Amy: Perhaps I’m being cynical but does your daytime job increase your likelihood to believe everyone is a liar/justifier of their own story?
Owen Thomas: My daytime job has certainly bolstered my belief in the elasticity of reality and our ability, when sufficiently motivated, to stretch the truth just enough to cover one’s interests. So yes, there are lies-a-plenty in the law and maybe lawyers are more sensitized than others to expect them. Lawyers are certainly not rewarded for being gullible or overly trusting. Is that cynical? No more cynical than to suspect that those in law enforcement are more sensitized to the potential for violence. The law, or at least civil litigation, is very much about holding one version of reality up against another version of reality and trying to persuade a neutral fact finder as to which version should prevail. That contest certainly attracts the potential for deception.
But for as prevalent as it may be in my business, lying – the knowing and intended deception of another – is actually a less remarkable concept than our capacity for self-deception. The human species has many distinctions. One of them is our prowess at deceiving ourselves, or put less pejoratively, our ability to stray from the ground zero of experience. We have the ability to tweak reality, to shade it ever so slightly, a little at a time, so little that the alteration always falls just inside the margin of interpretive error and we carry around in our head a version of the truth that is fair to call an approximation of what we actually believe. Then we do it again. And again. And again. We work hand-in-glove with the natural degradation of memory, rebuilding what we “remember” over and over until we remember something very different than what the other people at the same accident scene remember. And then, eventually, we carry around in our head a version of the truth that conveniently happens to suit our interests but that – if you were to ask an objective arbiter – is no longer a fair approximation of reality. But, of course, by that point it is too late: we believe in this adjusted reality with all of our heart and soul and, right hand raised, we will loudly declare it to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
So I guess I would say that practicing law has sensitized me not only to the person who knows he is lying, but also to the person who is in the process of unconsciously aligning his own reality with his interests. The latter is far more common. We do this all the time. It’s as natural as breathing, and we think about it consciously about as much as we think about breathing, which is almost not at all. So here is the important take-away: like it or not, know it or not, we are architects of our own reality. Stated differently: the “reality” that practically matters the most in our lives is something we create. The other reality – the real, objective reality – is so rare as to be mythical. Unicorns live and frolic in the land of “objective” reality. We naturally imbue the events of living with our own meaning and we assemble our own truth. “Reality” is a living, dynamic, mutable field that envelops our conscious understanding and is always coloring our perception. Which brings us back to fiction and, in particular, The Lion Trees and the characters struggling to free themselves from the consequences of the realities they have created. At one point, Matilda Johns declares: “I was raised against my will to follow the fabulist tradition. It’s a part of me now. The truth lies in fiction.” When you realize that much of what is declared to be “reality” is actually fiction – when you fully appreciate our capacity for self-deception – then it is at least worth the exercise to mine our own delusions, our stories, our dreams, our poetry, our song for the truth about ourselves.
Amy: Angus Mann perpetuates the idea that “we are who we are.” Yet, ultimately, I would call The Lion Trees, a story of hope. Is that just my natural optimism painting sunny highlights on a darkened sky?
Owen Thomas: The Lion Trees is definitely a hopeful story. This is a story of redemption. This is a story of a family of individuals who each realize that they are drowning, but only because they have strapped themselves to the sunken shipwrecks of historical identities that do not serve them. Cee Cee Lewis, a character who, like Ben, lives in the eye of the hurricane that defines the lives of the other characters, at one point tells David, a history teacher, that he is a prisoner of his own historical dogma. But the solution, she suggests, is as simple as letting go of that identity: “That’s what you’ve got to do, Dave. Let it go. Cut it loose. You were made to float.” All of these characters ultimately realize that happiness and fulfillment – forward progress in life – rests in recognizing the restraint built into their own historical identities and cutting themselves free. All of us chafe at those same sorts of restraints. This is inherently a part of our evolution as individuals. But if we don’t challenge the various fictions we have come to believe about ourselves, then we are doomed to live and reinforce those fictions forever, even if they makes us miserable. Even if they kill us.
But here is the hope in the story: we have the ability to change the narrative in our heads. If, as humans, we have a unique ability to deceive ourselves, we also have a unique ability to intellectually and emotionally process our own history and decide what of that history we want to define us and what of that history we want to jettison. We get to decide what is true about ourselves and what is not true. Hollis, Susan, David and Tilly each come to terms with a personal history and choose to rise above it. They each choose to cut loose the old identities that have served only to keep them pinned to the seabed of history and to float. So is this a story of hope? Absolutely. Cut yourselves free, people. Float.
Amy: You portray Ben, David and Tilly’s special needs younger brother, as standing outside all the hypocrisy and judgment we see in the other characters. But, couldn’t part of his ability to “love despite all” be because of the unconditional love his parents have shown him throughout his life? Both Tilly and David are severely judged by Hollis, but not Ben. Ben is immune to both criticizing and criticism. Doesn’t this also make him a product of what he believes about himself?
Owen Thomas: Ben really is the calm at the center of the metaphorical storm with which every other member of the Johns family must contend. Down Syndrome, for all of its obvious problems, has blessed Ben with the gift of acceptance and a predisposition to live in the moment. He accepts everyone in his family, and he accepts himself, uncritically. He experiences no need to judge or to manipulate others into conforming with some external notion of who they should be. He has no angst about not being someone different than who he is. Ben is the only person in this book who is truly at peace. If Hollis is the unenlightened Buddha, striving much too hard even to appear enlightened let alone to be enlightened, then Ben is the opposite. Ben is Zen.
Each of the others draws on Ben’s stability in their lives. No matter how bad things get, no matter how bad they feel about themselves, no matter how deserving they may be of criticism and censure, Ben accepts them unconditionally for who they are. He serves as a kind of constant reassurance that each of them are worth the effort to find and free the person – the true identity – within themselves struggling to break free and come up for air. Ben is in a kind of communion with those true identities. So, for example, when Hollis is in Ben’s company he is able to experience Ben’s genuine appreciation for the real Hollis, the person with whom even Hollis has lost touch over the years. The same is true for all of the other family members struggling with who they have become and what they think of themselves. Ben gives each of them a quiet, personal point of reference with which to help navigate the storm. There is only one chapter, exactly in the center of the book, which is told from Ben’s perspective. In that chapter, a single stream-of-consciousness thought bubble, Ben emotes: … waiting for my Tilly to come home waiting in the music because you are beautiful inside we are all waiting in the music because you are beautiful inside. I really think that is the moral and emotional heart of the book.