Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater (Penguin Books 2000)
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
Lying, a title for a memoir, why? Don’t we read personal chronicles for true, reveal-all accounts of the authors who pen them? Are we to believe what Lauren Slater writes here? Or discount it? What’s the significance of Slater’s subtitle, A Metaphorical Memoir? Before I turned to the first page, my head swirled. Off-balance, dizzy with uncertainty, I wondered what kind of reading adventure awaited.
Slater, a psychologist and the author of the highly-regarded: Prozac Diary, Another Country, and Opening Skinner’s Box ignited my curiosity for her personal story.
Lying is a bumpy ride, boomeranging the reader like a whirl on the Coney Island Cyclone roller coaster. Chapters, crafted unconventionally, capture Slater’s whiplash-inducing style. The first chapter consists of just two words: “I exaggerate.” Other sections power a crazy-making momentum, from a quasi-journal article to a letter to the reader, a query by Slater to her publisher about how to pitch this book, to one called “The Cherry Tree,” conjuring up George Washington’s legendary lie.
Slater, a vulnerable, sensitive, only child, grew up in suburban Boston with a chronically disappointed mother who “never told the truth,” (22) and “her whole life fought to stay on the surface of things.” (56) Her mother’s emotionally withholding and self-absorbed persona influenced Slater’s epileptic and psychological symptoms “This grand mal, this big badness,” is how she learned to see herself. (21)
Desperate to shine in her mother’s eyes and to receive rarely proffered tenderness, Slater vibrated with constant tension and unease – just what she evokes in readers. We feel her anguish. We feel her longing. On her first airplane trip for a rare family vacation, Slater whispers to God, “My mother my mother please let her be pleased my mother.” (13)
Slater’s tale begins at age ten with a sudden magnified sense of smell, specifically of jasmine. Jolts of high-intensity aromas augured the onset of her epileptic seizures. When in her mother’s presence, the jasmine scent grew gargantuan: “I smelled jasmine everywhere…when the jasmine came on…my mother seemed higher than a house, all her hair flying.” Her father, in contrast, became “the size of a freckle.” (5)
Slater suffered years of multiple seizures, marked by intense sensations: smells, sweet and awful, auras, fits, and color-evoking sounds. When, for example, her mother played the piano, Slater would see “high piano notes pink and pointed, the low notes brown and round.” (7)
With the emergence of this swarm of symptoms, Slater’s mother dragged her from one treatment facility to another in search of a cure. Believing that self-will, not medication, would eradicate the seizures, her mother chose Dr. Swan at The Center of Voluntary Control over Internal Processes. Deep breathing and uncovering the origin of patients’ anxieties, according to the Center, would extinguish seizures.
When Dr. Swan asked the mother what troubled her daughter, she replied, “My daughter has no stressors. She has an exceptionally placid life.” (35) Dr. Swan hurled back, “Dismantle your denial. Every child has stressors.” (35) That was the end of Dr. Swan.
Next came a two-week stay with nuns at a Kansas facility for epileptic children, designed to teach them how to fall safely during seizures. Off to Kansas flew ten-year-old Slater, solo, to a dormitory, walls clad in Jesus paintings and crosses, a puzzlement for Slater as a young Jewish girl. Overcoming a fear-driven reluctance to let go, she mastered how to fall safely. In an aside, Slater interprets the metaphoric significance of free-falling:
I think secretly that each and every one of us longs to fall, and knows in a deep wise place in our brains that surrender is the means by which we gain, not lose, our lives. We want to go down, and it hurts to fight the force of gravity. (51)
Yet, falling well did not cure Slater’s epilepsy. Next came treatment by Dr. Neu, a Boston neurologist. After anti-seizure medications proved ineffective, Dr. Neu prescribed a corpus callosotomy, a surgery that cuts the band of nerve fibers that connect the two hemispheres of the brain. This procedure thwarts seizures in extreme cases, which he believed Slater to be.
A Center of Voluntary Control over Internal Processes. A Kansas facility where nuns teach epileptic kids to fall safely. An operation to split the brain in two. Metaphors? Facts? What’s Slater doing here? What’s real? What’s not? What’s remembered or forgotten or distorted? Does it matter? Is this all metaphor?
Throughout Lying, Slater sprinkles her musings about the above questions. Using stunning poetic imagery and introspective meanderings, she creates “the only one kind of memoir I can see to write …a slippery, playful, impish, exasperating text, shaped, if it could be, like a question mark.”
In the end, Slater forces us to question even the reality of her own illness. Even the foundation of her text is, possibly, a lie. She writes:
I ask you to please consider this—perhaps Munchausen’s, is all I ever had. [Munchausen’s is a factitious disorder whereby people act as though they have a severe illness.] Perhaps I was, and still am, a pretender, a person who creates illnesses because she needs time, attention, touch, because she knows no other way of telling her life’s tale. Munchausen’s is a fascinating psychiatric disorder, its sufferers makers of myths that are still somehow true, the illness a conduit to convey real pain.” (88)
Perhaps all memories and memoirs are metaphors. Perhaps we all craft personal narratives through the prism of our psyches. Slater shows us in Lying how we all give birth to the poetry of our own stories.
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