When Short People Tell Tall Tales
By Tom Dodge, KERA 90.1 commentator
Dallas, TX – A Concerned Stepmother, as she called herself, wrote to a syndicated columnist about her nine-year-old stepson. Her problem is that the boy told her his uncle had given him a snake and his mother gave him a puppy. The kid provided lots of background, such as the puppy's name and that it was housebroken. She learned, she said, that there was no snake and no puppy. She and her husband were in high dudgeon over this.
A.J. Dodge, age four, and my own little mythmaker, told me the other day that his mother and dad took him to see an alligator that lived in a big circle. The gator came out and grabbed him and took him into the circle and tried to eat him. But A.J. said his dad jumped in the circle and killed the alligator and saved his life.
The child expert quotes several child psychologists that recommend various remedies for preventing whoppers. One says the child may have, wouldn?t you know it - emotional problems.
Stupid me. I thought this was A.J.'s vivid way of saying his dad was his hero. And I thought all kid problems were emotional. What other kind of problems would they have? Maybe they fret over the deficit and I just didn?t know it. Maybe NATO bothers them. But I thought they stayed in a kind of perpetual emotional whirlwind about something all the time. Without emotion, what would they have left? Oh well, maybe this why I'm not the one with the syndicated column.
Anyway, the columnist, Betsy Flagler has a son. He's eleven - and I hope a truth-teller. I wrote and told her that she and I seem to be working at cross-purposes. I teach college students the virtues of lying. I am a literature teacher. The greatness of the fiction writers in our textbooks depends mainly on how good they are at telling untruths. Last semester we were amazed at the skill with which old Sam Coleridge made up that whopper about an ancient mariner whose ship sailed backward and its sailors died and came back to life and then died again, all except him - all because he shot an albatross.
This colossal lie was rivaled only by one told by Edgar Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart." In this whopper, a man has killed somebody and buried him beneath his floor. Suddenly, the man begins to hear what sounds like a heart beating - ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump. Oh my. It sounds like it's coming from beneath the floor. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like one of A.J.'s whoppers. Well, you get the point.
Next semester, I will be teaching creative writing, a course in which I am charged with the responsibility of enticing students to lie, for which they will receive a good grade. This will be hard for them. "I can?t think of anything to say," they will tell me. This is because their imagination has eroded over the years. Respectable people have punished them too many times for saying what is not true. I will ask them to read interviews with great authors. Great authors often say that their best asset is their unwillingness to bend to society's pathological obsession with fact.
My first assignment is, "Tell me a lie about yourself." Actually, if it's truth you want, this is usually the best way to get it.
Tom Dodge is the author of "Oedipus Road" and "Tom Dodge Talks About Texas."