I’m gonna tell you about one of my very favorite lies. I tell it all the time. Yes, I do.
I watched “Chicago” again recently, and was struck by the brilliant labors of lawyer Billy Flynn ( a tap-dancin’ Richard Gere. I mean, has he got a John Travolta voodoo doll or something? Do you realize that Travolta turned down AMERICAN GIGOLO and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN?). Flynn had to get dim but clever, venomous little chippie Roxie Hart (a wonderful Renee Zellwegger) off on a charge of pumping three bullets into her lover.
He couldn’t change the core facts of the case, which had her dead to rights. What he COULD do is control the narrative. Control the STORY. He created a new back-story for her (“A convent girl! A runaway marriage!”), said that she had indeed fallen into an affair but called it off when she found she was pregnant with her husband’s child (“don’t hurt the BABY!!”) that her lover attacked her (“she fought like a tiger”) and that they struggled over the fatal weapon (“they both reached for the gun”). Later he rather flamboyantly suggests that the District Attorney fabricated evidence. He deliberately creates a confusing circus (“give ’em the old razzle dazzle” as the song goes) that confuses the very clear facts, then uses force of personality to imprint his chosen narrative, while the hapless DA, far less charismatic, is unable to maintain the thread of his own story. Verdict? Not guilty.
Remember the O.J. case? Get the joke yet?
Now. About that lie…
When I was a kid, maybe 5th grade, a bully followed me home from Alta Loma elementary school, punching me in the stomach as I walked. If I tried to cover my stomach, he threatened to punch me in the face. The shame of feeling unable to defend myself damaged my self-image for decades, made it difficult to practice marital arts, contributed to my sense of hopelessness and helplessness. I would feel vulnerable, and attend class until I started making contact with my animal self, where I would automatically respond to threat with proper technique. But then that created another threat (“I am small and weak! My skills are attracting the attention of stronger predators! I must stop!”) and the fear would push me back out of the school…until my eroding skills created greater fear of the outside world, pushing me back to the school. This toxic loop continued for SEVENTEEN YEARS. It was so bad that I remember being afraid to go back to my school to reclaim a Levi jacket I’d left there, for terror that someone would ask me to spar with them (the sad thing? They wanted to spar with me BECAUSE I WAS GOOD. Emotionally, seeing myself as the boy who got beaten up, unable to defend myself, I only saw that “they wanted to hurt me.”)
I’ve spoken of my major breakthrough here, the realization that fear was a universal human experience. But never talked about one of the individual tactics I used to clean up the mess.
I had to do something about that memory. In the book A TASTE FOR DEATH, Peter O’Donnell created a monster villain, six and a half foot tall Simon Delicata, “built like a rhino and moves like a cat) who terrified Modesty Blaise’s right-hand man, Willie Garvin, who is depicted as one of the greatest martial artists in the world (I’ve read the entire 40-year run of the comic strips four times, and no one, NO ONE ever lays a finger on Garvin in fair combat. Modesty does in practice, but the real thing? Never. Not once. In the books, yes. I pointed this out to Peter once, and he was shocked, sort of the way Charles Schultz supposedly never realized that Charlie Brown had never kicked that damned football!). Why was he terrified, and have no hope of beating this man? Because when Willie was much much younger, he got into a fight with Delicata, hit him with everything he had, couldn’t hurt him, and was SLOWLY beaten almost to death. The memory went deep into his head “the old psychological domination” Willie said, tapping the back of his own head.
He literally wasn’t able to access his skill and speed and tactical cleverness, and would have died during the inevitable final confrontation…were it not for the fact that Modesty FORCES him to rise above his fear to save her life. Fantastic scene.
I needed to break my own “Psychological domination”, which is kinda like driving with your brakes on. But that bully was long gone. Can’t even remember his name any more. His face is a blur. I just remember the pounding as we walked along West Boulevard. What could I do?
I could take control of the story. I could block and scramble the memory. Would this be cheating? Who cared? They were MY friggin’ memories. I’d noticed that healthy, successful people tended to remember their lives as BETTER, their own actions as more central to change than they’d really been. While depressed people tended to selectively edit THEIR memories: they’d never been loved or supported, never had a victory, never been happy, and so forth and so on.
As House M.D. says: “everybody lies.” The only question is: will you lie to support yourself or tear yourself down. Yeah, I know…”do not think dishonestly.”
But…is it dishonest if you KNOW and ADMIT you’re doing it? And would that be wrong..?
I decided no. So…I began a course of meditation. And would envision that incident. And every time I envisioned it, I felt sick to my stomach. Remembered the pain, and the rage, and the helplessness as the bully pounded me in the belly again and again, threatening to hit me in the face if I even defended myself.
I couldn’t even identify with the situation–it hurt too badly. So I imagined myself sitting in a movie theater WATCHING the scene. Had to bleach the color and sound out of it, make the image small and distant…then finally I could see it without wanting to vomit.
And then…I began to change the movie. Re-edit it to my satisfaction.
I began to imagine that I could go back in the past, and coach my younger self, teach him how to whip that bully’s butt…
Another time I imagined that I was a full-grown adult who could laugh off the bully’s punches…
And yet another time that I was able to talk the bully into being my friend and protector…
But most of the time, I imagined kicking his ass. Throwing him on the ground. Making him cry.
Over and over and over again. Until the original memory was damaged–I no longer identified with it enough to cause the shame, pain, and nausea, like scratching a record until it no longer played. Until, when I remembered it, I automatically selected a more empowering memory, a different interpretation (I was only PRETENDING to be hurt, so that he could feel like a big, strong guy to counter his own insecurity, you see…)
Scrambled that memory. Built a new one. Imprinted it. Ran it forward and back and back and forth until I have no EMOTIONAL memory of what happened that day. I could find it, reconnect with it…but why would I want to?
I changed the story. Just like you can change yours. And when you organize the events of your life, you get to organize them to that they empower you, or so that they tear you apart. And you can do it for your children, or family, or readers–because every story you write or tell is only about one of two things: what human beings are, or what the world is.
We don’t ever REALLY remember things the way they were. While we are obliged to search for truth, we also have the right to be happy, and healthy. If I’d seen total truth, the memory would have given me no pain at all. But as long as I was still lying to myself (“I’m still small and weak!”) I might as well tell an empowering lie.
That lie, no worse than the other lie, gave me power, eased the pain. And led me to being able to embrace truth. Strange…but true.