I sometimes wonder what lies it is we tell ourselves in order to live? What fictions we manage around the core of who we are and what we allow others to believe about us that enables us to get from one day to the next. Most of us, I imagine, strive to be as truthful as possible, and yet some create around themselves a fiction that is so elaborate that we might never see who they really are. Perhaps we all have been guilty of a little white lie that slips into the stories we tell about ourselves? About some kind of re-imagining of sporting triumph or dispute where we become the hero of the story when perhaps in truth our part was somewhat smaller? Perhaps there is a vaguest on your CV that allows for the interpretation of more skill than we possess – the suggestion that we are more experienced/capable/able than perhaps is entirely fact based (as an aside I find it amusing when people write on applications things like, “I’ve been involved in this business almost 4 years!” Almost?)
What if the fiction you wove around yourself was altogether more sinister? The sociopathic serial killer Ted Bundy for example who was said to be charismatic and good looking had absolutely no difficulty convincing women to help him before he kidnapped them and did unspeakable things. He acted as a police officer, someone from the fire department or wore a false cast and he was so convincing women willingly did as he asked. His real intent was not signaled for all to see (even though we are certain we would spot someone like this from a mile away, that is not necessarily the case.) He also worked as a call-taker for the Samaritans and was allegedly good at it. He killed at least 30 women.
Others hide for reasons that make them who they are. Billy Tipton, the jazz musician, lived most of his adult life as a man even though he was assigned female at birth. He bound his breasts and used padding to appear male, and, reputedly, did not tell all the women in his life of his assigned birth gender. He explained the binding and the padding as the result of a car accident and the women who shared his life accepted that. Phranc sang of Billy and I remember listening to this song as a young woman and feeling sad on Billy’s behalf (as well as a bit surprised by his wives) but my view is that Billy lived the life he needed to live and the lie wasn’t a lie but the truth he felt inside.
Others are forced into living a lie because of things that happen to them that require them to become part of a witness protection scheme where they are given a new identity, and moved to a different part of the country. The are few if any financial benefits to doing this – contrary to what the press might suggest – beyond the expense of the move, the new identity and maybe perhaps some initial ‘pocket money’ or a reward for evidence if this has been made available by someone like Crimestoppers. In fact, it is psychologically challenging to become someone else, and never return to your old life and many people choose to live ‘low’ and at the other end of the country rather than disappear completely.
Occasionally, child murderers are offered a similar change and many go on to have what might be considered ‘normal’ lives. Mary Bell is one such individual. She killed two boys when she was 10 and, having served a long sentence, was released into the world as a ‘new’ person. Having done a terrible thing, and having been ‘rehabilitated’ – the new identify was considered as a way to protect Mary. But she lost who she was in the process and – whether there is empathy for on a human level or not – she was without personal resource to survive initially outside of the institutions that had housed her for so long. To counter this, she associated with criminals and even went shoplifting to try to get back to where she had been, inside…and she says that she is overwhelmed by guilt about what she did, and is forever dislocated.
I suppose what this adds up to is that not everyone is who we think they are. That what they present to us is not the sum of who they are but a perception that we trust based on our interactions with them. But we might be wrong: who we think of as decent, kind might be harbouring a secret or something else that they cannot share for reasons outside of their control or for some other less savoury purpose. Some part of these people must have either died or being killed. How many people live a lie?
I was thinking about this notion of different kinds of death – about the disappearance of who you were, or the lost ties or the lies that separate you inevitably from those who know the truth – because of an article I read on the website Cornwall live. It told in detail of 11 bodies washed up on the Cornish coast in the last 50 years who have never been identified. You can read it here. In the article, details are given that might have at some point identified who the people were. They are tiny little pen portraits of people’s lives. Some of the details made me sad: the man who wore a wedding band with, presumably his (or his father’s?) name inscribed along with the one he loved. The make of a shirt. The place he – or someone who once loved him – bought his underwear. Who were these people and why did no one claim them? In 2013 there were approximately 1000 unidentified bodies in the UK – found in various places. Why did these people slip through the net? How did their stories get untethered from the meta-narrative of life? What lies did they tell to separate themselves out? Or did they just slip quietly out of touch for no identifiable reason at all? What other truths did they find? Why did no one care enough about them to look? Or are there families still on the search for loved ones who they hold dear to their heart who have gone or who lie in a mortuary or unmarked grave in a place they’ll never think to look? You can find details of some of these people’s lives here.
The business of being human is complex. I try to keep it simple, stupid and yet I know that sometimes I am taken aback by how little someone knows me, or how somehow, in sharing details of myself, they have not fully heard who I am or understood what I meant. The other week I had a strained moment with a colleague – it was fleeting and I am certain that neither of us thought much of it beyond that moment. Another colleague witnessed this and on that observation decided that we must not like each other much and would need to mend our relationship. I found this astonishing and yet therein lies the rub: who you are is not always just about who you think you are, but also about what other people think about you. They can be wrong of course, but you can too. What lies do we tell ourselves, in order to live?