Welcome, folks, to part IV of my enumeration of the strengths and weaknesses of Ann Turner’s YA novel of Salem witchcraft accusations, Father of Lies. Though Father of Lies founders under loads of anachronisms [particularly protagonist Lidda’s feisty feminism and her imaginary friend Lucian’s shirtless sex appeal], it accomplishes things that I have rarely seen in fiction. For one thing, Turner treats Lidda with respect and empathy, instead of the rank ableism seen in so many descriptions of people with mental illnesses. For another thing, Lidda’s relationship with Lucian depicts the exhilarating, ambiguous messiness of having a guide/guardian/friend/pest/sex object character in one’s head.
Though Lucian manifests as he does in large part because of Lidda’s mental illness, I’m referring to exhilarating, ambiguous, messy characters more generally. I’m talking about Lucian as one of those characters created by people — who may or may not have mental illnesses — in a desperate attempt to learn more about themselves. Let’s call them psychopomps, after those supernatural entities supposed in many religions to guide a dead person’s soul on its travels from its body to the realm of the dead. Anyway, when creators like Lidda personify unknown aspects of themselves as psychopomps, they can only go so far with their characterization. After all, we can’t delineate in detail what we don’t know about ourselves. We thus end up with imaginary people encompassing our unknown aspects and, as such, behaving in ways that we can’t fathom. Their unexpected actions and obscure [at least to our conscious minds] motivations make these characters seem like independent, separate beings. The knowledge that they provide can bring comfort and a sense of security. At the same time, their apparent otherness destabilizes the order that they were ultimately created to support. Throw some experimentation with sexuality and/or gender identity in there, and it’s an ambivalent whirl of excitement and panic. Turner never explicitly identifies Lucian as a psychopomp, but he acts just like one.
Lucian works as a wish fulfillment for Lidda. For example, he represents himself as older, smarter, and wiser than her. He sets himself up as a subversive teacher, claiming, “I have knowledge beyond your wildest dreams, you poor child, stuck in this backwater of a town” [p. 114]. In this way, he functions exactly as Lidda wants. Scared and confused by her unique perceptions, she wants to know why they occur, where they come from, and what they mean. She wants to be understood and to understand herself. Lucian, who implies that he has a handle on everything and a particular investment in Lidda learning his skills, is the ultimate wish fulfillment for a 14-year-old girl who has heard all her life from authority figures that she should sit down and shut up. In other words, he’s a person with power who treats Lidda as someone with potential and promise of her own.
Though Lidda gives Lucian traits of her fantasy authority figure, he’s mostly her match, her equal, her counterpart. To illustrate this, Turner makes him similar, but not identical, to his creator. Lidda experiences the world less through language, analysis, and word-based thought and more through full-body perceptions of sensation. In a particularly illustrative scene, she thinks of Lucian singing, but she’s not really paying attention to the content of his song, so much as what it looks like: “Lidda felt the notes slide down her arms and legs, and circle up through her head; they had colors like sky birds — orange, yellow, blue, purple, and a kind of green almost beyond imagining, like the tiniest, brightest, newest leaf just before it unfurls, all curled in upon itself. That kind of green” [p. 151]. She concentrates on what words feel like and look like. Lucian has his own linguistic interests, but more based on semantics [e.g., what his name means]. Lidda senses intuitively when people are propagating bullshit around her, and Lucian gives her the words to precisely call it out. When they get along with each other, they form a team that gives Lidda enough confidence and courage to make her voice heard amidst the clamor of the witchcraft outbreak.
Even Lucian’s manipulative button pushing rings true for psychopompic characters. Lucian reassures Lidda that, whatever’s rotten in the state of Salem, it has nothing to do with her vaguely preternatural ability to detect bullshit and everything to do with feuding villagers lathering each other up into senselessness. Thus he turns her sense of isolation into a virtue of analytical detachment. At the same time, he urges her to laugh, dance, and behave in ways that earn her censure. In other words, he sometimes gives her a sense of comfort and security that she craves, while simultaneously provoking her to actions that make her feel frustrated and humiliated. His alternating niceness and snideness correlate to his status as both known and unknown creation. Lidda made him to help her make sense of the world; when he gives her answers, she looks on him favorably. However, when she reaches the limits of her knowledge, Lucian highlights her ignorance and seems nasty and arrogant. Being a part of Lidda, he knows exactly how to flatter her and make her feel good, but he also has enough intimacy to know where she’s most vulnerable, so he knows as well how to wound her. And yet she made him have what she wants — “truth and lies…and the wit to tell the difference” [p. 39] — so, even though he regularly irritates and unnerves her, she can’t stay away from him.
The cracks in Lucian’s facade of masterful superiority also help to characterize him as Lidda’s psychopomp. My favorite exposure of his limitations occurs when Lidda asks where he comes from. As Turner puts it, “There was an answering silence, then something that sounded almost like a cough, and a muted reply: That does not matter. You do not need to know that” [p. 118]. This is a moment that’s at once hilarious, pathetic, and realistic. It’s hilarious because, at least for a moment, Lucian quits acting like some omnipotent, omniscient magical being and suddenly comes across as an fallible person who’s embarrassed and possibly ashamed about something. It’s pathetic because, being part of Lidda, he obviously partakes of her self-examining anxiety, but, even though she bares the inside of her head to him, he doesn’t reciprocate. Instead, he keeps from her the source of his perturbation. Finally, it’s realistic that he avoids answering Lidda’s inquiry about his origins because Lidda, who made him, has no idea what said origins are. She can’t answer the question that she created Lucian to answer, so of course he’s going to squirm out of a point-blank response.
As a figment of Lidda’s mind tasked ultimately with helping Lidda [though his methods often seem infuriating and questionable], Lucian works desperately on her behalf to assuage her worst fear: that she’s going to be alone forever. When her mental illness causes her suffering, it literally separates her from the rest of the world. At several times in the novel, she tries to escape hallucinations by running outside, away from the dinner table and her family to the outhouse. To put it another way, at her most miserable, Lidda sits in a stinking shit heap, sobbing, overwhelmed by inarticulate confusion that she can share with no one. Thus Lucian’s first words — “It is lonely here… I yearn for warmth…to be in a living being…” [p. 4] — basically describe the chill sense of divorce with which Lidda associates her lowest points of depression. Because he’s part of her, he knows exactly what such excruciating despair is like.
Like Lidda, Lucian has no interest in remaining in a frigid shit heap, so he does everything he can to ensure that he and Lidda avoid such a fate. That’s why he says to Lidda, “Yes, girl, I am here, with you always” [p. 56]. She fears being alone, with its stench of sadness [and shit], so she makes up someone who, even though he doesn’t always answer her summons, proves a more constant companion than the fickle townsfolk. That’s why he says, “I do not wish you to marry. …Because you belong to me” [p. 38]. Realistically speaking, if Lidda did not marry, she would end up without a husband, without the opportunity to have legitimate offspring, without children, without a family — in some sense, she would be without context, without identity, without a place in her Puritan society. On the margins of the community, she would face general suspicion, disapproval, and a certain measure of ostracism. Single life would bring some of the loneliness that threatens her so much. Terrified by that possibility, she tries to change it from a negative absence of family, friends, and community support to a positive presence of an internal companion, guide, and friend. Lucian is such a strong, vivid creation in part because Lidda wants so much not to be alone that she attempts to make herself a friend out of a piece of her mind.
As Father of Lies closes, Lidda interrupts the hearings at the Court of Oyer and Terminer, describing the witchcraft outbreak as not Devil-induced suffering, but lies wielded on purpose by people who want to harm others. Fearing that she will bring accusations of witchcraft upon herself or, at the very least, that she will subject her family to ignominy if she stays, she runs away from home. She plans to travel on foot to Boston and obtain “a position in some household” [p. 235]. Her brother gives her a little money to help her. Lucian, who has been absent for a while, reappears, congratulating her for her bravery, and — scene.
In other words, at the end of the book, Lidda separates herself from her family and social supports. Now on the aforementioned margins of society, she faces an uncertain life. With “a strange excitement,” Lidda contemplates the possibility of being herself, “with no one to criticize her” [p. 235]. However, the fact remains that her worst fear — solitude — has come to pass. Furthermore, since her behavior has reduced her already limited prospects as an unmarried young Puritan woman in Massachusetts Bay Colony, her chances for an expansive, uncensored, liberated existence remain dubious. I think Turner is trying for a happy ending here, but I don’t buy it.
Over in my [cynical] head, I imagine that the book stops at this particular moment because Turner doesn’t want to look several years into the future. In a few years, Lidda may have found a place as a servant, but her masters abuse her physically and emotionally. Upon perceiving her symptoms of mental illness, her masters berate her as “distracted in her wits,” which was the term back then for being mentally disturbed. The family she works for claims that no one else would accept such an unreliable worker, and they use her fear to keep her with them as a convenient punching bag. Dancing, laughing, and speaking up now seem like luxuries for Lidda, who expends more effort on mere survival. Lucian no more promises delights, but he does teach her skills of dissociation, which help with the pain. At the same time, even though she vowed in the past not to consider it, marriage to a fellow servant ten years older is looking good. He lacks any sort of “spirit,” as Lucian would say, but he’s unobjectionable, and he has nearly saved up enough to strike out on his own. Right now, that looks like the best she can hope for. The [much more realistic] end.