On Sarah Sweeney’s ‘Tell Me If You’re Lying’
Sweeney’s humor and candor shine through in this essay collection that reveals everything from family conflict to sexual awakenings.
Nonfiction | Essays
5.5” x 8.1”
Perfectbound Trade Paperback
Review Format: Paperback
In grad school, I took a creative nonfiction craft class. Before every round of workshops, our professor would gently remind us that the way we portray ourselves as characters is integral to shaping the reader’s perception of the narrative. “Nobody will gravitate toward or even believe a persona that is either all good or all bad,” she warned us. “Most real people are a mixture of both.” Sarah Sweeney, in her voice-driven collection of essays, Tell Me If You’re Lying, is the perfect narrator. Funny and slightly self-deprecating, Sweeney portrays herself as a multi-faceted character during her journey from childhood to young adulthood. At one moment, she is angrily yet lovingly berating her ill father for not going to the hospital for his worsening Crohn’s disease, and at another moment, she is a teenager, brazenly plucking out her tampon and tossing it onto the hood of a car. No matter what the context of each essay, Sweeney guides the reader through the narrative with self-awareness, tenderness, and humor.
When my mother cooked dinner she played Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Steely Dan’s Aja; my father relished Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers. Their musical tastes never seemed to align — a symptom of their failing marriage, which consumed them, leaving John and me to further our burgeoning careers as heathens. We stole from nearby stores, snuck out at night, and took to drinking early, raiding the poorly hidden liquor cabinet during Saturday’s after-midnight extravaganza, when we had no bedtime and our parents slept.
I’ve read other reviews and blurbs that describe this collection of essays as a coming-of-age narrative, and, despite my personal tendency to cringe at that qualifier, I would have to agree. The essays contained within span from Sweeney’s childhood to young adulthood, and each detail a turning point or epiphany in the narrator’s life, usually due to a relationship with another character. Of course, all essays need a so what? behind them, but the weightiness of Sweeney’s essays often comes from a seemingly innocuous event in her life, a moment which, in her hurry to grow up, she neglects really to notice. A childhood obsession with Madonna becomes an entry point for meditations on both prayer and sexuality. A fetish for lawyers becomes a reflection on commitment and romantic relationships. Prank calls and a scheme to meet Adrian Grenier becomes a eulogy for a lost friendship. Sweeney often begins with the silly or the quirky and then turns it into a narrative about something universal, a feeling or an idea that any well-rounded human being has experienced. The seriousness of these essays sneaks up on the reader and shows her that even the smallest moments can carry a crushing weight.
One of the best examples for the silly suddenly and unexpectedly transforming into the serious is relayed in “Don’t Drink the Antifreeze,” which begins with Sweeney detailing all the ridiculous notions her father held surrounding her brother’s and her violent, unpredictable deaths. Her father’s irrational terror over his children’s impending, inevitable doom culminates in his instruction not to drink the antifreeze, advice that seems entirely common-sense to his kids. The silliness of his fears transforms into a revealing look into her father’s psychology when Sweeney speculates that his overbearingness is a distraction from his own mortality. And as Sweeney grows into an adult, she absorbs his fear, fretting and worrying over his declining health and eventual death. The saying, “You’ll understand when you get older,” is a clichéd one, but it’s true in this situation, and Sweeney takes the reader through this transition with warmth but also bitter honesty. She does not absolve her father, a difficult man, of his parental transgressions; rather, she seeks to understand his choices, which is the much harder yet kinder path.
[Our father’s] anguish extended into any minor scenario, making it plausible that a faultily installed ceiling fan might drop on my brother or me in the middle of class, resulting in electrocution, killing us instantly. His fears made us cringe with annoyance, but his most irrational fear involved antifreeze.
(“Don’t Drink the Antifreeze”)
Many of the essays deal directly with male characters and how the narrator interacts with them; oftentimes, Sweeney positions herself more as a lens than an active character. In “Just to See You,” Sweeney reflects on her on-again, off-again, never-fully-serious relationship with a coworker, a cook from Mexico named Arturo. In “Go Your Own Way,” which is one of my favorite essays in the collection, Sweeney attempts to puzzle through the complexity and fluidity of sexuality as she remembers her physical relationship with Billy, a man who identifies as gay. Many of the essays center on Sweeney’s father, including the title essay, in which Sweeney speculates upon the reasons behind her father’s “cowboy” persona and his desire to be free, cool, uninhibited, and interesting. “Tell Me If You’re Lying” is a title that works on multiple levels: it acknowledges the narrator’s sneaking suspicions that her father’s stories (particularly one about being abducted by aliens) may not be true, and it draws attention to the age-old, beat-a-dead-horse debate in creative nonfiction about the relation between fact and truth. With this essay, the reader is forced to evaluate the importance of factual accuracy as well as her trust in Sweeney as a narrator. The title is a subtle nudge to the fact that much creative nonfiction relies heavily on the memory, a notoriously faulty device when paired with hindsight. With Sweeney gently winking, the reader begins to draw parallels between her father’s use of narrative and his daughter’s.
My father was convinced he’d coined [the term clusterfuck] himself, and I think it made him proud to have contributed something to the larger populace. When my father heard his word in movies, or used by strangers, he would turn to me and mouth it for emphasis — clusterfuck, he’d say, a proud look on his face.
(“A Gigantic Clusterfuck”)
There is only one essay in the collection with which I cannot fully suspend my disbelief. In “They Call Him Tex,” Sweeney recounts her relationship with her neighbor, a middle-aged man who, to me, gives off incredibly predatory vibes. Sweeney acknowledges Tex’s problematic behavior, which manifests itself primarily in making unwanted sexualizing comments to women, but ultimately writes it off. After smoking too much weed with Tex one night, Sweeney has an episode of paranoia in which she is convinced Tex is going to corner her and rape her. When she comes down, she decides that Tex’s interest in her is simply due to kindness, that he is, in her words, “harmless.” Perhaps my disbelief is a result of my own projections and experiences, but Tex does not appear on the page as a harmless person, creating a discrepancy between what the narrator is showing and what the narrator is telling. A harmless person would not set off alarm bells for Sweeney, a reflex that happens multiple times; instead, Tex often makes Sweeney uncomfortable, which Sweeney does not explore with any weight. Even if Sweeney genuinely did decide that Tex was harmless, the reader does not get insight into why there was that sudden revelation in spite of all the icky feelings surrounding Tex’s wholly inappropriate behavior toward a younger woman. In this essay, we get a lot about Tex as a funny, colorful character, but we get little surrounding Sweeney’s ultimate decision to mark Tex as “safe,” a fact which makes me suspect that there’s more that was not included in the essay.
There is much to love about Tell Me If You’re Lying, primarily Sarah Sweeney’s humor and candor as she reveals everything from family conflict to sexual awakenings:
We called back the baseball coach; we called men we met from the college radio station where we DJed. We breathed heavily. We said things like: My panties are so wet. We said things like: What do you think about when you come? Talking about sex made our skin feel on fire, like we were not gawky teenagers, but illustrious vixens.
(“Before Adrian Grenier Got Famous”).
This collection of essays is one that keeps excellent pace, propelling the reader through the narrator’s early life at breakneck speed. Many of my hesitations stem most likely from my own biases, such as my hesitation to belief that Tex was indeed harmless, but much of the strength of this book comes from Sweeney’s exceptional voice. In some essays, however — especially ones centering on wacky male characters (characters that Sweeney maybe considers more interesting than herself) — Sweeney functions more as a lens than an active presence. This is an entirely valid technique, and it works to tell the narrative in a brief yet effective way. Rather, I just love Sweeney as a character, and, in those essays, I wanted the narrative to be less about other people and more about Sweeney. This is possibly an unfair criticism and more of a preference, like wanting to watch sketch comedy instead of observational comedy. This critique stems from the desire for more of Sarah Sweeney, a persona that is so charming, so sympathetic, so likable and unlikable at the same time. The voice and the sheer presence of Sweeney’s persona is so large that some of the essays in the collection fail to serve her fully; however, the essays that are able to highlight her distinctive personality properly (the majority of them) are simply magnificent. Any reader with an interest in memoir essays would do well to pick up this intriguing, dynamic collection.