From the Archive: 'True Lies' by Stephanie Convery

I first met Monica in high school. Our acquaintance was peripheral at best and incidental at worst: I was close with a couple of girls, Lisa and Mandy, who had somehow become good friends with Monica. I’m not really sure how or why, since they bitched about her from the minute she was out of earshot to the minute she was back in it. Sometimes they didn’t even stop then.

I couldn’t stand Monica, but if you had asked me at the time I would have struggled to articulate why. She was generous with the little money she had, she certainly wasn’t as bitchy as the girls I was better friends with. I had no reason to hold a grudge, yet she bugged me. It was something to do with her manner, her way of holding herself. It was the way she pursed her lips and widened her eyes in mock Disney-princess style rapture. It was the way she exuded an air of supreme confidence in spite of being one of the least-liked girls in school. Such self-confidence would have been laudable had she not coupled it with a baffling and yet unshakable conviction that she was an as-yet-undiscovered superstar.

Monica was supremely untalented. If she had once entertained academic potential, it was so determinedly ignored that it withered and died by the time she got to Year 7. She spent most of her classes at the Catholic girls’ school we both attended applying lip gloss and scribbling love hearts around the names of characters from Blue Heelers. She was physically well-endowed, and made a habit of wearing her school dress unbuttoned two buttons lower than everyone else. She flirted with the handful of male teachers we had and claimed they all wanted to sleep with her. She had a mediocre singing voice, which might have been tolerable with proper training, but a preference for Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, and chain-smoking meant she stretched and burnt it until it was ragged, and besides, learning how to sing properly would have required focus and commitment, of which she had none.

Monica and I had nothing in common other than Lisa, Mandy and a theatre studies class, in which her terrible acting coupled with an unquenchable desire to be the centre of attention drove the teacher bananas while the rest of us snickered behind our hands. But the thing about Monica was that she never seemed to notice what people said about her. For a long time I couldn’t decide if it was because she was stupid, deaf, or if she didn’t care.

Before Facebook status updates gave disaffected youth an unparalleled method of screen-based passive-aggression, there was MSN Messenger. One added MSN contacts like one added friends, and customisable display names functioned like status updates—places to posture and promote yourself, to announce your feelings or quote your favourite song lyrics. Monica was a contact of mine on MSN, although I rarely ever spoke to her there, until one day, not long after we’d finished high school, I saw her log on and change her display name to Thanx for making me a fighter!!!, followed by a string of roses and love hearts.

It was an obvious reference to the Christina Aguilera song, but Monica was as subtle as a meat-axe. She didn’t change her screen name unless she wanted attention. I was curious—and a bit of a shit-stirrer—so I asked her what had made her a fighter.

“I have Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” she said.

Immediate scepticism is not the most dignified way to respond to someone telling you that they have cancer. But I did not believe a word of it. It couldn’t have been two days since Australian pop singer and actor Delta Goodrem had publicly announced her own battle with the disease, and now here was Monica—wannabe diva, femme-pop-vocalist disciple, and massive try-hard—claiming she had been diagnosed with exactly the same thing. Choking down my instinct to write ‘bullshit’ in response to Monica’s announcement, I stammered out a couple of platitudes instead and got in touch with Mandy as soon as possible to ask if this was for real.

Mandy had her flaws, but at least she didn’t chastise me for questioning someone’s cancer diagnosis. “I know, I wondered the same,” she said. “But it does seem kind of legit,” she said. “I know she’s been to a stack of doctors in the last couple of days. Now she says she has to go to hospital to have a lump on her neck cut out.”

That was enough. I didn’t push the issue, though I retained my scepticism privately. In any case, I didn’t hear anything more about it for some weeks, until Mandy and Lisa turned up on my doorstep one night, wanting to go for a drive. I got into the car and, as we sped off down the street, asked what was going on.

“Fucking Monica,” they said in unison.

First, she had shown Mandy the lump on her neck. “I could hardly feel anything, let alone see it,” Mandy scowled. “I was like, okay, not every cancer is huge. But you know then I found out she had been to three different GPs to get it looked at? The first one said it was nothing. The second one said it was nothing. The third one said, look there’s a really, really slim chance it might be something and if you’re really worried we can check it out. Suddenly, boom, she’s telling everyone she has cancer.”

Lisa had asked Monica about her treatment plan. Lisa had been legitimately concerned, and for good reason: the disease ravaged her father’s body. It was in his lungs, his throat and his mouth, thanks to a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking. Multiple surgeries had left him with no energy to work, a hole in his throat, and an electrolarynx his only means of communication.

“Oh, I have to get the biopsy and then I have to have chemo injections,” Monica had said, to Lisa’s narrowing eyes.

“The biopsy’s what you get to find out if you actually have cancer,” Lisa spat, her own cigarette hanging out the window of Mandy’s yellow Volvo.

I was confused. “I thought she was supposed to be going to hospital to get the thing cut out of her?”

“Oh, she went to hospital all right,” said Mandy. “She told us she was probably going to have to stay a couple of nights at least. And we went along to visit afterwards, to be supportive friends and all that. But it took the nurse forever to find her because she was in the day ward, wasn’t she. The bandage on her neck was this fucking tiny thing. Anyway, Chris found out who the doctor was and called him up and pestered him about it.”

Chris was Mandy’s boyfriend, and had once dated Monica for a grand total of four days. He was not disposed to give her the benefit of the doubt. The doctor had refused to divulge any information about the operation except for one detail: it was supposed to have taken fifteen minutes. It had taken approximately forty-five because they could not find what it was they were supposed to be cutting out.

When Australian wellness blogger, author and social media entrepreneur Belle Gibson hit the newspapers in early 2015, it was originally for failing to hand over thousands of fundraising dollars collected by her health and wellness business to the charities in whose name they had been raised. But Gibson had built her enormous social media following—and subsequently, her business—on the back of extraordinary claims about her own health.

Gibson’s online identity had been constructed around a narrative of significant hardship. She had suffered a stroke at the age of twenty. She had undergone multiple heart surgeries and in one instance died on the operating table. She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour and given four months to live, but gave up on radiotherapy and chemotherapy after two months and embarked upon a series of alternative therapies coupled with a plant-based diet. It was working for her, she claimed. On Instagram she called herself ‘Healing Belle’, posting pictures of the food she was eating, updates about her health, her toddler, her daily inspirations. (“It’s the laws [sic] of the universe. Be exactly what you want to attract.” “This city is a world of creativity and stories.” “Don’t spend your time compromising and settling for shit that doesn’t make you thrive.”) When Gibson launched her recipe and lifestyle smartphone app, The Whole Pantry, her following was already significant. Over 200,000 people reportedly downloaded the app in its first month. She attended developers’ conferences, appeared on national and international media, held fundraisers and received ‘inspiration’ awards. The Whole Pantry became a cookbook published by Penguin, and was listed for the yet-to-be-launched Apple Watch.

When journalists discovered that Gibson had not, in fact, given over $300,000 of The Whole Pantry proceeds to charities as she had claimed, her story began to unravel. Doubts were cast over her cancer diagnosis, her operations, her stories about her childhood home life—even her age and her name. The media tsunami soon overturned every little piece of the narrative she had constructed about herself, much of which turned out to be little more than elaborate fiction.

When I heard the stories about Gibson, my first thoughts were of Monica. I remembered the unpopular girl in my class who couldn’t help herself but attempt to get attention, who seemed so oblivious to the social faux pas she was committing daily, and whose desire for something—although it wasn’t clear exactly what—drove her towards invention as a means to achieve it. Gibson, to my mind, had a lot in common with Monica, except Gibson had found the rewards that came with fabrication could be financial, as well as social—and she had the photogenic face and networking nous to make the most of it.

Why do we lie? What drives us to invent any or all of the world around us? Studies have shown that we pepper our social interactions with fabrication: from complimenting our friends on the deliciousness of a mediocre dinner to excusing ourselves from an event we don’t want to attend. Sometimes, we fake it for more serious reasons: to get a promotion, or to meet a deadline. But most of the time, our lies are trivial, functional—often to protect the feelings of others. So how do those little lies become big ones? And what could drive someone to invent whole swathes of their history and misrepresent their present? When the Gibson drama first unfolded, one of the most popular theories that abounded was that she was afflicted by some kind of disorder—Munchausen syndrome in particular, also known as factitious disorder—which involves the fabrication of illness for complex psychological reasons, primarily a desire for attention and sympathy. It is very difficult to diagnose and near impossible to treat, not least because the patients rarely ever admit to having lied in the first place, let alone give any explanation for their behaviour.

I understand the impulse to attribute lies on such a grand scale within a category of recognised mental illness. It provides some kind of an answer, closure, a resolution to the perpetually open-ended question of why. What is not so easy, however, is to try to answer that question by seeing Gibson as neither a monster nor a victim, but a person: by attempting to understand her perspective on the world, and seeing her as someone with whom it is possible to empathise.

Mental illness does not exist in a vacuum. The material basis for illness—the trigger for onset, the presentation of symptoms, the development of and progression to advanced stages—is given meaning through its context; it is informed, shaped, and perhaps even generated by our already-existing understanding of the world. Yet we take the prevailing concepts of mental illness and health at face value—the definitions provided by doctors, the treatments available, the reasons why we fall ill in the first place. In his book Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, journalist Ethan Watters details a variety of studies, individual cases and global trends that look at the influence of western medicinal practice, pharmaceuticals and concepts of mental illness on the developing world. Watters argues that not only do our cultural narratives shape the interpretation and diagnosis of a set of symptoms presented by a mentally ill person, but “how a people in a culture think about mental illnesses—how they categorise and prioritise the symptoms, attempt to heal them, and set expectations for their course and outcome—influences the diseases themselves.” David Healy’s Let Them Eat Prozac bolsters Watters’ contention by detailing the pharmaceutical industry’s investment, complicity in and influence on not only the mass-medication of mental illness but our very conceptions of the illnesses themselves.

These are narratives of a corporate colonisation of the mind: exposing the dark underbelly of the pharmaceutical industry, and suggesting there is a need for us to engage more deeply with the circumstances out of which compulsive behaviour occurs. Not because mental illness can’t or shouldn’t be treated medically, or because all corporate structures are inherently corrupt, but because the relationship between behaviour and culture is symbiotic. Instead, we should be asking: what kind of social context encourages the liar? What kind of culture rewards it?

When wunderkind former reporter for The Independent Johann Hari’s work came under scrutiny for plagiarism and misquoting in 2011, he explained his behaviour in terms of the narrative he told to himself. “At the time,” he said later, “I justified this to myself by saying I was giving the clearest possible representation of what the interviewee thought.” And it occurred to me, reading Hari’s testimony, that the difference between consciously lying to others and unconscious self-deception is not as clear-cut as we would like it to be.

Not long ago, I caught my friend Kate on Facebook explaining how a particular term of endearment she was using had been bestowed upon her by nurses when she (an Anglo-Australian) was living in China as a toddler. Except that the term had come from me: it was a word my ex-girlfriend used to use, one that had folded into my vocabulary the way these things do, and I distinctly remembered having to explain it to Kate in text messages years earlier. It made me unspeakably angry to find my part in its history being erased in such a way, but even more so because there seemed no discernible reason for Kate to lie other than to exoticise herself—to make herself seem cooler, different, special in some way. And yet I never called her on it. It seemed so objectively trivial, even as it had made me, subjectively, extraordinarily upset. Besides, what would I have gained from the resultant mess? I couldn’t help but wonder just how deeply her self-esteem must have been in deficit to make such a trivial and yet blatant lie worth the bother.

Perhaps this is how complicity starts: through fear of conflict, and of the repercussions of shattering someone’s carefully constructed image of themselves in which they have become deeply invested. It is significant, I think, that many of these lies were built or gained momentum on the internet, although perhaps that has less to do with the inherent immediacy of the medium than the fact that the personality we exhibit online is explicitly within our control. Our representations of ourselves are always selectively edited: the stories we choose to tell, the clothes we wear, the habits we own up to and those we hide away in secret shame. The internet allows us to design these things from scratch, and provides a buffer for us in our engagement with actual people, straddling the real and the fantastical and blurring the division between them. Why live an ordinary suburban life when you can create one, at arm’s length from the real world, struck through with all manner of tragedy and drama?

When Lisa and Mandy first came to terms with Monica faking her cancer scare, they were livid. They set about a private vigilante campaign: egging her house, sending her unsolicited pizza orders, prank-calling her father. One night, they siphoned a two-litre bottle of Coke into the fuel tank of her car. They never called her on it directly, however, and two months later they were friends again as if nothing had ever happened. I couldn’t figure it out: neither their decision to remain friends with Monica, nor Monica’s inability to notice they were bitching about her more than ever. I didn’t realise until much later that perhaps the reason she never seemed aware of the bitching was not because she didn’t see it happening, but because she told herself it wasn’t happening. If she convinced herself the world was a particular way, then perhaps for all intents and purposes it would be that way, as long as the narrative could be maintained—whether it was her cancer scare, or the teachers flirting with her, or the likelihood that she could become a pop star. My friends had decided to accept Monica’s version, regardless of the fact that they knew it to be false. I often wondered what Monica would have done if anyone had attempted to reason with her about it. I suspected the acknowledgement of the lie would simply be too big: either she would dig her heels in, or she would collapse under the weight of it.

In an interview with 60 Minutes in June, Belle Gibson was given a sound public shellacking by journalist and host Tara Brown for lying so baldly and with such an obvious financial incentive. But the striking thing about the interview was how resolutely Gibson stuck to her line that she believed in her cancer. And what Brown didn’t do—what she more or less deliberately avoided—was question why Gibson herself might have believed her own stories. What was it about her life that made the fantasy of an inoperable brain tumour, death on an operating table, heart attacks and strokes, better than her real one? Was it simply the financial rewards? Or did she too feel some kind of profound inadequacy that she desperately sought to fill with falsehood and fabrication?

It seems likely that Gibson knew her cancer diagnoses were not real when she first started announcing them, but perhaps the public’s willingness to believe her meant that she, too, began to be convinced. After all, her readers, followers and the media for a long time engaged in precisely the same behaviour that it later condemned: belief in a story we knew, deep down, was probably false. And that is hardly an uncommon experience. How many times do we rewrite conversations in our heads? How often do we find that we remember an argument in one way, while someone else remembers it in another? How is it that we can convince ourselves that a loved one did not really mean what they said to us, while an observer is horrified by their cruelty? But perhaps there is more to it. The willingness of Gibson’s audience to believe her and support her fabrication suggest a population seeking an escape route from circumstances they no longer feel they can control. In the absence of political and social autonomy, we turn inwards: to the body. Gibson claimed she knew how to make hers better, how to take it from the brink of death and bring it back to life, full and vibrant.

Memory is malleable and perception is subjective. But there is clearly a threshold over which we cannot cross, and perhaps the nature of that has less to do with the content or scale of a lie, than with the complicity of the participants engaging with it. Medical reports provided to 60 Minutes, written by a respected neurologist from whom Gibson received a brain scan in 2011, tell of a distressed, confused young woman who is experiencing a variety of symptoms (dizziness, unsteadiness, difficulty breathing) that the neurologist, in the absence of a brain tumour, interprets as possibly having a migraine or anxiety basis. The woman cries throughout the appointment. She has her young son in the room with her. “She wants to know what is wrong with her and ‘how to fix it’,” the neurologist writes.

“Your reality doesn’t match reality,” Brown said to Gibson in her interview.

Gibson replied, “It doesn’t match your normal, or your reality.”

In the Terry Pratchett novel Thief of Time, Lady LeJean stands above the silent city in the tattered rags and skewed make-up that are the visible markers of her descent from order to disorder, from a race of beings whose ethos is absolute control and rigid structure, to the rumpled, passion-driven mess that is being human. Fitting nowhere, in spite of her lucidity, she takes a refuge among humanity in the role of the madwoman. “Sanity is defined by the majority, I am afraid,” she says.

Perhaps we could say the same of truth.

This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow 27. You can get your copy here.

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia. She was previously the deputy editor at Overland magazine and a freelance writer and arts worker in Melbourne.