(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Lauren Slater is the author of two previous memoirs about mental illness. In Welcome to My Country (1996), Slater described her experiences as a psychologist working with severely afflicted mental patients and revealed that she also had suffered from mental illness. In Prozac Diary(1998), Slater told how drug therapy had allowed her to overcome her symptoms and begin to lead a normal life. In Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, Slater reaches back even further into her past to explore her childhood and the beginnings of her experience with mental illness; however, in Lyingshe has chosen to describe this condition as epilepsy. Slater invites the reader to consider whether she is actually an epileptic or is only using fictional descriptions of epilepsy to represent mental states. Slater further suggests that she might have Munchausen’s syndrome, a psychological condition that compels its victims to fake illness.

Slater uses several devices to juxtapose fiction and nonfiction, drawing the reader into her search for the truth about her condition, her experience, and her memory; readers are asked to experience uncertainty and perhaps even delusion alongside her. Her title immediately offers two perspectives to ponder: Is this an account of lies Slater has told, or is the book itself a lie? In the introduction, Dr. Hayward Krieger, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California (USC), confirms that after reading Lying readers will not know for certain whether Slater really suffers from epilepsy. Professor Krieger’s introduction was revealed as a hoax when a New York Times Book Review writer determined that there was no Hayward Krieger at USC.

The first chapter consists of two words: “I exaggerate,” but Slater’s vivid accounts of her seizures and the accompanying dreamlike “auras” or mental states are compelling enough to be true, even as Slater warns that perhaps they are not. Slater suspends the reader’s disbelief again and again through skillful combinations of truth and tales. Slater refers to several experts such as Professor Krieger, and their voices seem authoritative. Entire chapters are excerpted from supposed scholarly articles and works on mental illness. A quote from The Text Book of Grand and Petite Mal Seizures in Childhood (1854)—another seemingly authoritative source which may or may not exist—describes the stages of a grand mal seizure which Slater uses to structure her book: onset, rigid, convulsive, and recovery.

In part one, “Onset,” Slater recalls an agonizing relationship with her domineering and ever-dissatisfied mother. The wife of a poor baker-rabbi, Mrs. Slater longs for elegance and wealth; she fantasizes that she is a talented pianist, but can play only “Three Blind Mice”; she dreams of molding her daughter into an ice skating champion. Ten-year-old Lauren’s first seizures are apparently a reaction to the demands of living with her mother. At this age she experiences her first auras as ever-present smells of jasmine or burnt toast. As Slater’s father fades into the background, Slater’s illness offers her mother something that makes their lives special and extraordinary, at last setting them apart.

In part two, “The Rigid Stage,” Slater’s mother leads her through a variety of strategies to control her seizures, ranging from deep-breathing exercises to sheer willpower. All these efforts fail, and in a chapter called “Learning to Fall,” Slater is sent to a school for children with epilepsy, where she is supposed to learn to fall without injuring herself. Slater refuses to fall; she feels upheld like a puppet by her mother’s will—to learn to fall would be to give in to her illness. The nuns who run the school seem disciplined and perfect, an ideal that echoes her mother’s desires for her to conquer her illness, not give in to it.

Falling is a central concept for Slater; falling represents metaphorically her ability to accept her illness and circumstances rather than wage a futile fight to overcome them. Slater is transformed one day as she watches a group of nuns cross the snow-covered schoolyard in their white habits. One of the nuns slips and falls in the snow, and the others rush to help her stand, but suddenly the nuns are playfully pushing one another over. Lauren rushes outside to join the nuns in the ensuing snow fight, and as their white-habited perfection gives way to play, she is at last able to fall.

Slater returns home with this new skill. She attends a funeral with her family and falls deliberately into the open grave...

(The entire section is 1883 words.)