Saturday, May 10, 2014

More on Lying and Questionable Narrators

I seem to be unusually preoccupied with liars and unreliable narrators and fishy witnesses.  It's a theme that I write a lot about.

Because the truth is always so important to me, I'm both appalled and fascinated by people who seem to make shit up, get the facts wrong, or exaggerate excessively.  I guess I'm in the right profession for that, being a reference librarian and all.  Information Literacy is my business and my passion.

Maybe I'm obsessed with lying the same way sexually-repressed conservative Christians are obsessed with pornography.  It gives them "disapproval boners," as Jon Stewart would say.  In the same way, I get truth boners. 


The latest thing to give me a truth boner is the book The Informant: A True Story by Kurt Eichenwald. 

When I first picked up this book, which is over 500 pages long, I almost put it back on the shelf.  I don't have time to read a 500-page book, I thought.  I knew there was a movie about it, so maybe I'd just watch that instead.  But Katherine convinced me to read the book.

Wow, am I glad I read it!

I spent an entire weekend doing almost nothing but reading this book.  And I'm not a marathon reader.  I haven't read a book this fast since the last Harry Potter came out, and the only reason I read that one so fast was that I wanted to avoid spoilers.  

Why was it so fascinating?  I wanted to get to The Truth.  I knew that the book was full of lies-- foreshadowing in the first few pages practically promises it-- but I wanted to know what were the lies and what was the truth. 

It's a quick read, with lots of very short scenes and paragraphs that glide along.  Aside from great stories of the world of white collar crime and law enforcement bureaucracy, the book is a fascinating study of a champion liar.

I don't think I'm giving away too many spoilers by saying that Mark Whitacre, the main character in the book, is a lying piece of shit.  He lies to everyone.  Constantly.  His lies are stuffed with lies, sauteed in lie sauce, smothered in lies, with lie sprinkles on top.  

Even when Whitacre is caught in all the lies, and colleagues, investigators, prosecutors, even his own lawyer, say, "Enough! YOU MUST TELL US THE TRUTH NOW OR VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN!"  Whitacre promises-- absolutely promises!--  that this time he's going to come clean.  Even then... he lies.   About a dozen times this process repeats itself. 

The man is pathologically incapable of telling the truth.  

He lies to himself as well. He deludes himself into thinking that after this is all over, he will be the hero of this story, vindicated and loved by everyone.  The few times when he does decide to reveal the truth, he does it in a spectacular way with the most inappropriate people, which only lands him in deeper trouble.  

 Fascinating.  I just can't look away! 


Of course, lying is not always so cut and dry.  Sometimes people see the same event from two different perspectives, and it's not so much about the truth, but perceptions.  For example, did I yell at my wife for making a mess at breakfast, or did I lovingly point out to her that there are crumbs all over the table?

Pat Conroy has written a lot of bestselling books (the most famous is The Prince of Tides), but the one that made the biggest impression on me was The Great Santini, where he gives a fictionalized account of his father, a marine fighter pilot who terrorized Conroy's whole family with his violence and detachment.  (He's written about his father in some non-fiction books as well.  The portrait is always the same.) 

Now Conroy has published a new book, The Death of Santini, a non-fiction memoir/biography that directly addresses his family's issues.

I'm reading the book now, and although many of the stories in it are interesting, about halfway through I started to get a funny feeling.  I started to question the narrator.  Things didn't make sense.  Everything seemed to be so overwrought, with bad dialogue and behavior that didn't seem authentic to me. I couldn't understand why these characters (real people) were reacting the way they were, and it felt like facts were being manipulated to fit the narrative.  And a lot of things seemed to contradict earlier events.

Conroy writes about how his father, and many members of his family, dispute his account of his childhood.  And it's not just small things they can't agree on, like what year they visited Disneyland, but big things, like whether or not his mother, during a savage beating at a birthday party, stabbed his father in the back in self-defense. 

Conroy's account of his childhood is that his father administered regular beatings to every member of the family.  Not only was he physically abusive, he taunted and bullied them mercilessly.  They all lived in mortal fear of their father, and Conroy cannot summon one memory from his childhood where his father showed any love, concern, or tenderness:  "It never occurred to my father that part of his job description was to love his children."  

His father, on the other hand, claims that Pat always had an overactive imagination, and that he never laid a finger on his wife or children. The senior Conroy claims his son exaggerated  his awful childhood for literary effect. 

How can these two "truths" be so far apart? 

While it's interesting, and even admirable, that Conroy includes these wildly differing perceptions in his memoir, I can't tell if he includes them in order to show that his father was, on top of everything else, dismissive and unapologetic, or if he wants to cast doubt on his own memories. 


This reminds me of a story I heard once on This American Life about a woman whose father adopted a 27-year-old ex-convict who had murdered his own parents. In the course of telling this story, the narrator  recounted how her father had been abusive to her and her sister throughout their whole childhood.  He had essentially terrorized them, the same way that Pat Conroy's father did.  She was so traumatized by the experience that when it came time to interview her father for the story, she had to have a colleague do it.  

When asked directly if he had ever physically abused his daughter, her father flat-out denied it.  He even claimed to have a wonderful relationship with his adult daughter.  It was surreal, because his daughter  believed she was estranged from him.  Clearly, someone was lying.  Or had such deluded perceptions as to be unrecognizable as truth.  

Both of these stories involve abuse, and both of them have fathers denying horrible things their children said they'd done.  I know that men of a certain generation didn't think anything of hitting their children (even my father did it on occasion.)  I also know that parents of past generations didn't talk about certain things.  You didn't air your dirty laundry in public.

So I don't know what actually happened in Pat Conroy's family.  Was his father really as brutal as he says he was?  Or was he just your typical authoritarian father from the 50's whose oversensitive son resented his "discipline"? 

Is Pat or his father lying?  Or is one of them deluded? 

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