In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief Bromden says to readers: “But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”
And so argues Gustav when it’s time to complete his weekly 4K news worksheet. Please share something interesting happening at home. Four blank lines.
“How about, you helped cut down the Christmas tree.” No. “You saw The Star, Coco, and Wonder in the same week at the movie theater.” Nope. “You cheered on Leo at his hockey games.” Nay. Nothing in Gus’s real life registers as exciting.
“Let’s make something up,” he says.
“Like what – should we say you went sledding down Garbage Hill, by yourself, in the dark – 10 MPH or something and did a flip at the end?” Ryan asks.
A giddy little grin pops open on his face. He inflates with the helium of adventure. “Sure,” he says, though he remains unsure whether we’ve given this lie our blessing.
Storytime at our house recently turned into something new. What began a decade ago as bedtime reading – as many as ten books a night sometimes – has become oral storytelling, a kind of extemporaneous fiction about the exploits of five children who live on the west side of Oshkosh. Gus and siblings are obviously the protagonists, even if I bestow them with pseudonyms like Sug (“Gus” spelled backward, he realized entirely on his own), Hank, Vern, Geo, and Papyrus.
In these stories, the child heroes accomplish remarkable feats. They protect our neighborhood from package thieves at Christmas. They convert our tree house into a microcosm of the rain forest – using science, engineering, and a dose of magic. They discover a new species of microscopic people living inside our mailbox; they are, of course, called Lettermen, and two of them needed to be saved.
As I tell these stories, Fern sleeps with Frank on the top bunk. Gus and I burrow into the bottom berth, where he breathes against my neck to keep me warm. By this time of night – sometimes nearly 10 PM – I often fall asleep mid-sentence, narrating with my eyes closed, half dreaming.
“Mom,” Frank nags from above me. “Mom?”
He waits for me to finish to his satisfaction whatever lie I’ve started. What I think of as throw-away stories are making deep impressions, something I’d not realized until helping Gus fill out his worksheet. He is eager to reject fact for fiction, and I’m to blame.
Raising children is a longitudinal study in human development and memory formation. When Irie was only two years old, we lived south of Milwaukee. To and from the city, we’d drive over the Hoan Bridge, otherwise known as the Bridge to Nowhere, hang-gliding in our old van for a long minute above those soft mounds of silt along the Lake Michigan inlet. We must have been talking about roller skates one day. Perhaps we’d seen men or women rollerblading by the lake front. Months later, in her dreamy, non-linear way of speaking, Irie told somebody she had traversed the Hoan Bridge – all alone – on roller skates. A single image had imprinted itself on her brain. What did the skates have to do with her? Why, she was wearing them, of course!
Sometimes when I’ve worried, as all mothers must, that my children will only remember my quirks, moments I’ve lost my temper, and my missteps, I think, maybe I should plant more positive memories in those malleable little heads.
I might say to Gus, “When you were two years old, I massaged your feet every day before school” or “I never made your porridge too hot or too cold. It was always just right.”
Unfortunately I’m a terrible liar. My Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing was wasted on me, as I never mastered the craft of fabrication. I failed at suspension of disbelief, a shortcoming that characterizes my everyday life.
This week, for example, a police officer pulled me over for looking down – quite briefly – at my lap while entering a round-about. Nobody collided with me; no single driver even laid on their horn, but when the officer stood at my cracked window, his words like frozen puffs of air against the salty glass, and asked “Were you looking at your phone?” I said, “Yes.”
“But I wasn’t texting. I was waiting for a message from the doctor’s office,” I said.
When any normal well-functioning person would have lied, I told a stupid truth. Of course, rather than be rewarded for my honesty, he returned to my window, ten minutes later, with a $187 ticket. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Ryan chimed in, later that evening to day, “I’d hate to see the police report. He probably made your case sound worse than it was.”
“Do they do that?” I asked. “Do they exaggerate and lie?”
Sure, of course, they do. Everybody lies. Speaking as a criminal defense attorney, he’s lost all faith in the truth by now. Everybody’s story is part truth and part lie. We spend a lifetime scrabbling for larger and smaller quantities of the same two pies.
Take the myth of George Washington telling his father the truth thwacking his prized cherry tree. This little bit of history was actually invented by biographer Mason Locke Weems in 1806 because it’s what readers of Washington’s biography probably wanted to hear. Never regarded as Pinocchio or a Man who Cried Wolf, Weems gave us George Washington, a virtuous – honest – man to idolize, even if the bones of the story were lies.
Truth or dare; fact or fiction; fake news or real news; rumor versus reality. This is the timeless blur of storytelling and human existence.
Gus’s big brother, Leo, was sick on Thursday and Friday last week, and by Saturday, Leo’s best friend told him “Classmate X told everybody you were suspended. That’s why you weren’t at school.” Was this potentially funny? Being suspended is a much better story than the flu. A mother rattled by gossip, I wondered, what crime had Leo committed in this fictional version of events?
Maybe Leo relishes the lie. Boys might appreciate their hooliganism being mythologized.
One can find an “Age-by-Age Guide to Lying” in Parents magazine. In consultation with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, writer Sarah Gonser lists four reasons children and adults lie: to avoid trouble, to impress, for personal benefit, and to be polite. Instead of using scare tactics to prevent children from lying, experts advise that we praise them for truth-telling instead.
George Washington apparently was praised for telling his father the truth about the cherry tree, but in real life, truth-tellers are not always rewarded. Ryan would be committing malpractice if he ever advised his criminal clients to confess. And I warn my students that writing memoir is a dangerous undertaking.
We forgive characters more easily than we pardon real people. Fiction is a safe and neutral place, the imagination a merciful and lenient refuge in which to reside. It’s your choice, I tell my writers. Just remember to choose with courage.
At the ripe age of 4, Gustav prefers the fictional version of his life. Heroism is easy as a turn of phrase. Sug, Gus’s alter ego, enjoys the spotlight without any work. He listens quietly and becomes great without moving a muscle.
Eventually, several weeks ago, I filled in his 4K news worksheet with something true, something so boring I’ve since forgotten it. But my youngest boy can already write his own name: G-U-Z. Within a year or two, he’ll write words, sentences, and paragraphs. He will write his own life, and the story will be his to tell.