Alice Walker on What Her Father Taught Her About Lying and the Love-Expanding Capacity of Telling the Truth
By Maria Popova
“The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her beautiful essay on lying and what “truth” really means, “are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.” The surprising expansion of possibilities when we choose not to lie, even when the truth is difficult, is what Alice Walker (b. February 9, 1944) addresses in a portion of her altogether magnificent 1995 conversation with Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel, included in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel (public library) — the superb compendium of writerly wisdom that gave us Jeanette Winterson on time, language, and the purpose of art and Chinua Achebe on the meaning of life and the writer’s responsibility.
Walker, who was born as the eighth child in a family of sharecroppers and became blind in her right eye after a childhood injury, recounts what her father taught her about the love-expanding capacity of telling the truth:
When I was three or four, I broke a jar, and given that I had siblings I could have said that they had broken it, or I could have said that it had slipped. I remember that he asked me if I had done it, and I looked at him and I thought, gee, this is a person I really love and he would be happy if I hadn’t broken this thing. On the other hand he was looking at me with such expectancy that I found myself coming up to meet his expectancy with a real need to express the truth, because that’s the most wonderful feeling there is. So I said, “Yes, I broke the jar.” His response was not to fuss and not to spank me or anything but rather to beam this incredible love in my direction, and that was his way of teaching me about telling the truth and what is possible. It is possible that if you tell the truth not only will you be delivered yourself from the prison of untruth, but the person who hears the truth will also be opened and can be delighted.
The choice between truth and lying, Walker suggests, is that between creation and destruction. In a sentiment that calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s beautiful 1926 meditation on human nature — in which he observed that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it” — Walker elaborates on having once stated that writing saved her “from the sin and inconvenience of violence”:
There is an awful lot of anger in the world … and … there is a real need to be creative with it rather than destructive. I think of violence as basically useless; it doesn’t solve anything. The more violence you create the more violence you have. So it really is an inconvenience. It’s like lying; if you lie, you’re constantly trying to remember what you lied about and how you lied. With violence, if you create it, you’re always trying to figure out why you did it or how to deal with the messiness of it or, later on, how to absolve yourself. Much better to create something, much better to talk.
Love really means that you have to talk, and that’s where this is coming from. I have seen a lot of violence and I know that unless we do address it, it is not going to go away, it’s just going to grow.
Complement this particular portion of Wachtel’s wholly stimulating More Writers & Company with Martin Luther King, Jr. on love and nonviolence and Tolstoy’s little-known correspondence with Gandhi on how to stop hurting each other, then revisit Walker on creativity and bliss and this fascinating primer on how to tell when you’re being lied to.
Published October 6, 2015