Review: Miranda Doyle – “A Book of Untruths”

I am lying Since this is a book about lying let’s start off with some facts. We all do it. Politicians, of course, are amongst the worst. There’s Watergate, the Clinton blowjob, Blair’s confused attitude to the evidence on the eve of the war in Iraq. Widespread institutional deception plagues the front pages. Individually and collectively we’ve been brought to our knees by the deceit of bankers. There’s the shameful behaviour of the Catholic Church as it tried to protect its reputation, and the scramble by the police to save themselves after the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 1989. Police themselves are lied to every day. In one study by the Innocence Project, more than 25 per cent of wrongfully convicted people had made a false confession. People lie to keep themselves out of prison, but they also lie to end interrogations orientated around the presumption of dishonesty. Lies beget lies.

Every part of this book is divided into different lies, all surrounding Doyle’s family, including herself. She does not venture to say lies are inherently bad, but at times necessary, as with small children.

There’s quite some interesting science about how lies work in all of this:

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame asked 110 people to take a lie-detector test every week for ten weeks, reporting how many lies they had told. By the end of the study, all the subjects lied less, and all reported improvements in their relationships and sleep patterns; they had fewer headaches and fewer sore throats. Liars talk too much, as you may have noticed. They bury their lies in narrative.

Also, on remembering and forgetting:

There are two reasons why we forget. The first is that our brains lack storage. Like Cambridge University Library, which is required to house every word published in the UK and Ireland since 1662, there is just never going to be enough space. Approximately a thousand titles arrive at the library every Thursday in red plastic crates. Piles of books litter most surfaces, snaking spine-up along the floor. There are overflow areas, off-site storage, and platoons of ‘fetchers’ in the basement hunting down, sometimes on handwritten paper slips, requests from upstairs. The second hypothesis is poor retrieval, and here we have to imagine the library after a decade of austerity, its workforce shrunk by half. Faced with a mountain of unopened red crates, the library, like our brains, is engulfed by misshelved, poorly referenced material. There is no time for cataloguing and filing. It is an institution gone rogue, operating without any regard for management, or for the truth.

[…]

Nietzsche famously pointed out that the existence of forgetting has never been proven. What he means is the strong, irrecoverable forgetting that vanishes the word ‘papier-mâché’ for ever. Rather like trying to prove there is no monster in Loch Ness, absence is always going to be difficult to demonstrate.

But mostly, the author’s relationship with her parents is very interesting. The book actually starts out with a photograph of a note from the author’s mother, saying something like “You can write anything you want.”

As Doyle is an adult, she carries out adult conversations with her very queasy mother:

‘I was ill during your brother’s pregnancy,’ she said. ‘Something serious?’ ‘We were told Ed would lose his sight.’ There was a long pause while she weighed the balance of things. ‘It was something your father gave me.’ ‘Something he gave you?’ There was another pause. ‘What did he give you?’ ‘Grounds for divorce.’ It did not take me as long to process this answer as it should have. ‘An STD?’ She didn’t reply, the baby huffing hot breaths against my neck. ‘A sexually transmitted disease?’ I squeaked. ‘An STD?’ This was a woman who waved her hands above her head in church each Sunday morning. ‘Which one?’

The author plainly adds that she is lying in the book, which, in a Werner Herzog-ish way is quite honest, but on the whole, that doesn’t subtract from the book at all.

The author also delves into deceit:

Charles Eisenstein, a radical economist, argues that corporate deceit, through advertising and branding, is destroying language. We are so used to the culture of ubiquitous lying, where America’s navy is branded ‘A Global Force for Good’ and ‘Freedom’ is no longer something to strive for but a brand of shoe, that we no longer hear what it is that Donald Trump is saying. The tragedy is that even though journalists itemised every single lie during the campaign (which, by election week, according to Politifact, was a whopping 70 per cent of all statements made) we heard he was deceiving us, but no longer cared.

Despite all of that science, the more interesting bits are about the author’s cantankerous relationship with her parents, and how they didn’t work together.

The terror was not the beatings. I could handle those. The terror was that I never could relax. I smashed the shed window once with my football. I went in to confess and take the punishment (get it over with). He just laughed. I covered a book slightly incorrectly (simple childhood error) and was beaten so hard with a wooden spoon (the nearest weapon to hand) that it broke. My intellect is what saved me. The only time Mum and Dad smiled at me at the same time was when I got straight As at O-grade. So when Dad tried to beat knowledge into you or Sean I would be sitting on the stairs trying to send you the answers telepathically.

One of her brothers writes to her:

Now I have too much good in my life to think about the past. Why dwell on all that? What’s the point? They were shit parents. It happens. I survived and have done my best to fix myself. Anyway life is not about the past. It’s not really about the future either. It’s what we do today.

It’s well written, even though it’s a science-cum-personal change book. I like the bits about her early love life, as well as the chapters about her growing up. Overall, an interesting book, with rigid, interesting style, which at times becomes its own enemy.

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