A Lie About My Father: A Memoir
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My father told lies all his life and, because I knew no better, I repeated them. Lies about everything, great and small, were the very fabric of my world.
The lie in the title of astonishing memoir Lie About My Father is born of shame. Traveling around upstate New York in the nineties, John Burnside can't bear to share the truth about his father during a casual conversation with a hitchhiker. He covers his uneasiness with a lie. It felt natural to do so.
His father, abandoned as a baby on a stranger's doorstep, created a masterful web of deceit to erase this unbearable fact. John, even as a child, represented everything that was wrong with the world and became the recipient of his father's selfhatred in the form of enraged violence, and worse, petty, cruel belittlement. Growing up in the tough working-class neighborhoods of Scotland and later England, John learned to lie back to his father and, later, about his father.
need to say, what we need to remember above and beyond all our other concerns is that this is the real world, our enduring mystery. There were no ghosts last night. Nobody came to my little fire, other than the living. Later, though, as I sat up, observing my customary vigil, a memory came to me of a man who, for the child I was during his lifetime, might just as well have been a ghost. He was someone I had never come to know, though I lived in his house for so long; when I try to picture what
night. I would be in bed, pretending to be asleep, not daring to slip out in case my father came home and found my bed empty when, as was more and more the case, he wanted me up and about, serving drinks, emptying ashtrays, mopping up spillages and the occasional pool of vomit or piss. All evening, I would lie awake, listening to my mother as she went about the house, hiding ornaments, tidying up, doing her best to make the place look good and, at the same time, concealing anything she thought my
moment, both my parents – so helplessly locked into the misery of wedlock. All I could do was stall. ‘Where did he come from?’ I asked. ‘It’s a good wee puppy,’ my father said. He obviously didn’t want to say anything more about provenance in front of my mother. ‘All it needs is a good home – ’ ‘It’s not staying,’ my mother said. ‘For one thing, we can’t afford – ’ My father stiffened. If there was one thing he didn’t want to hear, ever, it was the details of what he couldn’t afford. Realising
liked. The fact that they even liked anything in the first place was something of a revelation. Most of the other men I encountered seemed to like nothing at all. Of course, I knew the Italians were not alone: I had met a couple of Poles, a Slav, a Hungarian, even a Frenchman. The Frenchman had shown me how to pick a flower right at the base of the stem, and suck out the nectar inside. I knew he was French because he was wearing a dark blue beret and had that kind of accent. As he stood there,
helplessness as he described how he had wakened in the small hours and watched the man in the opposite bed die, unseen, unnoticed, in a strange place, fading out in his own private world, unaware – at the last – that my father was watching from eight feet away. ‘But what if he did know?’ my father had said. ‘What if he could see me watching him? I’d never even spoken to the boy, and there he was, dying right in front of my eyes.’ ‘Didn’t you call for someone?’ I asked him. My father shook his