I’m reading Simone de Beauvoir’s novel, The Mandarins, and Henri, one of the main characters, lies under oath that a former Gestapo informer was actually with him instead of with the Germans on a particular night. Henri was a member of the French Resistance and while he disgusted himself by lying, he was even more concerned for a former lover if the files the informer had saved were made public. She had once had an affair with a German officer. She could be arrested and stand trial as a collaborator. Henri believed she would commit suicide rather than stand trial. He goes to an old friend, Dubreuilh, and tells him what he’s done.
“Do you know what it proves, this story?” Dubreuilh said with sudden animation. “That personal morality just doesn’t exist. Another one of those things we used to believe in and which have no meaning.”
Reading the passage, I wondered how much I would be willing to compromise my own personal morality and whether it would matter if I did. Could personal morality become something I “used to believe in?”
Would you compromise a deeply held belief and lie to save a friend, I asked my husband at dinner. We both agreed yes. We would lie to save someone we cared for even by corrupting morals of fairness, of justice. There is no justification; but it’s the truth. I would lie even after these many years of breaking myself of the habit.
As a second child, I wanted things to be fair. Things weren’t. My sister, older than I am by four years and the oldest child, could say anything and be believed. Me? Not so much. I became a master at lies, at stories. I so wanted to be believed. I wanted to be important enough that loss would not follow me. It took years for me to break the habit of lying; I was proud of myself for doing it. And yet, I would willingly compromise my truth, my belief in justice, for another.
But is the Greek yogurt in the refrigerator another way to shirk the strictures of morality? I pretend that fat-free yogurt with raw sliced almonds won’t add the pounds. Do I lie to myself to save myself? Have I held on to too much to keep myself from the loss of another lie?
A year ago, I remember looking at a woman in a white lab coat. She held my hand and focused on what I was saying. I seemed to know her. I seemed to know a lot of things. I wasn’t surprised at being in a hospital gown and propped in a hospital bed in a dimly lighted room. I wasn’t surprised to see my husband sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed or the curtain pulled across the cubicle entrance, a slice of emergency room through the not-quite-closed opening. The doctor, I even knew she was a doctor, turned to my husband and said, “I think she’s coming out of it.”
“We call it ‘Transient Global Amnesia’ or TGA. We don’t know why it happens, or what it is, but usually it doesn’t come back and usually there’s no lasting damage. She’ll be okay,” the doctor said.
Could we believe her? Was she lying to make us feel safe?
When she left, I asked my husband for my phone and searched for TGA. Complete short-term memory loss lasting from eight to twenty-four hours. Mine had lasted eight. But oddly enough, according to my husband, I’d remained conscious and I’d remembered and told them my medical history. “Several times,” he added.
He also told me I’d broken another of my moral standings: swearing. Another habit I’d trained myself out of over the years. I don’t swear anymore. I’m not angry enough to swear anymore. Others don’t need the shock of hearing me swear. However, it seems my long-term memory had remembered the past but forgotten my growth steps.
My husband said I’d ask the same thing over and over: What day is it? He’d tell me. And ten seconds later I’d ask again. He’d tell me. “Really?” I said. And then I’d ask again. When he said he’d just told me, I’d lean my head back on the pillow and frustrated tears leaked into my ears. “F….” Oddly enough, he said I never said it when someone else was around. So maybe my memory contained a couple of baby steps.
More than a year has passed since I experienced TGA. I’ve had no recurring symptoms although loss of memory isn’t exactly new to me. Another entire year of memory is lost to me, the year between my father’s death and Mom and Dad’s marriage and moving to the farm, but that was grief, not TGA. Is there a difference? Loss is loss. I hated to lose so I lied.
After dinner, my husband sang with Neil Diamond as we danced on the 4×4 foot dance floor we’ve created between the drop leaf table in front of the picture window and his chair facing the television. “I am the sun, you are the moon, play me…..” he and Neil sang to me. It’s one of his favorite songs. “I’d never dance it with anyone but you,” he said. I believe him.
Sometimes, justice has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with someone holding your hand, saying you’re okay, regardless of the moment. Saying what you need to hear; saying what you need to believe. Saying you are safe.