Lies and Secrets

Wendy Perriam's 14th novel, "Lying", is published by Peter Owen at 15.95. Here she tells how SoF worked its way into her life, and then into her new novel. Details of all Wendy Perriam's novels can be found on her website.

When I first read in SOF "No doubt is too shocking, no idea too challenging to be expressed within our network", I wanted to spring to my feet and cheer. Doubts at my convent boarding school were heresy, full stop. And heresy was the work of Satan.

Thus at the age of seventeen I was told by the nuns that I was in the Devil's power, for daring to question the tenets of my faith. Believing myself intrinsically evil and more or less already damned, I plunged into a deep depression, adrift in what seemed a meaningless world without my loving Father-God or the truths and certainties which had given my life structure up till then.

I have never stopped searching for something to replace those comforting certainties, although it wasn't until I read my first SOF magazine that I felt here at last were ideas I could accept. In fact I was so impressed by SoF thinking that I incorporated some of it into my new novel, Lying.

Lying is partly my parents' story, combined with elements of my own. My father originally intended to be a priest, but eventually left the seminary to marry, insisting that his bride-to-be convert to Catholicism. He continued to be a model Catholic, leading an austerely devout life, so naturally he took the nuns' part when I was expelled from school as a "heretic". However, many years later, he too lost his faith. Appalled at the thought of scandalizing my mother, he felt compelled to live a lie, concealing his doubts and attending mass regularly. The irony was that, unbeknown to him, my mother had also lost her faith and she too was dissembling, for his sake.

In the novel I dramatize this dilemma through the lives of James and Alison Ward, he an accountant, she an editor in publishing. It is Alison who first begins to realize, in the words of Andrew Motion, "there is only one truth, which is that nothing is absolutely true". But she is married to a man who upholds Absolute Truth, and James's love for her is so much part of his love for God, she cannot extricate herself from his Church without losing him in the process. Thus she is faced with a terrible choice: she must sacrifice either her marriage or her integrity.

She opts for the latter and starts to lie. And as someone once remarked, it's easy to tell a lie but hard to tell only one. As she becomes entangled in a web of deception, she begins to see falsehood everywhere—in advertising, politics, even in science, history and medicine.

Lying takes a sharp look at our whole culture of mendacity, in which hype and spin rule supreme, statistics are doctored, history rewritten, hoaxes abound on the internet, bogus guests appear on TV chat shows, and the travel and beauty industries peddle expensive dreams. It's been estimated that each of us tells up to 180 lies a day (though of course those statistics may themselves be skewed! And anyway, how on earth do they calculate?).

Indeed the capacity to lie has been described as an art form, a sophisticated skill which raises us above the animals—or does it? New research shows that even animals engage in deception. I've examined truth and falsehood in several of my previous novels, and also drawn frequently on Catholic themes. In Fifty-Minute Hour I even shot the present Pope—an act of revenge, say my friends! I suppose even now I cannot throw off the emotional baggage of Catholicism, nor the desire for Truth with a capital T. And I still miss that Good Shepherd who went in search of the lost lamb, cares about sparrows falling, and numbers every hair of our heads.

So although I call myself a Sea of Faither and find it intellectually bracing, it leaves me emotionally dissatisfied as I continue to hanker after a belief-structure that can provide an answer to suffering and injustice, and remove the sting of death. Religion—the realist variety—may well be in our genes, because it makes life much more bearable by providing the cohesion, structure, meaning and security we humans seem to crave.

Can the Sea of Faith compete, I wonder, when many people will always prefer comfort to truth? And it is undeniably more comforting to believe that we are the children of a loving God who created us in His image, made the earth for our benefit and promises us eternal beatitude, rather than the product of random chance, adrift in a chaotic universe where the strongest live and the weakest die.

This was brought home to me with added force when I attended a Millennial Eve Communion service at a geriatric nursing home, where I was recovering from an operation—a mere babe among the octogenarians! The service began with a reading from II Corinthians: "We are troubled on every side yet not distressed; we are perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not forsaken; cast down but not destroyed". What inspiring words, I thought, for depressed, disabled and lonely old people with so little else to sustain them. Was it any wonder they believed?

Indeed, some would argue that many of our contemporary ills arise from a decline in religious belief, and certainly our sex-obsessed, consumerist society can be arid and unfulfilling. My previous novel Second Skin criticized the "having-it-all" mentality, which often results in stress and frustration. We have counselling instead of Confession, rights and status instead of duties and service, narcissism rather than worship, eating disorders in place of fasting, soap operas rather than Stations of the Cross. Nietzsche famously claimed that God was dead, but went on to say that, since God was the only thing worth praising, civilization was doomed.

Of course the Sea of Faith exists partly to fill this very gap, celebrating the god within rather than mourning the lost God without, and rejoicing in the fact that there is no more need for self-deception or thought-control. James in Lying makes a similar spiritual journey, abandoning the fossilized religious structure imposed on him by his control-freak parents (who couldn't cope with uncertainties and distrusted any form of change) and eventually arriving at what he calls a personal resurrection. No longer an adult-child to be coerced nor a sinner in need of saving, he is free at last to work out his own values and morality. A Sea of Faither in all but name, he starts to redefine old religious concepts and find new meaning in them. Prayer, for example, might work like spiritual microwaves—a form of energy fuelled by love and concern, which could indeed have healing powers.

Prayer is a central issue in the novel. James's grandmother regards him as her miracle baby—her prayers saved his life in infancy. Here again I drew on personal experience. When my daughter Pauline was declared dead in the womb, my then still-devout mother prayed non-stop and, extraordinary though it sounds, the doctors began to hear the foetal heartbeat once more. And since I'd been told I would never conceive, Pauline's birth could be considered doubly miraculous. On the other hand, the doctors might simply have been wrong. I'll probably never know, and it seems best to conclude, as James does, that "mystery is the key: acceptance of the unknowable, of doubt, conjecture, paradox".

However much I crave the whole Catholic panoply of angels, saints, sacraments and sanctuaries, I'm always conscious of the debt I owe to the Sea of Faith. Not only did it provide ideas and inspiration for my novel, it also offers me a spiritual home in which doubt, conjecture, paradox can be embraced rather than feared. It was a fellow Sea of Faither who told me, forty years after my traumatic expulsion from school, that the word "heretic" comes from the Greek, meaning to choose. He probably wondered why I hugged him in response. But you see, he'd succeeded in lifting the curse: I was no longer an apostate who, if not cast out, would blight the body of Mother Church; I was no longer consigned to everlasting fire—I'd simply exercised my right of choice.