I couldn’t decide for a while whether I loved or hated Lauren Slater’s book Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. Finally, maybe a quarter of the way into it, I decided I loved it and I never changed my mind again. But it’s the kind of book I would think carefully about before I recommended it to anyone, as it strikes me as potentially hateable. It seems that Slater has a talent for stirring up controversy (whether this is what she intends or not, I’m not sure). My first introduction to her was the 2006 edition of The Best American Essays where she was the year’s guest editor. Her introduction to the anthology told the story of how her book Opening Skinner’s Box provoked all kinds of anger from all kinds of people, but especially professional psychologists, of which she is one herself. Apparently, people didn’t like her portrayal of famous psychological experiments, and they disliked it enough to start an email listserve called “Slater-Hater,” which she followed for a while. The openness with which she discussed this episode, which surely was extremely painful, impressed me, and I’ve been intrigued by her ever since.
So, as you can guess from the title, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir is no traditional memoir; instead, it’s a book where she claims to have epilepsy, but also refuses to tell you whether that’s actually true or not. It might just be a metaphor for something else she is trying to communicate about her life, something about mental illness. She describes the experience of epilepsy in great detail, though, telling about her first seizures and the process of figuring out the disease, describing the various forms of treatment she received, and describing the way she would pretend to have seizures or purposely induce seizures for dramatic effect. The most dramatic part of the book comes when she describes surgery to have her corpus callosum severed — the part of the brain that connects the right and left hemispheres. Her doctor believed that this wouldn’t cure her fully but would cut down dramatically on the number and severity of the seizures, which is did — or which she says it did. It also left her with some strange side effects, such as not being able to read with her left eye closed, since the right side of the brain processes language.
All this is described in a totally convincing way, but the reader has no way of knowing what to believe. Slater discusses this directly, though, telling the reader why she’s writing the way she is:
Is it possible to narrate an honest nonfiction story if you are a slippery sort? I, for one, am a slippery sort, but I believe I’m also an honest sort because I admit my slipperiness. And, therefore, to come clean in this memoir would be dishonest; it would be to go against my nature, which would be just the sort of inauthenticity any good nonfiction memoirist, whose purpose is to capture the essence of the narrator, could not accommodate. I truly believe that if I came completely clean I would be telling the biggest lie of all, and at heart I am not a liar, I am passionately dedicated to the truth, which, by the way, is not necessarily the same thing as fact, so loosen up!
I love this. She writes a book called Lying in which she refuses to tell us the facts but says she is not a liar! Which is totally possible, of course — she’s exploring lying, or she is revealing the truth indirectly, using lies, or the possibility of lies, to tell a kind of truth. This passage comes from a memo she (supposedly) wrote to her editor about how to market the book, which shows her other interest: reader’s expectations of genre. She says in this memo that her purpose is:
among a lot of other things, to ponder the blurry line between novels and memoirs. Everyone knows that a lot of memoirs have made-up scenes; it’s obvious. And everyone knows that half the time at least fictions contain literal autobiographical truths. So how do we decide what’s what, and does it even matter?
For me, it didn’t matter much. I didn’t care whether she really had epilepsy or not; the book was meaningful to me whether the epilepsy was literal or a metaphor, and I liked going back and forth between the two possibilities. There’s an emotional honesty that comes through all the playfulness. I came to trust her, oddly, for just the reasons she said we should trust her: she may be telling lies, but she never claims to be telling the truth either.
She also tells some riveting stories, especially the one about her time at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. She applies during the summer before she begins college, lying on her application that she is 19 years old, the minimum age. She gets rejected. She is sure this is a mistake, however, so she changes her name and applies again, making sure she gets a different reader. She gets in this time. But the fact that her writing sample is erotic in nature and that her new reader is male are both significant to what happens next. And then there is the story about accidentally joining AA, a group that becomes hugely meaningful to her but which she has joined under false pretenses, and she doesn’t know how to come clean.
There is so little that’s certain in this book, beginning with the introduction and continuing through to the end, but living with that uncertainty was surprisingly enjoyable, and even exhilarating. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some readers find Slater to be unbearably coy, and some might find her tricks irritating, such as putting her acknowledgments page in the middle of the book. But I loved all that, and I admire Slater’s courage, for surely it takes courage to refuse to give the reader solid ground to stand on, and surely it takes talent to make such a book so fascinating to read.