I was into my thirties before I began to tell the truth. I hadn’t exactly been lying in the three previous decades; but what I had been doing was, at best, dissembling, and at worst, well, let’s say I was avoiding the truth. And all the while I had no real idea I was doing it.
I come from a family of liars. We didn’t know or tell the truth about my mother’s illness, which still to this day has never been properly diagnoses but must have been some form of bipolar disease; we didn’t talk about her drinking either. We didn’t discuss why my father was so willing to allow his three daughters to be raised by a woman who could, on many days, barely get out of bed. We didn’t know about or talk about the strains of melancholia, of outright madness, that ran through both sides of the family. My grandmother had “dementia,” not something real and more terrible: Alzheimer’s, the disease that would also capture my mother. We did not discuss my middle sister’s peculiar personality, or the way my little sister adopted my father’s “don’t worry, be happy” mantra, all the while the family crashed and burned around her.
We talked about art and books and the theater. Politics and religion were even on the table. Not sex, of course; no one talked about sex. And certainly not emotion. Emotion was completely taboo. We were simply to pretend not to notice my mother’s unforgiving behavior, my father’s distance. For years and years any attempt I made to bring up the past was squashed. I was considered high strung, emotional, for even asking about emotional issues. I persevered, in a way. Until, in therapy soon after the birth of my first child, I finally began really telling it like it was. I began to unravel the huge ball of lies that my family had so artfully and so consciously woven over the years.
But it wasn’t until I turned fifty that I finally learned how to really tell the truth.
I thought about all of this recently as I listened to author Rosemary Daniell read from her latest essay. This is a woman who was telling the truth long before it was fashionable. Fatal Flowers, Daniell’s first memoir, published in 1981, rocked my world. Wow, women not only had sex, they could write about it. And they could write about madness and womanhood and relationships and pain with gut wrenching honesty. Yet, it would be another twenty years before I even began to attempt that journey myself, and it wasn’t until I published Desire: Women Write About Wanting, in my fifty-first year, that I let myself really speak out loud the truths of my life. I had long been a writer, of both fiction and nonfiction, but it was clear that my fiction had disguised the truths I wrote about, in order to make them more palatable. In my nonfiction, I began to actually put myself on the page: with no disguises.
Some of the truths I have begun to write about have gotten me into trouble. In a conversation with Rosemary, I mentioned that writing about my relationship with my father, a few months before his death, had set my sisters against me and begun the long forced march toward our current estrangement. She cocked an eyebrow and looked at me. “Truth doesn’t make a good relationship bad,” she said, “but it might reveal the depth of a bad relationship.”
I felt a little stunned. For twenty years my sisters and I had been trying hard to forge a close and loving relationship with each other, partly against our weird and heartbreaking upbringing, partly just because. But perhaps Rosemary was right. In telling the truth, my truth about the difficulties I had had over the years in making a connection with my father, I had revealed just how fragile the underpinnings of my relationship with my sisters had been all along. A few trips back to my original therapist after my father’s death and the estrangement had revealed a similar truth, but I had obviously been reluctant to accept it. He told me that clearly I had always been the one in the family who tried to insist that the emperor really was naked, even as, over the years, I had begun to doubt the veracity of that fact myself.
Yet I do not regret learning to tell the truth. While I don’t think that every truth we have need be spilled on a page, I am a writer. And part of my truth-telling is writing about it. But part of my truth-telling also lies in the comfort of (very) late middle age. Now, halfway into my fifties, I have had to both tell and accept some brutal truths about myself and others. With the wrinkles and the failings of my body has also come the liberation of transparency. Telling the truth, like any act of courage, is a risk. But it is a risk that I am more than glad to take. We get very little time on this earth and to waste it either telling lies or believing in them is a terrible shame.
The past half dozen years have seen the publication of my first book and the dissolution of two marriages, one of more than twenty years. It was only because I finally understood how much of the truth that I was hiding that I was able to let my first relationship end, and, oddly enough, to accept the wondrous, if brief, marriage to my second husband. During those same six years, my son got into terrible trouble, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my father succumbed to his very long and hugely debilitating illness. My son got back on this feet, my daughter has now gone to college and I have relocated to live by the ocean, a long held desire. It has been a grueling, growing, tumultuous half decade, but had I not learned to tell the truth, had I not learned how important honesty was in all fronts, I never would have made it out alive. Not unscathed, of course, but alive. And I retain the hope, always, that by telling the truth, real truths will be revealed. That transparency is to the good of all of us.