Sunday, July 29, 2007


Some good books exist discussing the traditional tricksters of indigenous cultures: Coyote or sometimes Rabbit or maybe Raven. The notorious Napi (Old Man) belonging to the Blackfeet did such obscene things that the anthropologists had to discuss him in Latin. At the same time, he had another face as the Creator, which the Christians were eager to encourage, most of them not reading the Bible closely enough to realize what a trickster God can be.

When two cultures abut, overlay, entwine, and victimize each other, the result is often tricks, many of them unintended and some of them opportunistic, like claiming to be Indian to get food, or passing as white to get a job. More recently, this practice has been especially common in the arts, because -- as one reviewer who has been around the block told me -- if one pretends that a novel is actual and that the author IS the protagonist, the financial reward (aside from selling the book in the first place) will be increased by hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ll be sure to let my publisher know this, since my biographical memoir of Bob Scriver is real and actual. But maybe it doesn’t work if it’s not really fiction. Speaking of tricksters, there’s a Montana man with the same name who constantly represents himself as Bob’s cousin and is reputed to have impersonated Bob himself in the past, even making business decisions.

Of course, such “playful” untruths can come back to bite you in the butt, as the youngsters would say, maybe speaking from experience. So let me suggest some rules for tricksters.

1. Be clear about whom you’re tricking. Is it yourself? Are you pretending to have a degree or relationship that you don’t have simply because you yearn to have it? Instead of taking a shortcut, why not make the trick real? So much more rewarding. And if you’re hired to teach on the basis of a real resume instead of a faked one, you’ll actually know how to teach!

2. Fake stuff is a lot of work. Are you sure it wouldn’t be easier to be straightforward? Most of us can maintain a facade for an evening’s party -- maybe even for a week’s conference -- but what about years?

3. If your trickery involves pretending to be someone you’re not, either use an identity that is partly true (so that investigators can find something) or make it so fantastic that no one is in a position to look for confirmation. Going to a different country helps. Maybe a different level of society. People have done it throughout history, some of them criminal, which sort of spoils things. But the Witness Protection Program is very intriguing to many. Spies -- oh, how seductive they are!

4. Play into the assumptions and stereotypes of the culture. That makes it easy. They’ll do most of the work themselves. There used to be a big fat fellow, an ordinary salesman really, who would come into a place where he wasn’t known and say, “Who here called the FBI?” They immediately jumped to the conclusion that he WAS the FBI. Whereupon he would say, “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to look at your business records.” Astonishingly, many got out their books and spread them before him. He claimed never to use the information he acquired, but said it was “very interesting.”

5. If you are going to be evil, realize that you might not ever be able to stop. Moral rot might set in. Or consider this: if a man embarks on the fiction that he’s married to a specific woman while crossing his fingers behind his back, the law will simply rule that it is a common-law marriage with all the entitlements and safeguards that are extended to a formal, registered marriage. Next comes those alimony checks. Many stories are told about desperate lies to cover a possible crime, which then require follow-up lies, and eventually force a new criminal action.

6. Never get into a position you can’t get out of. This is sort of related to the above. Like that fellow who pretended to be a surgeon or a pilot, and then wiggled out before actually operating or flying a plane so that he might have killed someone -- what if he hadn’t been able to wiggle out?

7. Make laughter your friend. A misrepresentation that hurts no one and that is rather preposterous anyway, can both entertain and make a point. Years ago on the listserv for the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (so long ago that we used to have very lively and witty exchanges) David Brandt -- who’d been asked who “Prairie Mary” was -- confided that I was actually two gay men in a committed relationship who loved to hunt in the Rockies -- as opposite to me as he could think up. (We’d had coffee together and he knew I was an old, fat, diabetic, celibate woman. He represented himself as a “short Italian, very handsome, which was the truth.) Some people, probably freshmen, didn’t recognize this as the fol-de-rol it was. Recently, I was highly entertained when two gay men in a committed relationship moved to the Rocky Mountain Front in order to hunt. Just because something is a lie, doesn’t mean it can’t become the truth.

8. Attacking people is more likely to motivate people to unmask you, though email flame wars in certain circles are almost a norm. Low-quantum Indians who pursue fakers are sometimes unmasked as fake themselves. (Some of the biggest phonies I know DO have Indian genes -- but that’s the only tribal fact about them.) Animal over-enthusiasts who attack public figures or self-righteous religionists or politicians who savage their enemies end up losing their credibility and sometimes end up in jail. Besides, the modern media seems obsessed by the masking and unmasking of public figures, maybe because Internet access makes it so easy.

9. Make it worthwhile -- if it’s a fake memoir, if it’s a phony painting, if it’s a “long lost” essay or poem, don’t do it unless you can do it well. Of course, if your goal is to eventually reveal yourself, sweeping aside the Cloak of Invisibility, you may have to prompt someone to figure it out. When I was a typist at the University of Chicago Law School, one of the professors, whose specialty was the problem of crimes committed through insanity, decided to liven up the conversation by pretended to discover some essays “written by George Orwell” who wrote exceedingly well. The trouble was that the professor himself was such a good writer that the essays were accepted as actual truth! The professor had to get a friend to “discover” they were a hoax!

10. Don’t try to trick bigger tricksters than yourself. Remember that life itself is the biggest trickster and death is the final one, unless you count your reputation. There are always death-bed confessions, but why take the chance of dying unconscious? Maybe you're not as good a "stick game" player as you think.


Old Scrote said...

I try never to lie or deceive, not because of some noble moral imperative, but because I have such a bad memory: I would be caught out in a second.
Also, having had my identity stolen recently, I have changed my name to... to....., erm, .... it's on the tip of my tongue.....

prairie mary said...

By any name you would smell as sweet, Old Scrote, but maybe you ought to keep it above the belt next time. On the other hand, which name did those identity thieves take? Surely not OS?

Prairie Mary

Da' Goat said...

Fun stuff. Tricksters are a bit beyond a little joke, but many can't even handle that level of social "deviation." I just moved to a town where even the tiniest joke sets off huge debates.... Relax, folks.