The flower bed in the lee of the wall on the beach road has flourished in the year since it was replanted. Amongst the tangle of oxeye daisies and fading thrift, a glimpse of honesty takes me to a time when those papery seed heads grew alongside carrots and sweet peas in the garden of my childish dreams.
“Why is it called honesty?”
“Because you can see right through it,” my mother said, as we patted the earth over the seeds together.
You don’t see it so much these days, my companion and I agree as we cross the road with the dogs. The BBC website declares honesty to be ‘an old-fashioned dual purpose plant’, which seems a good description for a virtue nobody prizes any more. Indeed, in these days of instant gratification and winner-takes-all, it seems to serve no useful purpose at all. Why would it? You can persuade turkeys to vote for your kind of Christmas by painting a bus with three-hundred-and-fifty-million-pound untruths, or become leader of the free world by lying through your teeth. Why bother with honesty?
It’s tempting to become nostalgic for old-fashioned values, but that way lies Brexit, amongst other horrors. I grew up in what seems to have become a golden age for nostalgia – post-war Britain. I was brought up to value honesty above all else by parents whose mantra was ‘what will the neighbours think?’ It was a difficult dance, and for an over-dramatic child such as myself it sometimes brought unexpected consequences.
Despite fierce parental disapproval, I lived much of my childhood in a solitary fantasy world, acting out for myself the stories rooted in my fertile imagination. I wore a yellow scarf on my head in lieu of golden ringlets. I rode horses constructed from garden canes stuffed into my father’s old socks. I became the entire crew of Swallows and Amazons, using oars made from old broom handles, and I hid my pet rock in a pile of rubble to stop my parents taking it away after my brother dropped it on his toe. Well, how was I to know the pile was destined to form the base for the hard standing for Dad’s first car? I still remember the day I came home from school to find my imaginary companion had disappeared beneath several inches of rapidly-setting concrete. On another memorable afternoon, I flounced across the patio and buried my head in my arms against the wall of the coal shed. I think I was a distraught princess at the time.
“Whatever’s the matter with you now?”
I hadn’t seen my mother watching at the French window. A split second of pure panic ensued, as I pulled out of my dream world at warp speed. My play acting was so much frowned upon that I knew telling the truth would lead to Consequences. I was obliged to cast round for a hasty excuse, in the hope of minimising the inevitable.
We’d finished lunch not ten minutes previously. All hell broke loose. What will the neighbours say? Do you want them to think we’re not feeding you properly? I was dragged indoors and forced to eat a banana. All in all it was one of the odder outcomes of dishonesty I’ve experienced.
But don’t we all do it? The tweaked image. The white lie. Compromising a principle to avoid offence. Our myriad minuscule deceptions oil the wheels of social interaction, primarily by ensuring we don’t spend our entire lives at each other’s throats. One of my guilty pleasures is the film Liar, Liar. A hapless father has absolute truthfulness thrust upon him for twenty-hour hours. The social consequences of being unable to lie are excruciating, but any Hollywood morality tale has to have a happy ending, and I’m yet to be convinced things would work out so well in the real world.
Charlie lied as naturally as he breathed. I took that as a given, and always felt a frisson of surprise if anything he told me turned out to be true. He was a fully-formed fantasist, and after a while it became a game for me to catch him and string him along. The Africa fantasy was my favourite. He’d read about a major civil war in a book once, and tried to convince me he’d been a mercenary in the thick of it. His story was so full of holes. He didn’t even know when he’d been there, or which side he’d fought on. The other thing he didn’t know was that his predecessor had lied to me for more than thirty years, even though I knew he was lying, and he knew that I knew. I could spot mendacity at twenty paces. In fact I’d grown so adept at living with deception that it had become second nature – a poison that had permeated my psyche so deeply I’d long ceased to be able to trust, or even to expect honesty.
My first conscious encounter with gaslighting was when a friend confided that she thought her husband was changing the clocks in the house in order to confuse her. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, gaslighting is attempting to alter someone else’s perception of the world in order to manipulate them. My friend was suffering severe postnatal depression and I feared she was delusional, so it wasn’t until some years later that I realised she’d almost certainly been telling the truth.
In a dubious defence of gaslighters I realise everyone’s perception of reality is different. A few years ago a friend and I had taken refuge from a downpour. We were sitting together over a pot of tea and some rather good scones. I was watching a man struggle through the deluge with a broken umbrella when my friend asked whether I thought it might have stopped raining yet. It seemed pretty obvious to me that it hadn’t, but he couldn’t see what I was seeing, despite the fact we were less than two feet apart.
Of course, in that situation neither of us had any vested interest in controlling the other’s perceptions. Gaslighting, on the other hand, is an active attempt to manipulate another’s view for your own ends. Gaslighting is making a three-year-old believe she’s a big girl because you don’t want to deal with her emotional distress. Gaslighting is shutting down an argument you’re losing by telling someone her gender makes her point of view invalid. Gaslighting is changing the clocks to disorientate your already-distressed wife. Gaslighting is telling your partner you’re a trained killer. It’s what an old friend bought into when her husband told her it was normal for men to have affairs, and what a newer friend refused to swallow when her partner called her unreasonable for objecting to his ongoing relationship with his ex wife. Gaslighting is one hundred and one ways to get someone to believe they’re the irrational one, not you. It’s constructing the world to your own specifications, then forcing someone else to live in it. If you ever have to check in with a friend to make sure what you’re feeling is reasonable, chances are someone’s been gaslighting you.
I once knew a man who told me he was one hundred percent honest. What you see is what you get, he used to say. The ultimate in gaslighting. Somehow I always picture him thumping his chest as he said it, although I’m fairly sure it never happened. My ability to see right through him had nothing to do with his honesty though. Far from it. Instead, my time in his company taught me that the least transparent among us are often easiest to see through, because once you’ve caught the first lie, you’ll be ready for the next one … and the next … ad nauseam. And when you’ve once seen through the WYSYWYG lie, it’s going to be that much harder for anyone to gaslight you again, unless you choose to allow them to do so, of course. Truth is, there’s nobody has honesty one hundred percent nailed. My mother was mistaken about those seed heads, you can’t see right through them. They’re no more than translucent, and that’s only after the muddy residue of the flower’s been removed. Ah, have to love a good metaphor … The fact is honesty’s inconvenient, painful and doesn’t often get us what we think we want. My mind games with Charlie and his predecessor were no more honest than their outright lies, but all the same I can’t help longing for honesty, after so many years of deceit. Yes, I know I’m not even honest with myself some of the time, so there’s a good way to go, but I’m kind of looking forward to the journey. And how honest have I been here? I’ll leave it to you to decide.