Every school year, after we’ve done introductions and created class rules together and gotten settled into the fact that summer is officially over, I start my AP Language classes the same way. I explain to them that the problem with argument is that sometimes arguments are convincing without being true. Sometimes they contain half truths and outright lies, and still, they seem valid. That rhetoric is quite literally the art of making people believe you, and every day, we’re bombarded with information from people who understand that, who use it to their advantage, who are masters of the craft of trying to change our minds for one reason or another. It’s up to us to be hyper-aware of this, to examine the messages blasted our way, to check the sources and their history, to become conscious consumers of information.
Then, we spend the rest of the school year breaking down all the ways we’ve all been lied to: in our skewed understanding of history through the Standard Narrative, in the biases we learn early on in our lives through our families and the media, and in what we tell ourselves to make us feel better about our individual positions in society. They are always a little shell-shocked by the amount of information missing from their understanding of the world, and I remind them it’s not unusual to believe something that is untrue about our society. What’s strange about our society is how we’re so desperate to hide the truth away or obscure it enough that people stop asking questions or deny it all together. At the end of the year, we’re all left sitting with the same questions. When we live in a society where truth matters so little, what are we supposed to do with it once we have it? How do we rehabilitate how valuable truth really is when so many others seem hellbent on unceasingly devaluing it? Does knowing the truth even matter?
Like this review, Sarah Viren’s new memoir, To Name the Bigger Lie, starts in a Florida high school classroom, too. It’s in the gifted program of her high school that she first encounters a teacher she’ll be stuck with for most of the rest of her secondary education, Dr. Whiles. Dr. Whiles’s class, “Theory of Knowledge,wp_postsis designed to make his students question everything from their own understandings of themselves to the nature of truth to the possibility of the existence of an objective reality. Viren is immediately taken by Dr. Whiles, as most teenagers who are being challenged to think in new ways by an authority figure would be, and so are the rest of her classmates. Dr. Whiles’s class succeeds in making Viren question herself and the world around her, but it also confuses her. Surely, there must be some aspects of reality we all share. There has to be. Yet, regardless of these feelings, Viren and her classmates begin to trust the word of Dr. Whiles almost instinctually. That is until he tries to convince them of a lie so egregious, it finally snaps Viren and some of the others out of the educational trance he put them in.
Viren then transports us closer to the present and straight into the part of her life some readers will be familiar with. She and her wife Marta were professors at Arizona State University when Viren got an offer to be part of the creative nonfiction department at the University of Michigan. Both of them had been hoping to return to the midwest for most of their 10 years together, so this was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. As is usually custom for working couples in academia, people at Michigan began looking for a position for Marta. Shortly after Viren was offered the job, posts on Reddit began appearing claiming that Marta had sexually harassed an ASU student which led ASU to begin a Title IX investigation on Marta, prolonging the hiring process for both of them at Michigan. In the meantime, she learns that a professor acquaintance of hers who she names Jay in the text (and in the original New York Times feature) was also competing for the job Viren was offered at Michigan. What follows is an untangling of a web of lies and fake email accounts and false accusations that eventually leaves questions about the value of truth, the malleability of facts, and our responsibility to the truth.
When our collective handle on truth as a society became further fractured by the events of the presidential campaigns and election of 2016 and the subsequent presidency of Donald Trump, Viren was already contemplating these questions and trying to figure out how to write about them, how to understand where we were and where we were going. It’s through her attempts to understand these questions that Viren decides to tell these stories together, to hold the experiences of her — as Virginia Woolf theorized — “I thenwp_postsup next to the experiences of her “I nowwp_postsin order to understand how people could so easily give into narrative falsehoods and unfounded lies:
“I kept reading or hearing the same explanation for [Trump’s] popularity: how the uneducated and poor in our country had fallen for a politician who thrived on hate, lies, and conspiracy theories. I heard that and I remembered Dr. Whiles but also his disciples. I remembered how smart everyone told us we were in high school, and yet how many of us had believed, or at least failed to dispute, the worldview that I remember Dr. Whiles presenting our junior year: one in which civilization had been lost, a sensate culture loomed in the future, and those to blame were a shadowy government hidden somewhere in the wings.”
But as the memoir continues, it blooms into something so much bigger than that. It not only brings us through a philosophical exploration of these concepts but it also becomes a challenge to Woolf’s conception of a before self and a now self. How can we so easily box ourselves and our experiences into two separate worlds, two separate planes, two separate selves? Doesn’t the combination of our experiences of our “I thenwp_postshelp our “I nowwp_postsbe more truthful and more honest? As Viren’s exploration continues, she breaks these notions and possibilities down to show us that in life — and in the telling of our lives through stories and memoir —- we don’t just have a responsibility to the truth, but to the ethics and morals that govern the truth and the way we share that truth with the world. She takes us through the history of these ethical preoccupations through the works of Plato, Socrates, Woolf, Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Kurt Vonnegut to, hopefully, uncover exactly why the truth is so valuable and how we should wield it as a means to becoming freer.
In the process, Viren finds something much more important to her as both a human and a writer: “Plato wrote but he did so in dialogues that keep us from knowing what he actually thought. Which perhaps is the only way of going about these things. Metaphorically. Telling stories in ways that open up meaning, that elicit questions rather than tendering answers.”
She finds that as writers, artists, storytellers, and people in the world, we have the agency and power to make meaning from the scraps of truth we’re thrown from various directions, to figure out what pieces of the argument we can hold onto and what we should throw away. And perhaps in the process, our stories can help us figure that out. Perhaps the truth is so valuable because it allows us to be honest and create meaning from that honesty. In the end, Viren reminds us: “We may feel like prisoners chained to a cave floor. Trapped in some brave new world. Watching a drama pass before us on a far wall. But we are also, always, the shadow casters, and we are also always the ones who give names to the shadows cast.”