Wednesday, September 28, 2011
The lie that launched a writing career
by David Bell
Everyone who leaves a comment today will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Cemetery Girl, David Bell’s critically acclaimed debut novel of psychological suspense. The book tells the story of a family whose daughter disappears when she is 12 and returns when she is 16 – but refuses to tell her parents or police where she has been or who she has been with. The parents’ quest for the truth threatens to tear the family apart.
The opening scene of my novel, Cemetery Girl, involves a flashback. The protagonist and narrator, Tom Stuart, remembers something that happened when his daughter, Caitlin, was six years old. She crossed the street without permission and was nearly hit by a car. When confronted with this, Caitlin does something unexpected. She lies. She tells her father that she didn’t cross the street and she wasn’t nearly hit by a car.
My book is fiction. I don’t have a daughter who disappeared. I’m not in a marriage that is falling apart because of my child’s disappearance. I don’t have a ne’r-do-well half-brother who the police look at with suspicion. So the book is a work of fiction, and little of it is true.
Except for that opening scene.
That really did happen to me.
When I was very little, maybe four years old, I was playing up the street with a group of neighborhood kids. When some of them wanted to cross the street, I went along with them, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to. When I came home, my mom asked me if I had crossed the street without permission.
I lied. I flat-out, bald-faced lied to her.
“No,” I said.
Now my mom is no dummy. She’s almost eighty now, and she doesn’t miss a thing. She certainly didn’t miss anything when we were kids. But for some reason—maybe she was tired, maybe she had other things on her mind—she didn’t challenge my lie. And I know she knew the truth. I didn’t know it at the time, but years later when I looked back, I knew she knew. She was too smart, too vigilant. Why else would she ask me that question unless she knew? She knew. And she let it go.
That slice of my own life went into the book, and it ended up serving as an introduction to the themes and ideas depicted in the rest of the novel: Do we really know the people closest to us? Do we all carry secret desires and thoughts deep within, things we won’t share with our closest loved ones? What do parents do when their children start to break away and move beyond parental control? Can we protect our children from everything we want to protect them from?
I’ve never asked my mom about that moment from my childhood, that first moment I lied to her. Despite her sharpness, I’m not sure she would remember. After all, I suspect it was a bigger event for me than it was for her. For me, it was a watershed moment—I realized I could intentionally lie to someone in order to get away with something. I didn’t go on to be a pathological or habitual liar—unless you count fiction writing—but I understood something that day that I hadn’t before. Lying was a choice I could make.
But I’d like to think my mom had her own reasons for letting my lie go. Maybe she realized that kids will lie and exert their own independence, and there are limits to what parents can do. I’m the youngest of three children, so my mom had already been to the child-rearing rodeo two other times. She knew what kids could do and how they grew up. Maybe she recognized that letting me think about the lie on my own would provide graver consequences than if she chewed me out. My parents were very good at letting me make my own decisions and suffer my own consequences. It’s safe to say I probably feel more guilty about lying to my mom, even all these years later, because she let me stew in my own guilt.
For whatever reason, she left me alone that day. And years later, that moment stayed with me enough to serve as the start of Cemetery Girl. Maybe she wanted to launch me into my career as a writer. For whatever reason she did it, it worked.
David Bell, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, is a professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Visit his website at http://www.davidbellnovels.com/. Leave a comment here today for a chance to win a copy of Cemetery Girl!