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Lies, Lies Lies, Yeah: Lauren Slater’s Book Lying

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Not so long ago, an acquaintance who works with me in the book business informed me that “everyone is a liar.” At first, I strongly disagreed. Thought, Sure, maybe you are, maybe he is, but I – no, I am not a liar. But the comment stuck with me for months, and for months afterward, as I went about my business, I took stock. Every thing that I did or felt or experienced (or did not do, for that matter), I consciously noticed whether or not I told anyone about these things.

One stands out more than others: the night I felt the tell-tale aura that I always get before a big seizure; the way my eyes became dark and heavy and the air filled with bright phosphenes and I felt like I had a heavy weight on my shoulders and was pushed to the floor. I groped along the walls of the apartment and did what I knew to do, and lay down on the carpeted floor, away from sharp edges and a long fall. Then I felt the waves move through me like a current, and I smelled wet roses and then felt light was floating upward, like I was dying, and I was sure I was (as I am every time this happens), and when I awoke, my head felt like a heavy magnet and the floor beneath me was wet with piss.

I never told about this, or any of the other secrets that inhabit the long and dark corridors of my temporal lobe. I didn’t even tell my neurologist, who really needs to know these things. My husband has seen me shake and convulse in spastic fits, as have people in restaurants, my university when I was there, passengers on trains. At some point, if you know me long enough, I will fall down, convulse, gasp, piss myself, and not remember a thing about it other than how it starts. After, we ride the ambulance to the hospital – but after so many years, one gets tired. I don’t want to talk about it anymore, and that is a lie of sorts.

Not long after, I was at a local bookstore and caught site of Lying by Lauren Slater. With such a provocative title and the subject matter, which was about temporal lobe epilepsy, I found it hard to resist. But what I soon found out was that where I was shining the light away from my seizures and epilepsy (and the medic alert that I should but don’t wear, among other noncompliant behaviors), author Lauren Slater was practically bragging about it, playing games with what she said, then withdrew, was epilepsy, and I could not understand why.

Slater, I was soon to discover, if her title was in fact true, was a very adept liar. She certainly knew a great deal about temporal lobe epilepsy that her story was believable, for the most part, but she was also inconsistent – making statements and then withdrawing them. And at times, the writing seemed almost too one dimensional – like it was someone playing the role of epileptic, for it all stuff that I had read in books, and while she presented it well, there was little that I could say was truly personal – and maybe only another epileptic could suss that out – though I doubt it.

The world of the temporal lobe epileptic is a curious one in which the truth does not have a capital T. Instead, it bends and twists and curves, because what is experienced when you have epilepsy and what is actual are often divergent. But this is a different thing from lying, from posing as epileptic if you are not, and throughout the book, it’s not clear that Slater has epilepsy in reality, or she just boned up on her subject really well and dashed it with enough personal spice and anecdotes that after a time, heck, maybe she even came to believe it. Or maybe she is someone with TLE. Even now, it’s unclear to me which is the more likely scenario, but more on that later.

With epilepsy, one soon discovers that what is perceived is not what is actual. The fact that, a week ago, I saw the black and white tile floor in the kitchen curve inward and sink like a deep bowl, or that my hands often look foreign and strange, like two disconnected and dead parts, or that I often smell pungent and strange odors – often the precursors to a grand mal- and smells of Moroccan rose, fish and dirty feet, or the bitter and dark scent of smoldering wood-smoke or burning rubber that I run through the house does not exist for anyone else. It lives in the labyrinth of the temporal lobe, wafting through the tight coils, not to be perceived by others.

Slater is eloquent and convincing in her telling of the topsy-turvy world of TLE. She writes, “The summer I turned ten, I smelled jasmine everywhere I went … my dreams were full of it, and when, one day, I cut my palm on a piece of glass, my blood itself was scented, and I started to feel scared and also good.” These things may not jibe with what other’s perceive, but it is real in the sense that by some trick and misfire of a synapse, that jasmine is there – a memory smell, perhaps – to be perceived. “I didn’t know, then, that epilepsy often begins with strange smells …” It is right here, that I begin to wonder about Lauren Slater’s original comment – one sentence, that is chapter one, “I exaggerate.” She also admits, at various points, that she lies, and after all, the title is Lying. I think this because the way that sentence stands out, among many others in the book, does not sound like it is spoken of personal experience as much as it is something that is in pretty much any text book about temporal lobe epilepsy. Sure, the smells came first, she says, but it’s more like she’s trying hard to fit something into a system – and if you try hard enough, you can gather enough “evidence” and fit it into any template you want. One could just as easily take Slater’s symptoms and put them into a Borderline Personality template, or manic depression, and yes, TLE too. So which is it, we wonder, and that’s part of Slater’s gimmick here – it’s a seductive tale that draws us in because we want to know what the truth is, and the book often reads like a long confession, and confessional books often do well because, let’s face it, in some ways, we’re a voyeuristic society.

She tells us she smells gin and piss and jasmine. Slater writes, “My world was the jasmine world, and I told no one about it.” And why would she? Some part of her knows this isn’t quite real, not in any traditional sense anyway. She seems to know how the brain plays tricks. How it misfires, sparks, skids, snaps, crackles, pops and burns, but most of all, it lies.

Slater is either disarmingly honest or a complete fantasist, but what I sense is that both are true of her. The floor does> sometimes cave in, yet to others, it looks perfectly flat. The smell does exist, but is undetected by others. The key is that it exists in a place unreachable by others. Slater says, perhaps, “There is no epilepsy, just a clenched metaphor, a way of telling you what I have to tell you …” This belief, or denial, is not uncommon among epileptics. It is a disease (or condition, as some prefer), that, like manic depression, makes you question your reality. It is either the best or the worst trip you’ve ever been on, or both at once. There are the sparkles that glitter and beckon before a seizure, the pro-dromal warning that is often the stereotyped (and here, I mean that it repeats before every seizure) – One minute, you are waiting for the train or sitting in a restaurant or like Slater, ice-skating. Then your belly flips. You think you’ll be sick. Then the sparkles, the flashing lights that become impossibly brilliant and bright.

In your mind, you see it: you are walking down a garden path, one that is lined with a bright, electric lattice and fragrant roses. The dread you felt a minute ago is gone, and the voices around you sound far away. I hear someone call 911, then nothing. I’m too busy trying to round a corner but I never quite get to it. I get close and then everything goes black. After that, I don’t know what happens. I know I fall. I convulse -tonic clonic they say, meaning both arms and legs jerk and there is full loss of consciousness. My eyes roll back. I piss myself. When I wake up, people are standing over me and I can hear the siren of an ambulance, or sometimes, it’s already there and a nice EMT is feeding me oxygen, which is like nectar because I can’t breathe. I don’t remember the actual seizure – the mid-part, that is – I just remember the feeling that I am going to be sick, then fall, and then I am on the scented path before the world goes black.

Slater’s seizures are not so different. “First, I smelled jasmine, and then I had whole moments when the world went watery, when I saw the air break apart and atomize into dozens of glittering particles. Ahead of me, shapes and colors suggested the billowing sails of a ship, or a zebra floating, when in reality it was just a schoolgirl in the crosswalk. I had no known, until then, that beauty lived beneath the supposedly solid surface of things, how every line was really a curve uncreased, how every hill was smoke.” This is, she says, “a secret world.” One that is “dreamy.”

While I had never thought of this world as a secret, perhaps because I had lived it so long that I didn’t really understand that it isn’t like this for everyone. I knew, but like Slater, I didn’t know. I too denied my own epilepsy (for the record, I’m sorry to report that epileptics have terrible issues with compliance when it comes to taking the Phenobarbital or whatever you happen to be on). Slater is able to capture both sides of this coin: the part of temporal lobe epilepsy that is in so many ways, so seductive. As Van Gogh, another with TLE, wrote to his brother Theo, “The sicker I get, the more ill I become, the more I wish to take my revenge by painting.”

With his heavy stroke and spirals of heavy paint that seem to spin like so many Catherine wheels, Van Gogh was able to present something of the world he saw, and that was his gift to us. I’ve often wished I had some device that would print out a strip of negatives that could be unfurled from my ear and show the images in my brain, like a photo negative, burned into the film by electric currents.

The desire to make this world known is a common one among epileptics. Lewis Carroll, who suffered quite terribly with his seizures, dreamt of creating what he called a “memory camera,” which entailed laying a large sheet of gelatin and silver-painted glass over the head of a dreaming man, and, as the man dreamt, the images would be etched onto the plate, creating a negative of the man’s thoughts. In The Ring, a film with a lot of TLE themes in many ways, Samora, the little girl in the well with the dark-rimmed eyes and glowing white skin, can burn images into MRI film with the power of thought, and who among us can forget the creepiness of the images burnt into the wide-planks of wood on the wall of her high-loft bedroom in the barn; the charred image of a tree or the rocking horse, and all done by thought and concentration and I’m sure, more than a little anger.

What Slater wants to do, it seems is confess, which is actually a very epileptic approach – this need for penitence and religion that is so often seen in patients with this type of epilepsy. But again, this too seems almost too much – like it’s something she read and set her mind and pen to spin this tale because, who knows, maybe it provided her with the answers to some things she had done in her life that she needed to rationalize, like the lying, stealing, other things like that. Or maybe she really is epileptic, but it’s hard to know. There’s something a bit flat about the story, too. For all of its cinematic imagery and consistent with epilepsy symptoms (for the most part,), it’s lacking some of the personal detail that I would expect from an epileptic, and also, for someone with temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition for which hypergraphia is a major concern, the book is remarkably short. It’s that Slater is almost too perfect in her fucked up, epileptic fugue and the tale she tells that gives rise to doubt.

Regardless of the actual truth, Slater does have a talent for drawing us in, even admitting just enough lies that we think maybe she’s being truthful, and though we sense we are being lead properly down the garden path, and some of the things she admits to doing are truly disturbing (like saying she had cancer because it sounded more heroic somehow, which is just sick and insulting and hurtful to people who are really suffering with and dying from cancer), the book nonetheless enchants. Lying reads more like poetry, with snapshots of vivid and haunting images than a real medical memoir.

Whether she is faking epilepsy or really has it, no one, other than her doctor perhaps, can say for sure. What I can say is that she knows her shit – what she writes, for the most part, is true of temporal lobe epilepsy: it may not be true of her – this may all be stuff she read and researched and knows cold and just laid over her life to make sense of things that didn’t otherwise make sense. Or, it may indeed be genuine, first hand experience, either way, it is a seductive book, at once leading and full of a quiet charisma and charm and stories so vividly painted, that it’s easy to get drawn in. Her writing is quick and fast and sneaky, like the handwork of the guy who runs a shell game at a local carnivore and we keep watching to see if we can catch his moves.

We’re all rubes in this drama of Slater’s, and there is a distinct tone of superiority and preciousness that at times, is off-putting. The memoir that she calls “slippery” is indeed that, but more than this, it’s downright greasy and the truth, whatever that is, is elusive and will slither out of your grasp like a dark and thrashing eel. In the final account, for all she tells us – for the confessional tone and even, at times, atonement she seems to feel, really very little is confessed.

It’s hard to discern fact from fiction in this book. Any real details about her illness (whatever it is) or even about epilepsy, there are these vague impressions that seem more like they are lifted or are impressions that come from reading of it seizures, not necessarily experiencing them. She states of the book herself, “… even those things that are not literally true about me are metaphorically true about me, and that’s an important point.”

You can just tell that Slater wants or wanted to be that girl in high school that was “different,” who called herself “the weird one” as if this were a badge of honor, or the “funky, artsy” one, because in reality, maybe she just wasn’t that fucking interesting and so contrived things to make herself so. Maybe I misjudge, but this is subjective, and that’s the point. A good example, after all the high-drama of her jasmine seizures (and as I said, beautifully written at times) and romanticized, flowery descriptions, we find Lauren in a room having a fight with her beau when she has a “real” seizure. Action! (Begin Excerpt)

“I have epilepsy,” I said. I said it flatly, without drama or flourish or mystery.
(There’s other stuff in the middle here), then the boyfriend says, “Jesus fucking Christ,” he said, “This is too much.”

“Yes it is,” I said. (end)

Maybe because I have epilepsy, I can see the part about saying it flatly – I mean, after having it your whole life, it just isn’t that interesting or dramatic. It just is. The reaction of the boyfriend though is almost funny. It’s like he’s got this mid-nineteenth or eighteenth century view of epilepsy that involves being a mouthing idiot and biting your tongue off (highly unlikely, but given a lot of press). I mean, “Jesus fucking Christ“!!!!! he says.

It’s like Lifetime TV. I almost expected the doctor in the white coat to walk into the room where the woman is on her deathbed, and her perfectly made-up mother and sister and sitting in nice, peach-colored chairs with their perfect make-up and pocketbooks with FDS spray and nude pantyhose, all smiles for the “poor, dying girl” and then the doctor walks in and says, “It’s bad … Very bad …” but the heroine takes it heroically, her chin quivers, but smiles through the pain, and then the close up. Cut to commercial.

Slater does a good job of presenting is actually a text book example of a temporal lobe patient. The hallmarks of temporal lobe epilepsy, those written up in JAMA and known by neurologists worldwide, are pretty fascinating because they’re just so weird and so codified. All, are all here in Lying. There is the fascination with the trappings of religion, which is different from a genuine interest in religion in that this has to do with ritual and stuff, or as my minister once said, “You just like the clothes,” which was true.

There is the way she relates to Van Gogh long before she knows how they are kindred, which in an of itself does mean you are epileptic, of course – millions love Van Gogh and they’re not epileptic, but it’s in the intensity and the seeming understanding she has of the way he saw the world; that it’s how she sees the world. There’s the awful sense of dread, often just before a seizure, and the running theme of morbid preoccupation with and fear of death (“I saw a hearse drive by, with blue curtains in the windows. I started to wonder if the spirits of dead people stood under trees and waited to grab you.”).

That Slater is a coy at times that she seems to be playing with us and enjoying the game – knowing that we are hooked. When she says she lies, she means it. Maybe she has TLE and doubts the diagnosis (very common), despite the sure spikes and deep valleys printed in blue ink on long, paper-thread of the EEG read out as it unfurls. Maybe her EEG film showed nothing epileptiform. Who knows.

One reviewer noted, “Indeed, a tendency to blend other people’s stories into her own is evident throughout Lying, from persuading childhood friends that she is dying because “‘epilepsy causes cancer'” to joining an Alcoholics Anonymous support group without having a drink problem. Hence Slater’s plagiarism extends well beyond the borrowing of speech and writing to include the appropriation of experiences with illnesses that her body has not known.” And Rebecca Mead’s , in her review for the New York Times wrote as she saw it: “Lying: A metaphorical memoir wants to be as charismatic and infuriating as an epileptic, which is a risky strategy, because when it does this most successfully, it is also at its most alienating. It’s a tricky book-a sick book, even, metaphorically speaking.” (For full review by Richard Ingram click here.)

There is a strong link between epilepsy and charismatic figures, and Slater may or may not be one. Maybe her’s is a world of colored sounds and sparkling shapes and deep spins on the ice that spiral to depths others can never know, as she claims it is. But then, maybe it’s not and it’s the work of a good researcher who read all the right articles and wanted to see how far she could take an acting as if gig.

We may not be able to sort out the fact from fiction in this book, but I’m not sure we need to; I’m not sure that Slater herself can, because it is all real in that it is perceived by her. The world of epilepsy is not black or white or even shades of grey – it is colors that, for others, do not even exist. So how does one begin to explain what this is? It’s like trying to explain color to someone who has never seen.

The site Nasty, in a review of Lying, cuts straight to the core of Slater’s veracity, “As if to indicate just how unsettling Slater’s melange of truths and lies can be, several reviewers of Lying, including myself, have felt compelled to investigate whether Hayward Krieger is a fictional character.” Lying reeks of rat from the very first page,” writes Rebecca Mead in the New York Times. “I was on the telephone to confirm my suspicion that there is no such person as Hayward Krieger before I’d even begun the first chapter” Natanya Pearlman conducted her inquiry on the Internet before reporting in Fabula Magazine that she had “visited USC’s website, which lists faculty members, and found no one by the name of Hayward Krieger.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Lying is the story behind the book itself. Slater may be better served by writing the truth about her life, whatever that is, without all this hedging and game-playing and plagiarizing (which, at least, she does admit to – see above link for more on that too). I have the sense that the truth behind Lying is a lot more interesting in the final account than the richly woven and albeit overall well-written and interesting, book we have here.

Next time, I hope she goes for the counterpoint. It may be the most interesting story of all.

-Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • Sojourner

    Best line in the review: “Her writing is quick and fast and sneaky, like the handwork of the guy who runs a shell game at a local carnivore.” Carnivore? Now that’s a cool slip of the ol’ spellcheck.