25th June 2006: Tangled Web

“Your nightmares are somebody’s daydreams,
Your daydreams are somebody’s lies.
Lies ain’t no harder than telling the truth,
The truth is the perfect disguise.”

Kris Kristofferson.

I’m not in HP fandom, and I’ve been reading the MsScribe kerfuffle with bemused detachment since Alter linked to it the other day. What I want to talk about is lying, which I do know something about.

People are saying “she lied to me!” as if lying is always in all circumstances a terrible thing, and it seems as if previous revelations about MsScribe’s lying have failed to expose her because people were so reluctant to believe that a friend of theirs had lied to them.

People tell lies.

It seems to me there are beneficial lies, there are neutral lies, there are social lies, there are selections and simplifications and sharpenings up and we all do these things, and they ought to be distinguished from the kind of lie that actually deserves vilification, the kind the nicely summed up in the ten commandments as “bearing false witness against a neighbour”. White lies and black lies.

Someone I used to know once said that writing fiction is the responsible response to being born with a really good talent for lying. I laughed with the laugh of total recognition. The same impulse that lets you make up stories lets you make up other kinds of stories — not “the dog ate my homework” or “Little Susie did it” but to embroider the dog that barked at you safely behind a gate into a dog ran out that attacked you (it could have!) so you barely got away, or turns the sibling forbidden from watching TV into the sibling shut up in a closet to prevent them from watching TV. (It’s a better story! And it’s symbolic!)

There’s a point when sharpening up an anecdote becomes elaborating it, becomes lying. I used to have terrible trouble with seeing the line on that one. Then there’s the opposite of it, where simplifying becomes lying. This is an odd point for me. I have a rather complicated family history, which I don’t always want to go into. In fact, it sounds much less plausible than lying about it. I’ll sometimes say “I went away to school” as shorthand or to short circuit saying “My grandmother died and my sister died and my grandfather had a stroke and my crazy mother, who’d just had a baby, tried to get custody of me and did for a while and after I ran away I spent a little while in a children’s home and then lived with my aunt for a bit and then with my father who, oddly, I’d never met before I was thirteen, and who happened to be an alcoholic…” (… and even that’s a simplification!)

You want to have conversations about children’s homes and schizophrenic mothers with your friends’ parents? With new teachers in new schools? With your workmates? I don’t, always. It’s like being in the closet. I want a choice about whether I talk about it. I reserve the right to simplify, even when it is actual lying… but these days I try to say “It was actually quite complicated but…” so I have a fall back position to explain if I want to.

Because the problem with the short version is that it’s hard to go back from it later to “Actually…” “Actually, you know when I said…”

And that leads me to the tangled web. Once you lie, you have to keep on lying. Furthermore, once you have told a lie and someone has believed it, they get invested in the truth of it. If you tell that lie again later, they’ll defend it just as much as you will. And you all get tangled up in lies, you have to remember them and keep them straight and defend them and lie more and more to cover them up and make them work, because if they fail you are revealed as a liar. There’s no way back from the brink. Once you have lied, you have to keep lying to cover it, no matter what, because lying at all is regarded as unforgiveable.


I once, on the bus to Greece, when I was seventeen, made up a whole fictional past for myself when the stranger in the next seat asked me. It started from not wanting to get into things, and then it all unwound from my mouth, a job, a boyfriend, a town, all totally made up and she didn’t question it in the slightest. Lots of it was her assumptions from my starting axioms. Keeping it up for days and not slipping the whole way across Europe was difficult, remembering what I had said, not saying things that contradicted it, but I managed it, or reconciled apparent contradictions to her satisfaction. I was very glad to say goodbye to her in Thessaloniki though.

I worried after that that I might be a compulsive liar. (Regrettably, Introductory Psychology Through SF has nothing on compulsive liars.) I had read Billy Liar. I had read The Magus. What I did on that bus was only one step on from the way I usually shaped my actual history to make life easier. If I can make up characters I can make up myself, and after all they’re both starting on a root-stock of myself, of angles and aspects of myself.

I thought about it a lot. One of the things I saw was that doing that was bad for the real inside me. In the end, lying made me truthful, and hiding things made me open. I try hard to be truthful these days. Oh, I may say your ass doesn’t look fat in that or that I had a lovely time when I didn’t, and I might even say the god ate my homework, and I might avoid answering the question about whether I have brothers or sisters, but those are theads of lies. I work hard avoid the easy spider-web clinging tissue kind, and save it for the fiction.

They say kids lie because they don’t know it’s wrong, and what’s wrong really is more complicated than it seems. The reason it’s wrong is that it leads to the tangled web and the tangled web can easily lead to black lies. That, I think is what happened with MsScribe.

When I read the MsScribe bio, I recognised some things early on. She was doing a thing I do — taking an actual incident and making it a story. I’d read one thing of hers before — the Lashonda story, when Peg Kerr linked to it when it was new — and I could see in that and in the “baby dykes” story that they were in fact stories. There’s a fiction impulse I have where some little thing kicks it off and before I know it I have a little story like that. They’re usually useless, they don’t fit anywhere, you can’t publish them, they need more contexting than you can give them — though actually I think the Lashonda one could have been publishable.

Now LJ is an odd thing. It expects posts. I try not to post to my journal with “Got up, had a bath, made R’s sandwiches, failed to write, got Z off to school, read LJ, missed usenet, ate pasta and peas, did some grocery shopping, failed to write again, cooked dinner for the family and ate it, read my book, went to sleep” because that’s really awfully boring to read about. In fact I try not to post in my journal unless I have something worth saying, or word-count. But sometimes I think “I haven’t posted for days! But nothing has happened worth posting about!” I don’t then make up something to post about, but I see where the impulse comes from to embroider some little nothing into something, into a good story. I’ve sometimes been doing something and caught myself making up a journal post about it in my head. And all of us who have journals and post about our lives must be a little more exhibitionist than most.

I’m sure that embroidery is what she was doing. I understand the impulse to do it. Channeling it into marked fiction is a better thing to do with the impulse. But posting it in her journal didn’t in fact hurt anyone.

Beyond that, when she got into sockpuppets attacking her and calling her a “zebra” (I never heard that term before, and find it really weird) I can still see it as being theatre, done for attention, possibly actually done as catharsis, but still not hurting anyone. Yes, she may have done it to be in with the in-crowd as the bio assumes, but she kept on doing things after she was as in as she could be, rooming with Cassie Claire at Nimbus. I don’t know what she was getting out of it. Maybe for her being persecuted like that represented some way she really felt persecuted. Maybe she was just having catty cruel fun with it. If so, other people were too, from the account.

The bit where she was in hospital and paralysed — maybe she stubbed her toe. Maybe she fell and thought “I could have been paralysed in hospital”. But it made a good story. The same with the stalker and the police. No, it didn’t happen, and yes, there is an assumption of truth… and the assumption of truth on LJ is what’s really damaged by all of this.

I mean how do you know I was really concussed in February? I could have made it up for the attention. How do you even know I did laundry yesterday? How do I know you did what you posted about? Only because we trust each other to tell the truth, or a reasonable entertaining facsimile of it. That trust is a casualty of her lies.

What I don’t know — because I don’t know MsScribe — was whether she represented her own personality as something other than who she was. I doubt it, because it’s really hard to do for a sustained period of time.

When I was in the habit of telling easy lies (and I still sharpen up anecdotes, not embroider, but sharpen up, I try to keep on the right side of the line, but it’s arguable) it seemed to me there were two important things — firstly to avoid the tangled web leading to tangles and black lies that can hurt people, and secondly to remain true to my own self. I don’t always want everything in the open, but if I give the simplified version or a lie, it’s one that’s true to who I am.

I don’t know if MsScribe was true to herself under all the lacy scribbles of spider elaborations, but from what I’ve read of her, she was. One personality comes through her writing quite clearly. She lied and lied and lied, she made up sockpuppets and attacked herself, but she sent flowers to Velma in hospital. I don’t like her myself, from what comes through her writing, but that she told lies about incidents and kept on telling them doesn’t mean she isn’t the person some of you knew.

Where it seems to me MsScribe crossed the line was where she involved GT. There she bore false witness, there her lies did hurt people. At that point she couldn’t have stopped without falling completely flat on her face… but she should have taken the fall. That was where she did something actually wrong.

It seems to me that she did try to stop after that, perhaps because she came close to being caught, or perhaps because she saw that she had crossed that line. Or maybe she grew up a bit. But she hasn’t been doing it the last little while. And she probably is the person you thought she was.

In the first post I saw on this, Alter’s, he asked why she had gone to all this trouble for such a small thing, to be seen as a big name in Harry Potter online fandom. This really is a very small thing. She didn’t lie about weapons of mass destruction, she didn’t “sex up” reports of the dangers Saddam Hussein posed to the world, she didn’t even lie about having sex with That Woman.

I think if you liked her before, you can probably safely continue to like her — you just can’t trust her to be telling the truth on all points at all moments — and on that one, I’m certainly not going to cast the first stone.

Posted in Among Others, Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face