Those of us who love to write don’t like to admit this, but there is some overlap between artists in general (including writers) and con artists.
Years ago, when I was a grad student in the Canadian prairie university where I now teach, a woman prof I admired wrote a biography of the writer Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980). The prof’s research turned up evidence that the writer didn’t really grow up in a white-pillared antebellum mansion in the southern U.S. She came from the social class that used to be called “white trash,” and simply decided to reinvent herself. While doing that, she neglected to mention a short, messy teenage marriage. I couldn’t blame the writer for editing her life-story, but I sympathized with the biographer when she had to decide how much truth to tell on the page. Porter still had living relatives.
Stories like this are not that unusual, and they often come out after an artist has died. I was vaguely aware of how easy it would be to fictionalize an actual life while I was still an only child who made up stories about my dolls. My mother often told her friends that children can’t tell the difference between real life and “make-believe.” Looking back, I suspect this belief was probably widespread among parents of the post-war Baby Boom. I decided back then that I was not a baby, and I would always make a serious effort to keep the two dimensions separate.
Writing, whether one gets published or not, is a marvellous outlet for imagination. I like to think I can stay in touch with reality because I can escape to an imaginary world whenever I want to.
This brings me to a breakup that has been on my mind since early March 2020, when no one was hibernating at home. I had a gay-male friend, a polished drag queen. He was/is also a gifted raconteur, on and off a stage. In fact, I learned years ago that my friend (I’ll call him Puck) liked to dominate conversations, and that trying to change the subject was usually futile. At least his stories were always funny or dramatic.
Then he came very close to telling me that he had the missing original final piece of the Bayeux Tapestry (or Embroidery), which tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.
According to Puck, he was visiting England when someone offered to sell him an old piece of embroidered cloth as a souvenir, and he bought it. He didn’t seem to remember the name of it, but when I prompted him, he said that was probably it.
This story troubled me more than any previous anecdote from Puck’s repertoire. I told my spouse that if something that valuable were really in the private possession of a tourist, a British historian would probably like to see it. But then, I hadn’t seen it myself, I know there are reproductions, and it was none of my business.
Then Puck told me that he and his husband would probably be adopting a little girl because her father (a friend of his) had died, and the girl’s mother was a nymphomaniac drug addict who neglected her. According to the story, the mother was inviting men to line up outside her house to take turns in her assembly-line bed, in full view of her child. Apparently she wasn’t charging admission, but she also didn’t hold a paid job, or spend any time cooking or cleaning.
I had already heard versions of this story, as circulated by some men about their ex-wives or girlfriends, or about women who have turned them down. This was my ex-husband’s description of me in the 1970s.
The slut of legend usually sounds like an X-rated cartoon, or a character in a porn flick which was made for laughs. She has no human limitations, and is imagined as a voracious cunt. (I vaguely remember a horror story by Clive Barker about a woman like this, a victim of her own plumbing.) The people who spread this story have never seen the slut in action, but they assure their audience that the story comes from a reliable source.
I expressed doubt about this tragic scenario when I heard it. I suspected it was invented by the child’s father, while alive.
Meanwhile, Puck’s impending adoption of a child seemed to be the talk of the LGBT community. The next time I saw him, I asked how this process was going. He told me that actually, the mother had custody and seemed to be doing an adequate job of raising her child. According to Puck, he had been lied to about this.
I stewed about this situation, then expressed my feelings in an email to Puck. I explained that I had been a victim of a similar smear campaign, run by my ex-husband, now also deceased. I explained that the death of the person who launches the Story of the Slut doesn’t kill the story as long as it is being passed on. The resemblance of a malicious rumour to a deadly virus seems too obvious to need pointing out.
Puck apologized, said he considered me a friend, and said he never intended to hurt ME. I’m sure he didn’t, but I wasn’t his primary victim. I haven’t responded to the apology.
So here we are. Much as I enjoy interesting stories, I wish all creative types would avoid passing off their own and others’ fantasies as truth. A good story has value on its own, and the best stories, even speculative fiction, are 1) plausible, and 2) about characters with personalities.