Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lies and Survival

"Did you ever lie to survive when you were younger?" she asked.

We were talking about our families, about our parents in particular: what was hidden, what was shared. I instantly sprang to a part of my life I felt super uncomfortable sharing for decades, but have, in the process of writing my memoir, finally "outed" and been able to talk about without shame. It wasn't lying *to* my family, it was lying *about* my family, sort of.

When my father died we had no funeral. There were many cards from students and co-workers (he was a beloved instructor at a local small tech college). Many calls. But no responses from our family (see: my mother, lost in grief) and certainly no funeral or wake. I didn't really know what those were like - my maternal grandmother had died when I was a little kid, and we had buried her at our cabin, where everyone's ashes got buried. No service, just a burial - maybe we weren't even there when our grandfather put her in the ground.

So it didn't strike me as odd. Didn't strike me as needed or even healthy to have a service. It was normal, you know, what was known, in my family's culture.

I didn't even know what a funeral could be like until my mid-twenties, when I attended a godmother's service. It was awful and traumatizing for me, because I had no training. And only recently did a friend from my school days tell me she wished she had been able to come to a funeral for my mother (we also didn't have one for her) so she could have supported me, and mourned her herself. I had no idea. Suddenly, I knew the loss, literally, in a way I hadn't.

Even then some part of me know it wasn't enough, even if I didn't know the alternatives. After the sympathy wore off, after people stopped asking about my father's death or giving me sideways side long glances of sadness, after people stopped whispering around me or giving me special treatment, there was nothing. I was to be over it, moved on, normal again.

I wasn't over it. And I was treated as if I wasn't normal. My situation wasn't normal. We weren't talking about it at home, and there was no closure. I went to the school counselor to talk - I had been requested to come - and I was actually kind of excited to talk to someone about my dad. He wanted to talk to me about my mother's drinking problem - later, when I wanted to talk to my first therapist about my mom, she wanted to talk about my dad's death. I couldn't win.

So I lied. First I said a friend was dying of cancer. Then I said a boyfriend had some rare chronic condition that might kill him. Then I might have leukemia - no, I definitely have leukemia. I thought I did have it - not medically, but I was convinced for years that I would one day get cancer (my father died of Hodgkin's Lymphoma). I felt sick a lot of the time and had missed a good half of my later elementary school days, being either sick, fake sick or psychosomatically ill at home. I went to school now - had friends I liked and good teachers, lived just a couple of blocks from school, liked boys I wanted to see and flirt with. But something was missing, I was dying and the only way I knew to express it was to manipulate others for sympathy.

I am very sympathetic to that little girl now. I can see me at ages 12-15, telling these bold and dramatic lies, watching my friends sympathize. I became friends with a couple of other habitual liars and I got better at my game, upping the ante while still maintaining seeming honesty. And then, I am not sure how, I got found out.

My closest friends dropped me like a hot potato. I don't blame them. The group that used to eat lunch at my house got wary and stopped coming around. I told my friend, the one who asked this question this morning, that it didn't really hit me what I had done or how far I had gotten from reality until the closest friend, who I am still close to, said:

"I hate to ask this question. I feel like it's awful to ask it but I simply have to know: did your dad actually die?"

I realized why I had lied for the first time. I'd like to say I stopped lying after that, but of course it took a long time to see that the rewards - sympathy, attention, pity, affection - were as empty as the lies themselves. I was making up a life and getting made up reactions. Well into college, I still toyed with the truth, until I returned to writing in my mid-twenties and began to account for myself again. That came also after my mother's death, I see now - another major loss that made it clear what was real and what wasn't.

Death lead to lying for me. Death returned me to the truth. I did lie to survive - literally. I also had to stop lying to survive. It was a wonderful, exquisitely painful question. An enlightening and searing answer. A reminder of what memoir - remembering, writing, reading, responding - is made for.

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