I lied a lot when I was little. This was nothing dramatic, you understand – just run-of-the-mill fabrications, the sort most kids make up. I might embellish facts to keep the listener interested, invent excuses to wheedle out of trouble, stretch the truth to make my hardship seem more onerous, my accomplishment more worthy of praise. Sometimes the lie would simply slip out as if on its own in a sort of conversational twitch.
True story: At Girl Scout camp when I was ten, two older girls trapped me in my tent and pinned my arms to my sides. The feeling of confinement made me panic. I flailed out with all my strength, and when that didn’t work, I said the first thing that came into my head. I told them they’d better let me go, because I had a history of mental illness and might go berserk. They let go, and I escaped. But the humiliation of the lie I had told about myself burned long after the summer had ended.
Also true: My first year in college, I took a media class, for which I was required to watch a certain amount of TV watching. Two kids on my hall claimed TV was evil, and told me I shouldn’t be watching it. To convince me, they cornered me in my room. One kid held me still while the other kid stretched the sleeves of my sweatshirt over my hands and tied them behind my back, like a straight-jacket. I thrashed and flailed in such a panic that they backed off. “Better watch how you treat me,” I told them, cringing at my dishonesty even as I gloated over their alarm. “I have psychological problems and they get set off when I’m teased.”
Thirty years later, I called my own bluff and actually did go to see a shrink. Sitting face to face with the man who would be my weekly confidant for the next five years, I felt more compelled to tell the truth than I had ever felt at any other time in my life. How could he help me sort through what was on my mind if I didn’t narrate my thoughts to him – and do it as truthfully as possible?
I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I understood that I would have to push past some excruciating embarrassment. What I didn’t count on was how hard it could be to pin down my own thoughts. To know what was truly true.
“I’m not very good at telling the truth,” I confessed, and presented as evidence my humiliating lies at camp and in college.
“You’re doing fine,” he assured me. “In this room, the truth isn’t just conveyed by what you say, but also by how you say it, and by what you don’t say. The truth is what happens here between us.”
Or words to that effect. To be perfectly honest, I’ve forgotten what he actually said. What I remember is what I heard: not just his therapeutic affirmation, but also a deeper insight into how communication occurs.
I remember it – or try to – when I write. Whether I’m writing fiction or an essay like this one, I know it’s going well when I feel compelled to tell the truth. I know it’s going very well when that truth is hard to get at, but I find my way nonetheless. And I know that I’ve succeeded when a reader tells me, “I know what you mean.”