Notes from a Liar

by Tracy Wan


The temptation is to define lying, mortalize the monster by excavating its heart as evidence, but even then we cannot find it in us to absolve it. This is not how the story goes: we want the snake to live. if it survives, then we are not the snake. That is, in fact, what we need the most.

But the snake’s blood already runs through all of us, coming to a boil when we least expect it. At best, it inoculates against more lies: not everyone is built for dishonesty, or its side effects on the body. But for the most part, these side effects — the guilt, the humiliation, the self-loathing — are what we develop a slow immunity against.

This is not who I am, I say when it is all over. It’s a poor defense, a coping mechanism. When faced with shame, I begin sorting the “catastrophe of my personality (Frank O’Hara, Mayakovsky),” compartmentalizing features and faults into different iterations of me: at my best, worst, truest. None of us are liars, yet everyone lies — some of us only to ourselves. You reply, I’m not sure you know who you are, because this is it.

Picture a volcano and the people who traveled to its mouth and called it home. Picture the first time you struck out, quick, almost reflexive. As with any eruption, the hardest part to swallow is the surprise.

So many things we grow up resenting, only finding ourselves guilty of them in adulthood: a taste for wine, a fondness for rituals, a replica of our parents. We think that lying is despicable, something to be better than, until we find a lie sitting, like a smooth pebble, on our tongues. Then we begin negotiating with our former selves.

“But no matter how clearly I saw what I was doing, I would go on doing it, as though I simply allowed my shame to sit there alongside my need to do it, one separate from the other. I often chose to do the wrong thing and feel bad about it rather than to do the right thing, if the wrong thing was what I wanted.” — Lydia Davis, The End of the Story

A) We tell lies to protect those we love from what we really want.
B) We tell lies to protect what we really want from those we love.
C) Whatever you tell yourself, it is wise to tell yourself the opposite.

To think that all this time, I lied because I was protective of you, when I should have been protecting you from myself.

What we cannot swallow about ourselves we digest by nibbling around the edges, “the way a child knows the world by putting it / part by part into his mouth” (Jack Gilbert, The Spirit and the Soul). In that regard, learning to lie is also learning the truth. As we read our fiction back to ourselves, all we can hear is the low hums of desire.

Children are natural liars. At that age, we still call it imagination. Now it is a choice: you have no excuse. I don’t think it’s that simple, that sometimes we imagine a lie to be the better choice. This is both an excuse and the truth.

Our dreams are the best lies we tell. The reality expires quickly, and no one else is asked to believe in it. That’s why most people have very little patience for hearing about others’ dreams, but love keeping records of their own, hoping to glimpse something more.

Some nights I am pregnant, a recurring, shape-shifting gauze of a dream that finds me in the bluest hours. It is not a scene but a feeling: that something warm and alive lies within the softest parts of my stomach. For the most part, that is the punch line. I am carrying a child. But in the dreams when I give birth, it is not a child.

When I lied to you — the first in many years and the first of many this year — my heart rose to the edge of my throat in protest, angry and arrhythmic. I felt betrayed by my body, a fact that still makes me nervous. We lie, after all, to be in control. It is naive to think that hearts do not have a mind of their own, because truthfully, my body felt betrayed, first.

If memory is the repetition of synapses, then lying is their conception: the nervous bridges drawn between otherwise parallel worlds. It takes twenty-one days to form a habit but one lie to become a liar. That’s the beauty of invention — if you will something into being, there it is.

Any lie is designed to blend in with your memories, but it needs rehearsal, practiced recall. Our brains are littered with lies we forgot to dress up in camouflage, which is how we get caught. Of course, there are those who believe most memories are lies to begin with.

When you’ve been lying for long enough, it becomes the only language you know. It’s what you reach for first, a second nature, a thoughtless impulse. Honesty, now foreign, feels obstructive — tongue-twisting and difficult to articulate. It is tempting, in these circumstances, to avoid speaking altogether.

Learning to tell the truth again requires flexing certain muscles for what feels like the very first time. But, as with physical training, there’s something to be said for the strength you gain.

“When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” Adrienne Rich said that (Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying). But what she didn’t say is that we are creating the possibility for truth within us, first. That believing our own truths enough to speak them is the very least of what we owe ourselves. That every lie is a tether, and we will not be moored.

On a flight from New York, where I am my most reliable narrator, I watch as the city falls away. The sun has been setting for hours, a stroke of fluorescent orange against a drunk blue sky, and we are chasing it as it goes. In this moment nothing feels more true. I am still looking for the words to tell you about it.

My heart, which has been stretched taut and then curled into a fist for so long, is starting to recognize its own rhythms again.

Tracy Wan is a writer and newly converted truth-teller living in Toronto. She’s lied a lot this year, but not about this.