Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Adults Speak with Forked Tongue


I recently read Richard Russo’s rather brilliant Empire Falls, a book which slowly unravels the secrets, failed hopes and power struggles of the townspeople in a small town in northern Maine. The characters are ordinary, their lives mundane, yet Russo observes them so acutely and so warmly that they become almost better than themselves. Like Russo, the protagonist’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Tick, is a practised observer of human behaviour, having watched at close quarters as her parents’ marriage dissolved hideously in front of her eyes. Here she is having a conversation with her school’s head teacher and watching how he lies to her:

Tick’s strategy for dealing with lying adults is to say nothing and watch the lies swell and constrict in their throats. When this happens, the lie takes on a physical life of its own and must be either expelled or swallowed. Most adults prefer to expel untruths with little burplike coughs behind their hands, while others chuckle or snort or make barking sounds. When Mr. Meyer’s Adam’s apple bobs once or twice, Tick sees that he’s a swallower, and that this particular lie has gone south down his esophagus and into his stomach. According to her father, who’s an old friend of Mr. Meyer’s, the man suffers from bleeding ulcers. Tick can see why. She imagines all the lies a man in his position would have to tell, how they must just churn away down there in his intestines like chinks of undigestible food awaiting elimination. By their very nature, Tick suspects, lies seek open air. They don’t like being confined in dark, cramped places. Still, she likes Mr. Meyer better for being a swallower. Her father, who lies neither often nor well, at least by adult standards, is also a swallower, and she approves that his lies go down so painfully. The snorters, like Mrs. Roderigue, and the barkers, like Walt Comeau, are the worst.

To me, the idea of a lie being either swallowed, snorted or barked is the physical equivalent of moral discomfort of lying. I find it hard to lie. I’m sure I equivocate with white lies, but I really can’t tell big whoppers. It just doesn’t sit comfortably with me.

Like Tick, I was lied to by a head teacher, and she did it on paper, laid it down for posterity so that I could always remember her perfidy. At the end of our final year, she wrote us a kind of reference, that would sum up our character and performance during our years at school. She wrote of me:

Charlotte is a neat schoolgirl, who always looks nice and tidy in her uniform.

LIES! I was a complete scruff. My socks were always falling down (bad), my hair ribbons never matched (worse), I usually forgot either my hat or my blazer at home (worst), and my desk and my bookbag were filled with Jurassic layers of old Marmite sandwiches and ancient apples. In my final year, my friends told me I brought shame to the prefect body because I looked so untidy and that they “couldn’t punish anybody for their bad uniform” because mine looked so terrible.

Obviously, the lovely Miss B. was casting around for some filler copy because she couldn’t remember anything about me, and sucked that straight out of her thumb. I lost respect for her, and have not set foot back in my alma mater since the day I left. Had she said “Charlotte is not overly bothered about the state of her uniform but has a lovely smile”, I would probably be a leading light in the Old Girls’ Guild (International Branch) to this day.

I’ve been trying to remember any other incidents of grown-ups lying to me, and there are barely any. I think I was lucky to be raised amongst truth-tellers, who perhaps fluffed the truth up a little or covered over harsh realities. I do remember my usually very gentle and sweet grandmother not being able to tell me why she didn’t like Martina Navratilova and resorting to “she’s just a BAD lady, darling”. Clearly, she did not want to answer the inevitable question – “what’s a lesbian, Granny?”. I do remember feeling sure that Martina was not a bad lady, and reminding myself to find out what it was about her that could get my serene grandmother so riled up.

I don’t lie to my children, and, when I have the energy, I try to give them clear and honest answers to their exhausting barrage persistent enquiries. I’ve just read both daughters the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, where there is a high body count, and one question which arose was “Is it okay to kill someone if they are a bad guy?”. My answer – not a good one, I’ll allow, but a truthful one at least – was “It’s not, D, but I’m too tired to tell you why.” Sometimes, Mummy speaks not with forked but with fuzzy tongue.

Henceforth, I’m going to have to make sure I keep telling the truth. I wouldn’t want them trying to assess whether I was a swallower or a snorter.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

7 thoughts on “Adults Speak with Forked Tongue

  1. Way back when, we used to go to church every Sunday. We had to go to confession before the mass, if we wanted to take confession. I remember being very upset because we were suppose to be specific about our sins: “Excuse me father for I have sinned, I used the Lords name in vain twice and told six falsehoods”. You get the gist. You were not allowed to say I lied frequently and wholeheartedly… as was my case. So, I went to confession each week, knowing that I lied during confession, a double-whammy as it were, because there was no way in heaven I could remember the exact number of my sins.

    Then the whole element of confessional betrayal grew thousand folds when I saw that not only my mother, and my saint of a grandmother going to confessions. The only sin they could have possibly commented was telling a falsehood, since all the others were muchmuch worse (i.e., coveting, murdering, and whatnot). Knowing that my mother and grandmother lied, made me give up on any religious aspirations.

  2. Hi Charlotte, I think your head mistress had a perverse sense of humour!

  3. I loved Empire Falls and Tick (such a superb and realistic fictional character). Meanwhile, when I was a teenager, I used to wonder what on earth I was going to tell my kids, if I had any, when they asked, “Did you ever do __________ (fill in the blank) when you were my age?” The honest answer to almost everything my imaginary kids might have come up with was “yes.” Then, when I was in college, I babysat for a wonderful woman whose kids told me, “Our mom says when she was young and FOOLISH, she used to _________ (fill in the blank).” What a smart mother, huh? Feel free to use her line when your kids start asking those “teenaged” questions. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.

  4. Lia, I can understand that all that enforced lying could make one give up on a religion somewhat.

    Bindi, I wish that were true. I might be a better Old Girl if that had been so. Sadly, she was the straightest, dullest, prissiest little Frau who ever had the misfortune to consider teaching as a career. She wouldn’t have been able to spot a funny line if it tickled her under the chin.

    Emily, thanks for that good tip. I must it file it away for later use.

  5. I still remember my school reference. Maybe I was being oversensitive but I felt it was very double edged and probably intentionally so eg. it said I was an intelligent and resourceful student- NOTHING about hard working though, And it said something like MTNW can be very witty and no group she is part of will ever be dull -by which I think Sr Roswhita meant to convey she is an insubordinate SMARTARSE –

    It really didn’t scream employ this person in an entry level position, she will not disappoint you which is probably all a school reference is good for.

    And I was a very scruffy school girl too Charlotte. My school blazer was too small and I constantly pushed the boundaries with the shapelessness of my jumpers and the extreme length of my school scarves. People thought my natural hair colour was orange with dark roots because of all the ‘Sun In’ and other terrible hair dyes I constantly tried.

  6. I think the only time I’ve lied directly to my children was in the face of the Father Christmas question, when in the car my oldest asked me if Father Christmas really left the presents for them. He was six but his younger sisters were also there, so I fluffed and said that the presents under the tree were from us but the stockings are from Father Christmas… it’s been on my conscience ever since, as though I can usually fluff and evade answering directly with the best, I try never to come out with a straight lie. Hope he forgives me in the future, when he finds out.

  7. I’m pretty sure I’ve never lied to my kids. I’m quite good at making up responses that aren’t false but don’t tell the whole truth, or distract from the truth. I often say with a dismissive tone, “Don’t worry about that”, and somehow my son accepts it. But I can feel some very challenging conversations lurking on the horizon, such as “why do we need to have soldiers and armies?” or “why do grownups get to eat more chocolate than kids?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s