“How do you feel about being a mother?” the woman from social services asked, standing with me in between my sons’ beds. She had called a few minutes before to say she was coming upstairs to the apartment where I lived, because my son had told someone his dad used to hurt him, which was true—true when we used to live with him, before. She was therefore obligated to come without warning to investigate, to make sure we were all okay. “I love it,” I told her, telling the truth, for once.
St. Elizabeth of Portugal is known for a lie that came true. She was married at age seventeen to her adulterous husband, King Denis, who hated, among other things, her willingness to help the poor. One day she was leaving the house, again, to bring bread to the hungry, and he stopped her as she was going out the door. “What do you have in the basket?” he asked. “Roses,” she lied. But when he stole the basket away from her to prove she was a liar, he opened it up to find roses. It was a miracle. Jesus turned the bread into roses so that she wouldn’t be a liar, this time.
I have often lied about many things. In my family, we used to have a special language for how my husband would do the things he did. We would say he was hurting the youngest again, or I would say stop hurting the youngest, or my older son would say this will never end. But we did not say he is choking the youngest, or he is slamming the youngest onto the bed. I did say, sometimes, stop it. My older son would say stop it, too. Again and again, I would walk over and put the youngest behind my back and get right up in my husband’s face and say stop it, daring him to grab me instead. But our language—distorted as it was, truthful as it almost was—was never enough. It did not make things stop.
And he would say things too. Stop hurting our family, he would tell the child that he had choked the minute before. You’re disgusting, he would say to the other. You’re incompetent, he would tell me. Why? There was always something. Somebody had spilled milk. Somebody had knocked something over. Somebody had made too much noise. Somebody (this was me) had spent too much money on the wrong thing. Everything was always a catastrophe. But it was never his fault. It was always ours, and he had the language to prove it.
We would go to church and lie. We would sit there, praying together, and I would not know what to say. The minute before, on the way to church, he had turned around in the car and hit the youngest in the back seat. For what? For being too loud, for being too slow. For crying at the wrong time. In front of other people, he could make it all seem, somehow, pleasantly humorous. He was charming. I remember, once, a priest describing us to someone else in the church as a charming couple. I wondered if he, or they, could tell just how hard we had to lie to make their lies possible too.
I struggled to know what the truth was through all the lies, but I was taught that God loved moral absolutes. You do not lie. You do not steal. You do not commit adultery. You get married and you stay married. You made a promise. That’s it. I shuddered before the horror of a God for whom there were no exceptions. Miserable as I was, I figured that misery was the cost of the promise I had made. Every now and then, I would think, maybe love doesn’t have to be like this. But I felt like my soul would break in two if I broke myself off from this person who hated me and, worse, hated my children. Such hate was justified, he explained, again and again, because of our inevitable falls from grace—that is, from his grace in the strange, small universe he had made for all of us. I don’t have to imagine what hell is. I already know.