I grew up in a family of superlatives. Our accomplishments were exaggerated versions of the truth although I didn’t know that we were spinning our own mythology out of airy cotton candy until I was grown up myself.
As children our achievements were extraordinary and so were our failures. I was not simply a difficult child. My behavior bordered on delinquency. Mediocrity was unacceptable. We were a family of Big Stories told over and over again until even we believed they were fact.
And that became our family mythology, a perfect blueprint for a couple of Midwesterners as my parents were, transplanted to Washington DC where every voice is amplified in order to be heard above the others.
My head is still full of the lies I told, mostly protective lies elevating every success of our displaced family — I have to catch myself when I say that my father was asked by President Kennedy to be Secretary of Commerce, my mother Head of the School Board, that my husband was an All American, my grandfather this and that and on and on — in fact it was an undersecretary and on the school board and my husband might have been an All American but he shattered his ankle and ended his athletic career. There was a piece about him on the sports pages of the newspaper titled “Story of What Might Have Been” and those were the stories my family told and later I told my children as if in fact they were Stories of What Had Been.
But the central story in my personal mythology was one that I was told often by my father and mother and it grew to define my sense of self.
My father who was a journalist had been offered the job reporting from Europe during World War II, a job that Edward R Murrow was later given and Murrow became famous as a result. According to the legend, my father turned the job down because I was ill with polio and then rheumatic fever so he felt it was his duty to stay in Washington with me. What I did not realize at the time and only now understand in retrospect was my sense of responsibility for my father’s sacrifice.
Years later, after my father and my mother had died, I was looking through a diary that she kept in which she wrote that my father longed to have been offered Murrow’s job in London. But of course he was not. Of course? I wondered. And then I did some research on Murrow and his time as the leading journalistic voice in the United States and learned that my father’s story wasn’t even a possibility — Murrow was more than twenty years older than my father and when he was broadcasting from Europe, my father was still in college. So the story was invented whole cloth.
I was in my early forties when I read my mother’s diary and that realization was a turning point in my own history as a fabricator. My children were still young. I needed to be careful with my bag of tricks and what kind of message these stories represented to a child. I needed to tell truth for its own sake instead of creating a history of what I have come to see as dangerous fictions.
Invention is still an automatic reflexive response with me. But I know the risks. Lies — often a result of shame told to disguise failure or exalt success — have a life of their own. But luckily I write fiction and keep the story on the page where it belongs. I explore this notion of the lies families tell one another and the facades they try to maintain in my latest novel, You Are the Love of My Life.
Nevertheless I understand my parents’ motivation. They were dreamers escaping a small town, longing for a large piece of the busy world. And they must have felt inferior to the life they entered as a young married couple, ashamed, not of who they were so much as who they were not. And so the dream of who they could be became for us the reality of who they were.
Not long ago, I wrote a memoir about the two years in childhood when I lived at the Warm Springs Polio Foundation. The telling in a memoir made me nervous but I knew as a writer that I had to tell the truth about myself. To my surprise, it was easy. In fact, better than making it up.
Susan Shreve is the author of fourteen novels, a memoir, and twenty-nine books for children. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment grant and is cochairman of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. She lives in Washington, DC. Her latest novel, You Are the Love of My Life was published by W. W. Norton in August