I wrote a short story about my father, how we never got along and finally parted in blind, feuding anger. When I was satisfied that this story told the truth — not necessarily the literal truth — I made several copies for people to read. Everyone claimed to be moved.
I passed the story on to an acquaintance who had published a novel the previous year. He said it was good, but it could be better if I did x, y, and z. So I enthusiastically set to work, smoothed rough edges, worried over narrative flow, changed events around, thought I made it better. Instead, I had a sinking sense of having taken the truth, imperfect and handmade, and given it a shiny wax job.
But because I had struggled with the story — made that connection with Dad — I was moved to seek him out for real once again. This Winter, my brother and I visited him for the first time in more than ten years. We walked into his house and Dad — not expecting us — was sitting there with his pipe, reading the Sunday paper. He looked up and began crying, the first time I had ever seen him cry. I thought in amazement, I have a father again, and realized that this was also part of the story, part of telling the truth about a piece of my life.
It’s an interesting paradox that fiction, defined as a “fabrication or falsehood,” can zoom in on the truth and illuminate it relentlessly.
Huckleberry Finn and Jim didn’t exist. Their story never happened. There was no Joad family, no Preacher Casey. There was no Captain Ahab, no great white whale. And Alice never visited Wonderland or wandered through the looking glass. These are all works of fiction, not of fact. They are stories made up of imagined happenings and invented characters.
Yet, what better portrayal of the visionary hope of brotherhood than the bond between Huck and Jim as they travel down the Mississippi on their fragile raft, their small Utopia disrupted only when they touch civilization and human nature?
What more poignant picture of the poor, the dispossessed, the unprotected, than the dustbowl refugees of The Grapes of Wrath? When Tom Joad understands at the end of the book, “. . . a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one . . . ,” Steinbeck makes a powerful statement — that only together can the powerless overcome, and that, yes, we are all our brothers’ keepers.
Captain Ahab, fired by his own distorted view of evil, relentlessly and senselessly pursues Moby Dick. He destroys his crew, his ship, and himself, but not evil. Did Melville warn us about self-righteous avengers such as John Birchers and Senator Joseph McCarthy?
Alice, with her logical, sensible child-mind, argues futilely with Humpty Dumpty, who, in his roundness, is about to roll off the top of the wall and break. He is indignant that Alice thinks he’s an egg just because he might look like one. Did Carroll foresee Nixon’s pronouncement, “I am not a crook”? And Alice is amused by the Queen of Hearts, Carroll’s personification of those in power, because the queen makes no sense and she solves all problems with a dictatorial, hysterical, irrational, “Off with their heads!” There’s a discomforting truth here about despots and about those who made the mistake of not taking them seriously.
Actual events? No. Great truths? Yes.
Park Forest, Illinois
I learned to tell lies at four years of age when I took a red lipstick and painted the yellow wall in the sun Picasso red, then said I didn’t do it. That was a lie my father said; truth is better. After that, truth became a divining rod, personal truth the perceptions, the stream inside, voices welling up. Now, truth is in the eyes, the olive-light shining, hazel ones, or azure, in the broad leaves of a maple tree outside my window, in the slow swing of my brother’s arm as he connects with the tennis ball. I guess it has expanded to included whatever breathes.
When we begin to tell the truth we must first confront the lie. The lie is like an angry brick wall square in our path, blocking our way to the truth. And to get to those sweet grassy plains of truth we have to confront the lie within us that we have been telling and living. The lie is scary, so scary that virtually half of our energy goes into running away from it. The lie has given us cancer. It makes us get colds in the winter. It puts tension in our necks and down our back and in the temples of our head. The lie is all those things we do that are wrong, that cut us off somehow from the generally vibrant flow of life. But we lie anyway because we derive a kind of perverse pleasure from lying. Smoking cigarettes is a lie, evident from the first nauseous reaction we have when we inhale one. It doesn’t fit the scheme of the body. But, as it is with lying, if we keep working at smoking, we begin to enjoy it. Doctoring meats for the sake of profit with chemicals and hormones that do nothing for the food value and corrode the health of those who eat them is a lie. And those who eat the meat knowing full well that it is doctored with chemicals are lying too. (I am implicating myself: I had spaghetti and meatballs last night, and today there is some ground pork in my refrigerator.) This is lying because the pretense on the part of the cattle grower is that he is growing food for us, which he is not; he is making money for himself. And we are lying when we eat it because we pretend we are nourishing our bodies, while in fact we are only poisoning ourselves and satisfying our perverse taste for poison.
Our lies are terrible things. We shut ourselves off from them; we run scared. To confront the lie is like confronting cancer for the first time, admitting that you have it. Confronting the lie makes you feel like you are going to die: it seems so terrible. So when the lie pops in front of our face we shoo it away like we would a large, hostile fly.
Let me tell you about an experience I had confronting a lie, my lie. I was in San Francisco at the time, visiting a friend. I was reading a book: the writer was talking about all the lies we had not acknowledged. As I read, I got to thinking that maybe I wasn’t as great as I’d thought, maybe I was just a pretentious wind-bag. Maybe I was just like those people who turn me off so much, the spiritually arrogant who think they have some special lease on understanding. I began to get outside myself and see me as someone else would. And I did see some justification for the conclusion that I wasn’t so special. Well, since I had admitted that much, I advanced a little further. Suddenly, I stumbled upon it — a hairy, ugly mass of mucous and filth: the beast. It was much worse than I had ever imagined. I didn’t fall short just some of the time, I realized. I was a total hypocrite, a self-conscious prig, a pretentious spiritual addict. The entire foundations of my self-concept quaked threateningly. I felt like I was going to go under. The experience was so extreme and total, the lie had rotted so much of my psyche, that I did not see how I could possibly survive what I had seen, how I could even find myself worthy to eat a bowl of breakfast cereal. The lie, this hairy ugly beast, almost as wide as my body, started to rise from my stomach into my chest, choking and sickening me along the way. I gasped with surprise, shock, dismay, and felt a frantic urge to suppress it. But I resisted the urge and let it rise. Into my chest. Into my throat. I felt terrible. My hands let go of the book and my head dropped trembling onto the table. It was ugly, ugly, ugly. And the sticky mass of hair and mucous and filth still rose through me, right up into my eyes and brain. And then, to my amazement, it passed right on through, outside of my head, up into the atmosphere somewhere, and disappeared. I was left feeling absolutely clean and whole and worthy. Healthy, with not a lie about me, because I had just confronted and admitted them all.
Telling the truth is simply a measure of my honesty with myself; but who does the measuring?
Each and every time I say, write, or otherwise convey to someone, “I love you,” I slide down the bannister of bullshit, and get a splinter of guilt. I mean it as much as I can, but how truthful can it be when I don’t truly love myself? An honest solution to this struggle is to accept that I am not unique.
One friend, in an effort to pursue honesty with himself, confided to another friend a secret from his past.
“Well,” the first friend spoke to the second friend, “I once had sexual intercourse with a parrot.”
“Oh, yeah?” the second friend replied. “Tell me, did yours die too?”
The other day I went to court; I was arrested with 305 people in June at the Federal Building protesting the secret war in Nicaragua. Twenty of us were in court Wednesday, with our little pink slips that said, “Disorderly conduct.” Word had gotten out that this judge — a large, rather nervous woman — was asking people if they’d heard the order to disperse, from the police. If they said yes, they got a two-dollar fine. If they said no, their case was dismissed. “Say you didn’t hear it,” everyone told each other. They called us up and we all said we hadn’t heard it. Our cases were dismissed.
Of course, the judge was just covering herself. If we said we didn’t know we were going to be arrested, she couldn’t be blamed for letting us off. It was a kind of barter: a small lie for a small favor. And who wants to pay money for the privilege of getting arrested?
Still, walking out of the courtroom, I had the faint feeling that I had just contributed to the secret war in Nicaragua.
New York, New York
Sparrow sends the following, written by Luis Batres, a young student of his:
When George Washington was a little boy he chopped his father’s cherry tree his father got so mad that he smashed the little guys little teeth.
Now and then, I think there are two kinds of truth that might be told. The first boils down to taste though it often finds loud and logical multitudes in its wake: ban the bomb, support abortion, rights for pets, gun control, spiritual pursuits, love, travel, knowledge, etc., etc. These variations on taste and thousands upon thousands like them find vigorous throngs eager to argue the truth of their position. And yet, stripped of the unwillingness to be alone, taste remains the core. Liking agreement, comfort, and company seldom turns out to be the same as liking the truth. Numbers do not insure validity, and life seems a hell of a lot easier when taste, however deeply buried, is recognized for what it is: passing, like the truth. Or, anyway, that’s my taste.
The second kind of truth might be called The Truth. Is there such a thing — some kind of universal something-or-other that unites and yet transcends faddish taste? If the answer is no, what are all those spiritual aspirants doing? And if the answer is yes, what are all those spiritual aspirants doing? Are they all simply snuggling each other with platitudes and the mutual agreement not to do all the fun things like getting angry, loving sex, or eating and drinking themselves deaf, dumb, and blind? Are they hiding a longing or grievance for Mom or Dad, doing obscure penance, or copping out? These questions may be very important, but they have zero bearing on the question, “Is there such a thing as The Truth?”
Bluntly put, the question is impossible to answer. At the most superficial level this is because words are a matter of taste and what is sought goes beyond and comes before taste. A line somewhere goes: “Wishing to entice the blind, the Buddha has playfully let words escape his golden mouth. Heaven and earth are ever since filled with entangling briars.”
Words, thoughts, discriminations and the like — all very highly prized — are entangling for sure, playful at best, but certainly not the tools with which to ferret out The Truth. What tools are useful then? Probably taste. And words, thoughts, and discriminations — all the stuff of “delusion,” “ignorance,” “illusion,” “unreality,” and the like. But instead of letting these playful, painful ghosts enslave and direct, watch them. Pay attention as a mother hen follows every wobble and fall-down of her chick. Follow them. Don’t say “they” and “them,” “he” and “she.” Say “who?” and “I” and follow doggedly. Go into the homes of all the demons with a bright light and open eyes; find their place of spawning and their place of demise; know them in their before, their during, and their after. It takes courage, persistence, and doubt. It does not take words, thoughts, or even very good intentions.
And when and if the time comes to speak, perhaps there will be one who can say, “Anchovies suck!” and it’ll turn out to be The Truth. Or maybe not.
New York, New York
Truth is one of my father’s primary values, as in, “Always tell me the truth,” “Tell the truth and shame the devil,” and, “Are you sure that’s the whole truth?” Two years ago I told him a truth about me that he couldn’t hear. Because of this, I am no longer welcome to call or to come. I’ve only seen him once since then, at Christmas, as he slammed the door in my face. He’s told other family members that I must be lying to have told him something so terrible, something that just couldn’t be truth.
Last year, my lover stopped telling me the truth — just for a while, he says, to cover the circumstance of his falling in love with someone else. He wanted a fresh relationship, with no awful truths lurking in corners.
I don’t tell the truth much anymore, because I don’t know it. Maybe I’m sick. Maybe I’m well. Maybe I’m dying. Maybe I’m living. Telling the truth seems like a long-ago childhood pleasure, one I remember almost as fondly as knowing the truth.
One of my earliest memories was one of nearly abject terror. My father was coming toward me with an awful expression on his face. Even though I cannot remember what happened next, the moment was one of anticipated pain. Most therapists would judge this memory to be a terrible blight on my psyche. How much better to have a recollection of butterflies in sunlit gardens. For a time I even felt guilty about having such an experience as my first conscious thought.
Lately I have come to see that I selected that memory for a very specific reason. It protects me from the truth. Throughout my entire childhood the fear of punishment from my father was used to justify many lies. How bad can it be to lie if it keeps me from such violent retribution? Telling the truth becomes a lesson in masochism.
Unfortunately, lies build only a false center. To please my father and to avoid his anger I constructed a self. Built by a carpenter with no plan or blueprint the resulting house was a shoddy edifice that would threaten to fall at the slightest tremor.
The child eventually becomes an adult and leaves his father. Gradually it dawned on me that the premise for my lies was gone. Where was the punishment to allow me to avoid the truth? But the lies are hard to give up, and there is one father whose punishment I could never escape. My Baptist upbringing had taught me that my earthly father had a congruent complement in heaven. The hellfire and brimstone sermons of the revivalist preachers taught that my father’s wrath was eternal.
I had long since stopped believing the things I had heard as a squirming boy chaffing under the confines of an unaccustomed starched collar and tie. However, I had myself made the same mistake those evangelists had. To see God as punishing is a perfect way to avoid the truth. Suddenly the hypocricy of the world was made clear. The world lies because it thinks that it is the only way to avoid damnation. Yet at the same time it knows that its lies will be found out and it will be damned anyhow. Certainly an insane system.
Now I know why it is so difficult to see God and my father as loving. To do so undermines my entire egocentric thought system. The fear of God probably keeps most of us from living and telling the truth. It is a projected fear to hide the fact that we would rather be justified than loving.
How can I always tell the truth, when often I don’t know what it is? Some people ridicule candor. Swift direct honesty is stupid they claim; fast fibbing for material profit is the sign of intelligence. I don’t think that’s true.
I can’t claim to be scrupulously honest because I’ve lied to my parents to shield them and myself, and to employers to save myself, and I still would if necessary.
Regarding the larger issues of life and death, no one can really know what’s true or even if there is a truth that applies. We flounder, and cite circumstantial ethics and relativity, and listen to “experts,” who often change their minds.
It seems to me it is wrong to inflict physical and emotional violence and that God exists. Maybe those are the only truths. In freshman philosophy, I was told I could not even be certain a chair is a chair; even the evidence of one’s physical senses could not be trusted.
In bleak moments I’m afraid that the truth is almost invariably grim, although even harsh truths are reputed to be liberating, exhilarating. All these sages, Socrates and Jesus and Shirley MacLaine, persist in exhorting “know yourself.” Yet it’s natural to want to view yourself in a flattering light, whether or not it’s “objective truth.” Discovering things about yourself that are true — such as that you love to read about binge eaters and feel drawn to beauty salons — how does this reveal God? I don’t know if I know anything that’s both true and profound.
Chapel Hill, N.C.