Lie Like Them: Writing the Unbelievable Parent
Who is telling the truth? I wrote this note for myself in the margin of one of my recent drafts. In the essay, my parents tell two versions of the same story: a road trip between New Orleans and Corvallis, Oregon. As my mother tells it, the only incident worth noting was my father’s seizure on the side of the road in Texas. A trucker stopped to help her, then went on his way.
In my father’s version of events, he woke up to hear me screaming, crying my 6-month-old lungs out in the backseat. In his fog, he pulled me out of my safety seat and shook me until I stopped crying.
Which of these stories would you want to believe? My mother, of course, and not just because no one wants to believe they have been shaken as an infant. I want to believe her because she is the other victim in that car. I want to believe victims. I have to.
But why would my father make up that kind of lie? Why would he paint himself in such a hideous light? Why would he admit it? At the grave of my parents’ marriage, I exhume their divorce papers, his hospital records, the snapshots full of smiles. Next to the pile, I pull out my biases against him, against her, against women and men, against their whiteness and their poverty and all of the reasons someone or something in the universe has taught me not to believe people.
I survey the mess. I don’t know where to begin.
I started writing about my father when I started grad school. Now I’m trying to tie up my first book, a book about him. As I progressed, though, and as I grew in my work, I began to realize how little of his story, their story, my story I knew. Now I’m trying to recreate the image, but my lines will never be the same, never totally true to what came before.
On my bedside table, I keep a copy of Miranda Doyle’s A Book of Untruths. I’ve told people I would loan it to them, but I’m not ready to part with it. I want to keep it close to me, as a reminder that the untruths of any life can be discovered, clarified, researched. The questions I still have are worth asking. I am worth finding the answers.
In A Book of Untruths, Doyle writes with familiarity about the narratives constructed from her parents’ lies. She shares their history, starting with events that occurred before she was born, and verifies them through family documents, leading the reader through her childhood and onto her path toward writing and motherhood. The book is constructed as a series of 70 short sections, each numbered by a different short lie and tethered to specific memories. Some of the lies include: “Lie 12: We don’t have favourites,” in which she writes about the favoritism her parents showed toward her younger brother, or “Lie 34: There will be no morning run,” in which the teenage narrator tries to convince herself that she won’t be forced to participate in the frigid ritual of the morning run around her school (37, 107). In using the tool of the numbered lie construction, Doyle engages with a lie that needs to be proven false alongside her memory. Through her use of evidence, she not only reveals the truth, but aligns her memory with what is true, reinforcing her reliability as a narrator.
Raw defiance permeates the text. I think it starts with the title, or perhaps even with the cover of the book. It issues a challenge of sorts: on a cream background, we see the book’s title and author, but they have been crossed out with something red. Maybe it was a marker, but it reminds me more of lipstick, the kind of smear you see in a bathroom stall crossing out somebody’s phone number scrawled in Sharpie. What’s taken up in this image, and in the book as a whole, is an acknowledgment of the silencing that Doyle faced in her family as a woman, and how that reflects so many larger responses to women’s stories. It feels like women are perpetually unworthy of society’s trust.
There will always be a challenger, a questioner, the bro in the back raising his hand and asking, “Did that really happen?” In choosing to address those lies directly, on her book’s cover and within her text, Doyle points a finger right at those who would question her and says, “Yes, it fucking did.”
Part of what renders these versions of Doyle’s truth as reliable comes from her acknowledgment of the people who inspired her story (in the form of her mother’s permission and the inclusion of writing by her father and brothers). She uses photographs, as well as interviews and letters between family members, to demonstrate the conclusions she draws about their lives. Of all these artifacts, perhaps the most significant is the picture of a Post-it note prefacing the memoir, with a message from “Mum” telling the recipient to write whatever she wants. The note seems to be a kind of disclaimer, both for the mother who will appear in the forthcoming pages, but also for permission to tell the truth, implying that there is something in need of confessing. At any rate, we know from that first image that there is an awareness within the family, at least for the narrator’s mother, that the family is the subject of writing, and that the writing has been sanctioned by this note.
I take the words of Doyle’s Mum to be a blessing, something I seek in my own writing. I want my mother to feel like I would not question her story. I want my father to keep telling me his own versions of things. My father has been the primary resource in my writing about his life, opening up about his family’s history while critically examining his own choices as an adult and father.
I made a choice when I started to nail down what this book would be that it would be about my father exclusively. Sure, the story can’t be told without my mother, but as she repeated time and again, it wasn’t her story. What does it mean for me, the feminist activist daughter, that I choose to write the story of my violent but brilliant criminal father before the story of my mother, painted saint that she is? How am I dishonoring her in this choice? Am I? I ask myself these questions again and again. What does focusing my energy on an unreliable man show about my attention, about the stories I feel are worth telling?
I wrestle with who my father is. Trump supporter. Casual racist. Homophobe. The big three dealbreakers that keep me from being close to a new person. But also: genius. Musician. Philosopher. Writer. How do I write about a person who represents these identities I chastise, while recognizing that he’s been one of my biggest inspirations?
I try to take a leaf from Doyle’s book, to cast my gaze wide: the cigarettes overflowing in my dad’s ashtray. His guitar case in the corner. Hootie the Blue Heeler on the slatted floor. To see the lies that shaped me and my understanding, and see, too, the lies my father has told himself.
Part of what makes A Book of Untruths my bedside mainstay is because of the redemption of Miranda Doyle. This memoir encompasses her entire life, from before her birth to her present career, the death of her mother and the ever-changing definitions of what mother means to her. I thumb the pages, look at the photographs from her life, cry at her lovely wedding dress, revel in the joy that came for her. She deserved it.
I think I need that in the stories I read because I need that for myself. I need it for my parents.
DELANEY McLEMORE will receive her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College in the summer of 2018. She graduated from Marshall University in 2013 with her BA in English. She is currently working on her first book. Her work can be found in Entropy Magazine, Anastamos, gurl.com, and Et Cetera Literary Magazine. Find her on Instagram or Facebook (once she finishes her book).