Writing Challenge The Unreliable Narrator This week, consider the unreliable narrator — a classic storytelling device — in your own work, no matter your genre.
Lying. My favorite fictional “unreliable” narrator is actually completely reliable in a way. He’s the speaker in Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” He insists that he is sane but all his actions illustrate the opposite. Still, he never denies any of his actions; he explains them in detail along with his motives. But his motives and actions are the motives and actions of a mad man. “Why will you say that I am mad?” he demands of the police.
If the police were allowed to speak, or the testimony given in court against the murderer were written by Poe, we might have read, “Because you’ve done a crazy thing for a crazy reason. Just because you accurately relate the facts in this matter doesn’t mean you’re not insane. You are definitely insane.”
Facts speak for themselves if we allow ourselves to “hear” what they have to say, but we are often “unreliable” witnesses to the facts of our own lives. Just as the speaker in “The Tell Tale Heart” we can assemble all the facts and derive a fallacious conclusion; it depends what we want to see.
For most of my life I have been surrounded by unreliable narrators, narrators whose actions contradicted their verbal claims. I’ve also been guilty of allowing wishful thinking to cloud my perceptions of reality; I have not asked enough questions or refrained from making decisions before I should have. I had excellent and life-long training in the embracing of illusion. The most sophisticated of all the unreliable narrators in my life was my mom.
My mom was an alcoholic. I didn’t know it even though the evidence was in plain sight. What blinded me? Her words, her stated beliefs, her accusations, her created reality in which I was given a role to play. From this role I derived part of my identity. I believed her when she told me that she didn’t drink, “Just because I have a bourbon and water doesn’t mean you get to look at me like someone from the WCTU (Womens Christian Temperance Union),” she would say. Since I didn’t look at her that way (in the first place) I then became very careful NOT to notice her actual behavior or internalize her obvious hypocrisy. During our church going years (all of them when I was growing up) as good Baptists we vowed every Sunday to “abstain from the sale and use of alcoholic beverages.” I KNEW that chances were good we’d all go home and mom would have a beer before lunch, but I didn’t notice it.
I was not the only one in the family who did not know. Her closest sisters did not know. It was not until a scan of my mother’s brain toward the end of her life, revealing physical brain changes and scars from a lifetime of alcohol abuse, that we knew. When her doctor explained this to me over the phone, I felt in my heart and mind the same feeling I’d felt standing on the edge of the ocean while the water pulled the sand out from below my feet. I had nothing to stand on.
Why didn’t I know? I lived with her for years. I visited her frequently after I moved out. I’d been there when she’d turned into a monster if I arrived home at 4:40 instead of 4:30 (at which point we started cooking supper which had to be on the table at 5:30). I’d been yelled and and manipulated after 9 pm when I didn’t want to stay up and watch Johnny Carson. I was yelled at first thing in the morning by a person I later knew was “Jonesing” for a drink. In the evening, when she fixed what I always believed to have been her first bourbon and water for the day, I always felt I could relax into a predictable few hours. Two drinks, supper, television and, if I was very lucky, bed with no drama.
It wasn’t that no one told me. When I was eleven and my mom was screaming at me after supper, my dad took me away in the car and talked to me about how there are “…some people get happy when they drink, MAK. Some people get mean. I’m afraid your mom gets mean. You have to stay out of her way when she’s drinking…” I didn’t understand it. Later on, when I was in my forties, and one of my aunts (a nurse who was married to a long-time alcoholic, then, finally, in recovery) said, “How is your mom when you get up in the morning, Martha Ann? Is she mean to you?” I didn’t get it. My aunt was trying to tell me my mom woke up with a hangover every day and my being there, visiting, kept her from getting that first (morning!) drink. I didn’t guess it when one afternoon my mom was driving and nearly ran off the road into a streetlight.
There is no one in our lives more “reliable” than our mom, right? And so, in spite of reality and concrete evidence and the testimony of reliable witnesses (my dad, my aunt Madelyn), I did not know my mom was a drunk. The lovely irony here is that my mom was always afraid I’d be fooled and hurt because of my gullible and trusting nature. “Don’t believe what people tell you, honey,” she said, often. “You need to be a little skeptical. People lie.” If I believed her when she said that, what would have happened to our relationship?