed to touch them. In fact, we were to keep our hands behind our backs until we had passed completely through the line and retaken our seats. ‘You do not need your hands to observe,’ he said in his violent, whistling rodent’s voice, holding hands up to the sides of his face and wiggling them in emphasis. He was a blond man at the cusp of middle age; underneath his white button-down shirt he had the beginnings of a pot belly.
We filed past in silence, hands behind our backs. There came a moment when he wasn’t looking. I reached out my hand. If you had asked me why I had done so, I would not have known what to tell you. Curiosity played a part, certainly. But not about the petrified wood itself, which I affirmed, under my fingers, felt like any other rock you might find in the dirt. It sounds pretentious to say that I was curious about sin. Even saying that assumes that at the age of six I knew what the word sin meant. I did not.
Is it possible that he wasn’t looking? My memory contradicts itself: he was watching us like a jealous predator at every moment, but nevertheless somehow there was a moment when he was not looking. Perhaps several of the students in front of me, boys (who are expected to be rowdy) were goading each other on, pretending to touch the petrified wood, seeing who could come closest without actually touching it. Mr S— would have put a stop to this. Perhaps it was while he was distracted that I reached my hand out.
One of my compatriots in line gave me up immediately. ‘Mr S—, Mr S—,’ he shrieked. ‘Jane touched it!’ All eyes in the classroom were on me. My arms were once more behind my back.
At the time, what did I look like? I was not noticeable. Even looking back on pictures of myself around that age, [meaning and effect are unclear so I think too distracting] I have difficulty finding anything distinct about my face. It was inoffensive in a way that might be called pretty, but was more often overlooked. I was not used to being the subject of so much sudden attention.
Mr S— came towards me. He spoke in the pseudo-gentle voice that I had learned, already, to associate with punishment from figures of authority. ‘Jane,’ he said. ‘Did you touch it?’ He cut off the boy behind me, my accuser, before he could answer for me.
‘No,’ I said, my eyes on the ground.
‘Step outside, Jane,’ he said. ‘Everyone else, get to your seats. Put your heads down.’ The class obeyed, ashamed to be in the midst of this – but at the same time there was a palpable sense of joy, a strange energy throughout the group, at seeing one of their members singled out for punishment.
I stood in the hallway waiting. He kept me waiting for a long time. When he finally appeared, Mr S— walked me to the teachers’ room (which doubled as the room where punishment was given) and had me sit in a small child-sized seat while he towered above me. The room around me was the size of one of the classrooms, but was infinitely drearier and more adult. A table was pushed up against one corner of the room, with a couple of metal chairs surrounding it and a nauseous couch backed up against the wall, perpendicular. Windows looked out at the empty playground, surrounded by brown winter grass. The walls, the same yellowed white as those in the classroom – a color like bad teeth – were undecorated.
‘I know you’re lying,’ he said, positioning one of the adult-sized metal chairs across from me and taking his seat. I blushed furiously. ‘Do you want to know how I know you’re lying?’ He seemed to be enjoying his power over me in this moment, how my offense had delivered me up to him. ‘Because you can’t look me in the eye. You’re ashamed. If you weren’t lying to me, you’d have no reason to be ashamed. It’s eating you up inside, your lie. Do you feel bad inside?’ Not knowing how else to respond, I said yes. ‘Children who don’t lie can be proud of themselves. They can look people right in the eye. They don’t have to feel bad.’ I looked up at his face. It was monstrous, the way all adult faces were monstrous at that age. I realized that he was teaching me how to lie.
I would have other teachers, of course. Every adult who caught me in a lie and smugly told me how he or she knew I was lying gave me one more lesson.
I told my mother this story, or a version of it, one night when I was home from college (this is before she got sick). My mother and I were sitting around her kitchen table, drinking wine. I was a little drunk and feeling very adult. I was in college on a scholarship that included a stipend, enough for housing and some of my expenses; I thought of this as paying my own way through college, and now considered myself my mother’s equal. Her better, in some ways: a few months away from home and I could see the tackiness of the fake stained-glass decorations she had hanging in the windows, the owls and cats and other knickknacks that covered various surfaces, the cloying anonymous poems printed from forwarded emails and stuck to the refrigerator, all of which had been simply a part of the background when I had lived there, seen too frequently to be visible.
We had gotten on the subject of my time at the private school – I say ‘gotten on the subject,’ but I suspect I brought it up, feeling, in my independence, enough distance from her to reproach her – and I told her the story above, about the petrified wood. In the version I told her, the point wasn’t my lie (which I elided) or the realization that followed, but that I had gotten punished – I used the word ‘beaten’ – for such a minor indiscretion.
‘Beaten?’ my mother said. ‘For touching some old piece of rock?’
He took me back to the teachers’ lounge and beat me, I affirmed.
‘I know that they spanked the kids sometimes,’ she said. ‘There was a form that I had to sign, when you went into the school. I don’t think there’s any problem with that, with spanking a kid sometimes. People make a big deal out of it nowadays, but I think that sometimes a child deserves to be spanked.’
‘It was almost every week,’ I said. Which was true, as far as I remembered. A host of minor infractions for which I had been punished rose before my mind and I was indignant. But also, to be honest, I enjoyed being indignant. I sensed that I was in a position of power in this conversation. I found myself expanding into this new role, and I was enjoying it.
‘You weren’t a bad child,’ my mother said. ‘You were always a very easy child.’
‘It felt like they were just looking for a reason,’ I said. ‘I thought I must have been horrible, a really terrible kid, because why would I be getting punished if I weren’t being bad?’
My mother seemed to consider this for a long time, looking into her wineglass. Or perhaps she was just being quiet. Later, she said, ‘Do you know why I took you out of that school?’ Her body looked very heavy just then, very tired. I began to consider the possibility that my mother was old, and not in the abstract way that one’s parents are old when one is a teenager, but rather: a body, worn and tired. I made a gesture indicating that I didn’t know and hadn’t ever really thought about it. ‘I met with your principal once. She had asked me to come meet with her. She said that she was concerned about you, I thought maybe it was because you were a new student, maybe you had had some problems fitting in. When I got to her office, though, she wanted to discuss my personal situation. The first thing she said when I got into her office was “I understand you’re divorced.”’
‘Excuse me?’ my mother had said.
‘Are there men coming into your house?’ My mother sat, red-faced, speechless. ‘Men,’ the principal said. ‘Do you invite men into your house?’
My mother was so shocked by the question that she didn’t respond for some time. ‘I don’t see how that’s any of your business,’ she said at last.
‘Your daughter’s well-being is very much my business.’ The principal was a thin woman, around my mother’s age at the time. She wore a pantsuit and a thick mask of makeup, her hair teased up in a style that made her look ten years older than she was. ‘Children take after those around them. A mother living in sin . . .’
My mother objected, at this point, loudly. The principal stared at her.
‘That is what I am trying to ascertain. What sort of an example you are for your daughter.’
My mother walked out of the office, furious. ‘The only reason I didn’t take you out of that school right then was, well . . .’ I could tell she was still furious about this, and there was a sense of helplessness about the situation that she still felt. ‘The sign-up for public school had passed, and I had already paid for a year at the private school. I didn’t have the kind of money that I could just throw that away. I didn’t think you had any problems there though. I was determined that you weren’t going back to that school the next year, but I didn’t think you had any problems there.’
‘They beat me every week,’ I said, again, driving it in. I felt vindicated and strangely powerful. In that moment, if such a thing were possible, I would have willed into existence further injustices so that I might be more vindicated.
‘You never told me about it. How was I supposed to know how they were treating you if you didn’t tell me?’ Her voice was wavering, and she kept picking up things so that she could play with them nervously. I got the impression – from what, I’m not sure – that she was suppressing an urge to get up and flee the room.
‘How was I supposed to tell you?’ I said. ‘Every time I got punished it was for doing something wrong. If I had told you, you’d have known how bad I was.’ I was almost crying then. Is it strange to tell you that, when I look back on it, this feels like a good memory?
The liar must be distinguished from the confabulator. The confabulator says things that are not true to fill in gaps in the confabulator’s own memory. The confabulator is not attempting to deceive, or rather, to the extent that she is attempting to deceive, it is about the state of her own memory, rather than the exterior world. Generally, psychologists believe that confabulation is a way for the confabulist to maintain a sense of a stable, coherent identity. Confabulation is more self-deceit than anything else, but it is an unconscious self-deceit, of a class with all of the other deceits we carry out daily on ourselves to maintain the illusion that we are coherent, individual selves. Confabulations are common in people suffering from dementia, but can also be common in those with damaged frontal lobes or very young children, and who may not yet be able to distinguish between memory and fantasy.
Four conditions must obtain simultaneously for ‘provoked confabulation’ to occur: the confabulator is 1) asked a question, for which she 2) does not remember the response; however, 3) she has an inability to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate responses, and 4) she believes that a response is required.
Alternatively, in ‘spontaneous confabulation,’ the confabulations do not seem to be in response to a particular cue, and can often be strikingly embellished.
When my mother was dying, she could not distinguish between things that had happened and things that she had seen on television. She had cancer; in the later stages, it reached her brain. I would ask her if she knew who I was, and she would smile and nod shyly. ‘You’re that lady who just won all of that money,’ she would say.
‘I’m your daughter,’ I would correct her.
‘Mm,’ she would say, and give another gentle nod. She never seemed distraught when I told her who I was or corrected her in any other way. When she didn’t know a certain piece of information – the identity of the young woman in her room, what she had done professionally for most of her life, what she had eaten for lunch that day – she simply needed some quantity of information to fill in that gap. Her brain didn’t particularly care what the information was. Filling the gap, keeping the stream of autobiographical narrative running smoothly, that was the important thing. One piece of information was as good as another. By the end, I stopped correcting her. I would ask her open-ended questions about her life, and listen to her answers. Do you think this sounds heartless? I visited my mother throughout the time she was dying. At the end, I spent several nights with her, sleeping in a chair next to her hospital bed. Nobody else did. If you had asked me, there at the end, whether it was still my mother in her body, or something else, I wouldn’t have known what to tell you.
Photograph © Hugh Manon