What, I wondered, would fill the silence, the space in me? What would make me real? Lauren Slater, Lying
To judge by the swelling (almost inflamed) new genre of the illness memoir, hospitals may be replacing war or prison as a place apart where writers go to get real.
Marni Jackson, "Notes from the ER"
Believe in me because I don't believe in anything / and I want to be someone to believe.
Counting Crows, "Mr. Jones"
In Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, Lauren Slater frames her story with experiences of epilepsy, while simultaneously leaving open the question of whether she has ever lived with epilepsy1. Like Marni Jackson, Slater is aware of the "huge proliferation of authoritative illness memoirs in recent years" (Lying 221). In fact her second book, Prozac Diary, contributed to the inflammation-not to mention the inflation-of this "new genre." Slater has, however, come to doubt whether the combination of "people's personal experiences" and "the latest scientific 'evidence'" in these memoirs is sufficient for them to qualify as 'reliable' accounts of illness. "The authority is illusory," she concludes, "the etiologies constructed" (221). These comments are offered by way of explanation for a book that she knows will frustrate many of her readers, and are summed up by the challenge issued in the final sentence of Lying: "When all is said and done, there is only one kind of illness memoir I can see to write, and that's a slippery, playful, impish, exasperating text, shaped, if it could be, like a question mark" (221).
As the title, Lying, and subtitle, A Metaphorical Memoir, suggest, many layers of doubt overdetermine everything that Slater writes: How much of this book consists of lies? Is her "illness" no more than a compulsion to lie? Are the lies confined to a past that the author has overcome, or could she also be lying now about the lies she once told? How much of her writing is encompassed by metaphor? Are her "lies" limited to the use of metaphor in order that they can still impart truths?
One approach to these questions is set out in the introduction to Lying by "Hayward Krieger, Professor of Philosophy, University of Southern California" (x). He argues that through her "unsettling and exciting [...] insistence on not revealing to us which aspects of her disease are factual, which symbolic, which real, which fantastical," we are encouraged "to enter with her a new kind of Heideggerian truth, the truth of the liminal, the not-knowing, the truth of confusion" (ix-x). Paradoxically, "Professor Krieger" is himself situated within the text in this place of "not-knowing" where fact and fantasy intersect. In a case study of "patient LJS" (Lauren Jean Slater) that comprises the fifth chapter of Lying, "The Biopsychosocial Consequences of a Corpus Callostomy in the Pediatric Patient," the co-authors (who are probably also fictitious) state that their patient "had an entrenched tendency toward mythomania" and
frequently spoke of a correspondence with a professor of philosophy-a Hayward Krieger-with whom she discussed Ouspenskian ideas. However, we have been unable to locate or confirm the existence of any Hayward Krieger, which is not surprising, and only further underscores the diagnosis. (101)
As if to indicate just how unsettling Slater's mélange of truths and lies can be, several reviewers of Lying, including myself, have felt compelled to investigate whether Hayward Krieger is a fictional character. "Lying reeks of rat from the very first page," writes Rebecca Mead in the New York Times. "I was on the telephone to confirm my suspicion that there is no such person as Hayward Krieger before I'd even begun the first chapter" (par. 7). Natanya Pearlman conducted her inquiry on the Internet before reporting in Fabula Magazine that she had "visited USC's website, which lists faculty members, and found no one by the name of Hayward Krieger" (par. 6).
Before reading these reviews I had travelled a similar path. My online search uncovered a schedule for the Enhancement Technologies Research Meeting2, where Hayward Krieger is listed as presenting a paper entitled "Prozac and Being." Professor Krieger was then based, according to the program, at the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt, Oder. His one publication included in the bibliography of the Enhancement Technologies Group is the chapter, "Antidepressants: A Heideggerian perspective," from a book called The Abuses of Psychopharmacology, which my university library was unable to trace. The meeting schedule gives an email address for Professor Krieger, but four days after I sent an email to him, it bounced back.
This detective work may ignore Professor Krieger's advice to embrace "the truth of confusion," but it does yield results that are worth reflecting on. What does it mean when the best evidence for somebody's existence is to be found in the suspended sentences of cybertext? Virtual reality can be considered as a shadowplay in which corporeal existence is eclipsed. In this shadowplay a decisive reversal is taking place: the shadows no longer rely on any corporeality; instead the ascendance of virtuality is relegating bodies to the status of shadows of shadows. Cybertext endows identities with a presence that persists indefinitely-an uncertain yet potentially everlasting presence-at the cost of placing the body on death row. It becomes a matter of indifference whether a body bearing the name "Hayward Krieger" presented a paper, published an article, or wrote an introduction. What matters is whether Internet "search engines"-omniscient beings to whom the body is being sacrificed-recognize names. When the dominant form of recognition passes into virtuality, therefore, "bodies no longer [...] project their shadows, but shadows project their bodies" (Baudrillard 33).
On Professor Krieger's reading, Lying is less a web of lies than a text in which questions of truth are persistently deferred: "What makes this book disturbing is its incrementally rising [sic] refusal to state the facts of the illness about which [Slater] writes" (ix). The indeterminacy of Slater's memoir is produced by weaving a multiplicity of illnesses and treatment-induced complications into the narrative of living with-literal or metaphorical-epilepsy. Moreover, the "epilepsy" narrative is told by several voices that often address different audiences. The exception here is the relatively straightforward account of adapting to and learning from epilepsy that spans the second and third chapters, "Three Blind Mice" and "Learning to Fall." As Slater acknowledges, the structure of this narrative is lifted from Leonard Kriegel's essay, "Falling into Life," in which he reflects on "[h]aving lost the use of [his] legs during the polio epidemic [...] of 1944" (3). Both Kriegel and Slater are taught how to fall gently to the ground so as to minimize the risk of breaking bones when paralysis and epilepsy (respectively) make their bodies give way. For Kriegel, this process teaches him how to take life as it comes, to "[g]o with the flow, roll with the punch, slide with the threat until it is no longer a threat" (14). For Slater, the lesson lies in "find[ing] a balance so true, no one can take it away," and is embodied in "the phrases ride the wave, harness the energy of your opponent" (53).
Slater's debt to Leonard Kriegel is significant not only for the proximity of his name to that of Hayward Krieger, but also because Slater confesses to being a plagiarist when she comes to discuss her development as a writer. Indeed, a tendency to blend other people's stories into her own is evident throughout Lying, from persuading childhood friends that she is dying because "'epilepsy causes cancer'" (66), to joining an Alcoholics Anonymous support group without having a drink problem. Hence Slater's plagiarism extends well beyond the borrowing of speech and writing to include the appropriation of experiences with illnesses that her body has not known. While the uncertainty about Professor Krieger's existence instills unease, the suggestion that many illnesses can be considered to be interchangeable provokes a more vehement reaction. Rebecca Mead's review for the New York Times concludes with this judgement: "Lying: A metaphorical memoir wants to be as charismatic and infuriating as an epileptic, which is a risky strategy, because when it does this most successfully, it is also at its most alienating. It's a tricky book-a sick book, even, metaphorically speaking" (par. 7).