Reviewed by Melissa Oliveira
Well into his new book The Lie: A Memoir of Two Marriages, Catfishing & Coming Out, (Little A, July 2019), William Dameron writes, “Conversion therapy doesn’t always occur at a facility. Often, it takes place at the dining-room table.” In this case, the dining-room table belongs to Dameron’s mother: it’s the table of his childhood, the one where he first internalizes the anti-gay messages of religion, society, and family. It was also where, as a young man, he struck the first of many bargains against himself: that he could, indeed would, make himself be straight. So, Dameron writes, “I returned to the closet.” He’s married to this fiction before he’s old enough to understand how long a lifetime of lies can feel, or how lies amass over time and turn into something solid and heavy enough to hurtle through the life you’ve carefully constructed. Yet, he says, “Our lives were built on that decision.” He marries a woman, has two daughters, and tries to cope with the shame, pain and secrecy as the years go by.
The story might have ended there for Dameron but, as he states so beautifully himself, “the things we hide become desperate to be seen.” A warm friendship with a straight colleague named Enzo turns into unrequited love, and soon Dameron’s desperation to be seen conflicts with his desire to remain hidden. This memoir digs into this: how so much came to be hidden, and what happened when an otherwise ordinary trip to Walmart resulted in his coming out to his wife. The nonlinear narrative encompasses roughly the period between that original conversion and a kind of “reverse conversion”: the space between is that decades-long lie of the title, a fiction composed of a marriage, children, house, and so on. Since we understand the lie can’t go on indefinitely, it functions like a ticking clock, hooking this reader right away. Dameron’s memoir reminds us repeatedly of how these fictions don’t end with us; they can also rob others, even our beloveds, of their happiness. The story of Dameron’s straightness is, after all, the only one his wife and daughters knew. Changing the story will burden his children with pain, yet as a dad he wants to protect them from pain.
Even though the whole structure of their lives seemed to depend on Dameron’s ability to bear the lie’s weight, he is buckling. This comes across both literally and metaphorically: Dameron starts weightlifting, bulking up with steroids bought with money from his dead father’s IRA. While lifting weights in his basement, his wife and daughters upstairs, Dameron reflects, “It was as if I were trying to lift the entire house above me, with all of its secrets and its silences.” In life, he builds layers of chemically-enhanced muscle, fashioning an ideal strongman of himself. In the text, he uses the processes of weightlifting to examine everything from shame and addiction to desire and control. The hypermasculine rituals of the gym make great fodder for exploration: a place of mirrors, where one can look at men in open admiration or be looked at, and where spotting other weightlifters requires physical closeness. He examines denial, too: it’s not a desire for men that draws his eyes, he reasons, just a desire to have the perfect male body.
While the book meanders away from the main thread near the end, a few really stunning chapters (like one that appears as After 264 Haircuts, a Marriage Ends in the New York Times Modern Love section) make the work as a whole rise above the few rough spots. The catfishing in the title refers to when Dameron learns his selfie was used by men on dating sites to attract women. He describes as a sort of “cosmic joke… It was as if the essence of my own deception took shape and continued to live a life of lies, duping women into love and then robbing them of their joy.” It makes sense here, but elsewhere in the text, it felt somewhat forced. Scenes describing Katherine’s perceived fragility were ones I struggled with most. Some of her behaviors sounded like mental health crises, and others were purely mean. Seeing them employed to signal a kind of psychic “hauntedness” especially left me confused and skeptical. Though I longed for more dimensionality, I admired Dameron’s refusal to keep lying to Katherine once the truth was out.
What I appreciated most is how Dameron’s narrative of coming out later in life deals elegantly with storytelling as a long-term survival strategy. I recalled a famous Joan Didion line as I read, one I often see quoted in essays about memoir: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The Lie invited me to think hard about Didion’s words, because something about the quality of our lives also depends on the stories we tell ourselves. When the story we tell ourselves — and everyone else — is a lie, it might help us survive, even for decades. Living, on the other hand, might be a different story.