In her latest memoir, French-Canadian memoirist Lauren Slater describes her struggle with epilepsy and her eventual cure through psychotherapy and medication.
If someone tells you that what she is going to tell you is not true, then listening is a difficult project. You wonder what truth there is in what you are being told, and why she is telling you things that are not true, and you wonder whether maybe she was lying about lying. It puts you in a distracted, distrustful frame of mind, and it is hard to follow the details.
With the very title of her new memoir, Slater loudly announces that it is not true. Not only that, but she also explains how her duplicity is integral to her personality, and thus, by lying, she is being true to herself, or at least, true to her illness, whatever it might be. Furthermore, she discusses the nature of the memoir in the memoir itself. Readers might be forgiven for feeling not only confused, but a little manipulated.
Quite a bit of Lying seems to be true. For instance, her affair, at seventeen years old, with a well-known married author and father of two, whom she calls "Christopher Marin." Marin is a cad who takes her virginity; not only that, she describes him having anal sex with her. On Amazon.com, one of the readers' comments is from a Christopher Marin, who praises the book highly, and confirms the relationship, although he denies the part about anal sex. So I'm more inclined to believe that she really had an affair with a famous novelist. Of course, maybe the comment by Marin on Amazon.com is a fake, placed by Slater or someone else. Once you know a person is a liar, it is hard to believe anything she says without a nagging doubt at the back of your head. There's another reader comment on Amazon.com by an Oliver Saks: was this placed by some wit wanting to increase the post-modern playfulness by pretending to be Oliver Sacks? Will future jokers add reader comments by S. Freud and B. Clinton?
There are other clues in the text about when she is lying: for example, it is pretty clear that her neurologist "Carlos Neu, M.D." does not exist. She comes close to saying so herself. Chapter Five is an 8-page paper by Dr. Neu on his epileptic patient LJS, but no acknowledgement appears on the copyright page thanking the publisher of the journal for permission to reprint the article. Later in the book she describes an episode where she shows a university counselor the article, and the counselor points out that the article could not possibly be genuine.
What this memoir does convey is a sense of emptiness. Through her tenuous connection with truth-telling, Slater gives a strong impression that she doesn't quite know who she is. She tells stories because she likes using words; they give her a sensual pleasure. Her own account of what she is doing is that she is telling a narrative truth, going beyond the stupid facts and highlighting something more important. Maybe it's precisely the sense of emptiness that she wishes to convey.
As is generally the case, the blurb on the inside cover exaggerates: it claims that Slater "forces us to redraw the boundary between what we know as fact and what we believe we create as fiction." Maybe Slater wrote her own blurb: as she herself says in Chapter 1 (which consists of a two word sentence), "I exaggerate." But after reading it the boundary between fact and fiction is untouched. As with Irvin Yalom's latest book, Slater does make her reader contemplate what a memoir aims to achieve.
There are plenty of reasons when writing a memoir to hide the truth. One doesn't want to hurt people by telling personal facts about them or breach confidentiality. More than that, writing about oneself requires a huge ego, and a certain readiness to distort the facts suggests a healthy modesty. It is also frightening to reveal oneself to others, because it makes one vulnerable, and to include an escape clause saying that some of one's self-description is false enables one to hide. Although Slater doesn't say so, it is easy to imagine that these reasons are factors in her decision to lie.
But there may be a deeper idea behind Slater's experiment, that it is impossible to tell the full truth in a memoir, or rather, the very ideal of "the essential personal truth" is illusory. The idea of "the truth behind depression" or "the truth behind borderline personality disorder" may sell books, but it needs to be viewed with great suspicion. I'd suggest that not only are there a multiplicity of facts to be given, rather than any one central fact, but more important, the prioritizing of one stance or fact over another in the telling of a story is always ideologically loaded. The essence of a mental illness is, in a sense, a cultural construct, and to buy into any particular narrative approach is to give that construct greater solidity or credence. It is more honest to emphasize uncertainty.
I love reading memoirs. At the same time, given the huge number of memoirs published, and the commercial pressures to make them upbeat and informative, I very much like the fact that Slater is going against the grain, and is raising important, philosophical questions.
The first sentence of this review contains a falsehood. More than that, I cannot say.
© 2000 Christian Perring
Note that this book is published in paperback in Britain under the title Spasm: A Memoir With Lies.``