This Is a True Story
Most of us fib more than we’d care to admit. Julianna Baggott, once a first-class fabricator, explains how she learned to stop lying—and to show the world her real, honest-to-goodness self.
I spent my childhood listening to my mother tell one whopper of a story after another. One set of our ancestors allegedly found a baby wrapped in vines after a storm, she said. Another discovered a valuable diamond brooch covered in tar in a bathroom stall. What’s more, three of her uncles, all baseball aficionados, were buried at the site of a North Carolina field where they once played. And here’s the kicker: They were supposedly interred in their respective fielding positions. No wonder she held people in rapt attention at dinner parties, in line at the market, at bus stops.
Jaw-dropping events were apparently commonplace in my mother’s formative years—no surprise, since she was such an outsize character herself. A saucy redheaded southerner, Mom could be demure one moment and shocking the next, with a laugh so loud and sudden it turned heads. And she had stories to tell.
I didn’t, as far as I knew. I was raised in Delaware (referred to by many as Dull-aware and Dela-where?) with three older siblings in a garden-variety suburban atmosphere. I yearned to be unique like my mother; I wanted to fit into the world of fascinating dinner-party conversation that she so effortlessly inhabited. And so I invented other realities in order to make myself equally intriguing and charismatic.
After my brother and sisters flew the coop, I frequently traveled as an only child with my parents. Our journeys provided me with countless opportunities to make things up. I often pretended to be Lebanese, speaking in a broken accent and refusing to do certain things that went against the “rules of my culture,” like eating Pop Rocks, which I hated anyway. On other occasions, I told people my mother was a flamenco dancer, or that I was related to Goldie Hawn. I was careful not to bring up these fibs when my parents were around, and so I never got caught. Later on, in college, I kept on lying. Why not? I was good at it. Studying abroad in France one semester, I felt truly fluent in French the night I was able to tell an histoire à dormir debout (tall tale) in a bar.
My fictions continued over the years and even bore fruit: I went to graduate school for creative writing. There I was in my ideal habitat—a natural exaggerator surrounded by natural exaggerators—and yet, to my surprise, I found myself drawn to Dave, the one student in my program who didn’t seem eager to impress everyone with his raconteur skills. In short order, he forced the truth out of me. On our first or second date, Dave asked me so many earnest questions about my award-winning background in ballroom dance that I finally confessed I knew only the jitterbug. I braced myself for his reaction, but he didn’t recoil in horror. To the contrary, he said he found me fascinating—the real me, completely stripped of my fabrications.
As I began telling him about my actual childhood, I discovered that my life hadn’t been as ho-hum as I’d always thought. I had spent years pretending to be Lebanese! That was interesting. My dad was a corporate lawyer who danced in the kitchen like Zorba the Greek. Pretty colorful, right? What’s more, I was raised around the corner from my maternal grandparents—my step-grandfather, a double amputee from World War II, and my grandma, an oyster-bar owner who once sang back-up for Mel Tormé. Come to think of it, my childhood was wonderfully weird, and if I hadn’t spent my time trying to shock and amaze people (and keep pace with my mother), I might have realized it earlier.
I practiced living Dave-ishly, engaged by the real world and paying close attention to its stunning details. He was a constant source of inspiration: When I introduced him to my family and friends, he asked authentic, probing questions and found out more about them in minutes than I had in years. He was the one to learn that my elderly neighbor had survived the Bataan Death March, why my brother had given up the saxophone, and that my father had gotten caught in a snowstorm on the night of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
I followed his lead. Now that I was not expending considerable energy try-ing to keep my fibs straight, I found that I was better at inquiring about other people—and at listening to their answers. I cordoned off fiction, saving it for my novels, and dedicated myself to nonfiction in my everyday life.
I also concluded that it would be a good idea to marry Dave, and did so.
Not long after the wedding, inspired by Dave’s relentless search for truth, I confronted my mother and demanded that she come clean about her outlandish stories, which I had long since figured were bunk. There was one tale, for example, that she would tell about an aunt who had cared for her blind, bed-bound mother for years—and then suddenly hanged herself from a bedpost. I told my mom it wasn’t possible. “How does someone hang herself from a bedpost? It’s, what, three feet off the floor?” I pressed for a confession.
My mother was flustered. “It’s true!” she insisted indignantly. Two days later, flushed with vindication, she knocked on my front door and handed me a yellowed newspaper clipping. The headline read: WOMAN HANGS HERSELF ON A BEDPOST.
It was a true story. Unlikely, but true. And it forced me to reconsider the veracity of all my mother’s wild tales. What if somewhere in North Carolina there was an old baseball field where her uncles were buried at first, second, and third plates? Maybe I was the descendant of a baby who was found wrapped in vines. Or not. Or maybe the truth was someplace in between.
I decided then and there to hand these legends down to my own children, much the way another family might bequeath a cherished homemade quilt. And I’ll be honest: I don’t know whether the stories are fact or fiction. But they are part of our heritage nonetheless.
This year my mother gave me a present, an old-fashioned dinner ring with five small diamonds embedded in white gold. She had worn it for as long as I could remember. I was touched beyond words. The diamonds of my mother’s ring, once part of that aforementioned brooch found in a lump of tar in a bathroom stall, remind me, daily, that I don’t need to make things up. The world, just as it is, has endless gifts to offer.