My Legacy of Lying

presspassI come from a long line of liars. My grandfather, a Russian potato farmer, was conscripted into the army in World War I to serve on the eastern front. Most of the soldiers couldn’t read or write, but my grandfather could, so they made him a letter-writer. A soldier would get a letter from his village that would say, “Dear Mischa, The winter was very bad. Your uncle Isador froze to death. So did the cattle.” My grandfather’s job was to keep up the troops’ morale—a job that was not optional. So he’d read the letter and tell the soldier, “Dear Mischa, We love you very much. Everything’s fine at home. We had a great harvest. We have plenty of food. Don’t worry about us.”

Then the soldier would dictate a letter back. He’d say, “Dear Mama, I miss you so much. I’m miserable. I have no shoes. It’s freezing. We have no food and no bullets for our guns.” And my grandfather had to write, “Dear Mama, I love you very much. We have so much food here I don’t know what to eat. We’re winning the war.”

It was a time of survival, of living by your wits. And so my grandfather lied his way west: through the White Army, the Red Army, and finally into the Polish army for the uniform that would allow him and his mother to travel to Liverpool, where they got on a boat, escaping with their lives. The family that remained behind all perished.

By the time my dad was born in the United States in 1940, the family’s lying had evolved from getting out alive to getting ahead. On their trips downtown, my frugal grandmother tutored my dad in the art of the two-fer. Near the bus stop was a newsstand, and she would give my dad a dime to buy a comic book. They would share a ginger ale at the Vernor’s store and read the comic book, careful not to wrinkle any pages. When they finished, my father would take it back to the newsstand per his mother’s instructions and politely say, “Excuse me, but I’ve read this one already. May I have a different one?” and that was the comic book he would take home. Every dime saved made life in America more secure.

By the time I came along, second generation and safely assimilated in my San Francisco suburb, I had no need to lie for survival or profit. In fact, my skills at deception were so poor that when my second-grade teacher confronted me for stealing a little wind-up chicken from a classmate’s desk, I didn’t even try to lie, just burst into tears. If it had been up to me to get the family out of Russia, our name would have died out completely.

Even after my dad established himself as an oral surgeon and no longer needed to save his dimes, he kept lying for the sport of it. When I was a kid, a cousin gave him a phony Newsweek press ID that looked fake, even by 1970s standards.

“If you’re gonna forge something, you gotta do it right,” he said. He took an embossing seal from his desk drawer, slipped the paper between the pinchers, and squeezed.

I looked at the raised letters. “But that says California Dental Corporation!”

“No one reads that.” He tucked the ID into the picture window of a leather wallet, and for the rest of my childhood we skipped the lines at car shows and wax museums.

I never liked it, getting special treatment I didn’t deserve. I remember going to a Renaissance fair as late as my college years and being mortified when my dad pulled out the ancient press pass. The woman at the booth compared the graying guy in front of her with the young longhair in the photo. She called the manager over. I avoided eye contact with everyone, certain that this time we would get caught. And then they escorted us to the press tent with the catered food, where my dad ordered us to eat lunch.

Good liars like my dad and grandfather fear nothing. If they get caught, they can always pull out another lie. But my mind is a slower, more earth-bound place. I freeze under pressure and feel guilty even when I’m not. I can’t even walk through a metal detector without feeling like I’m concealing something. And yet my family history has taught me that the ability to lie is important. What if I had to lie to save my kids’ lives? Would my brain work fast enough? What happened to the chutzpah of my ancestors?

When I was a kid, my grandfather told a story about running the Polish border with his mother and hiding as refugees. The story often changed. In one version he stole a sausage, their first food in days, and when his mother tried to share it with him he refused, saying he’d already eaten his.

“But he’s lying!” my mom (different side of the family) would protest every time the story changed.

Even as a kid, I understood that was beside the point. I didn’t care if his tales were exaggerated, self-aggrandizing, or even true. The idea of him going hungry to feed his mother was more meaningful than whatever actually happened. When you come from a family of bullshitters, you expect a story’s magic to be greater than the sum of its facts.

Stephen King says, “Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Real life is full of drama but it rarely comes in a nice, neat package. That’s why people love a well-crafted story.

I don’t want to cheat or deceive anyone, and thanks to my forebears, I don’t have to. Instead of running borders and comic book scams, I have the luxury of pursuing other goals, like writing fiction. If the ancestral urge still prevails in me, it’s here. My earliest sketches documented slices of life. But these weren’t stories. For readers to relate, I needed to go deeper. And when I began a novel and the stakes grew higher, I knew I had to take a bigger risk: I had to lie more.

At least a blank computer screen is less intimidating than a border guard with a rifle or even a Renaissance fair cashier in an ill-fitting corset. Without the pressure of getting caught I can spin my yarn, embellishing here, changing my story there, covering my tracks, until my lie seems plausible. A novel is its own solar system between two covers, and everything in it—characters, setting, plot, subplots, details—revolves together to achieve this balanced deception we call a story. So writers play with time, exaggerate some things while ignoring others, cut and shape, mix and mold, all in an effort to deliver a tidy bundle of truth.

Maybe I’ve found it, a sort of good-girl’s approach to lying: fabricating stories to manipulate readers but never to cheat them; bullshitting to communicate a truth. I imagine my grandfather in the trenches, doctoring the soldiers’ letters. I doubt he ever expected to get out alive, much less that in a hundred years, he’d have a granddaughter—tea and laptop in front of her—trying to live up to his legacy.

11 comments

  1. Carol D. Gray

    I love the idea that storytelling can be a “good-girl’s approach to lying.” Looking forward to hearing more stories and lies from you!

  2. David

    Wow, great stuff! Family is so important and will eventually be reduced to stories. You tell theirs very well.

  3. Gerald Whelan

    This is wonderful stuff, Mandy. Great stories, great cast of characters-yourself included-and you pull it together so well. I just love it.

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