The Good Liar
Julie Hilden's a little nervous. Her two worlds are about to collide First, there's Hilden the serious 29-year-old Yale Law School grad. She's an associate at Williams and Connolly -- the top-tier Washington law firm founded by legendary trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams. Hilden, now in her second year at the firm, spent a recent Monday drafting a review petition to the Supreme Court.Then there's Hilden the hot young author, closing her office door to do press interviews. Her first book, The Bad Daughter, hits stores at the end of April. The May issue of Glamour has a chunk of it. Hilden is pleased by the attention.But she's concerned, too. The protagonist of The Bad Daughter is a lawyer, but also a practiced liar "compelled to do heedless damage to others." She abandons her dying mother in her hour of greatest need. She's compulsively unfaithful to the men in her life. There's quite a bit of explicit sex.It's a memoir.Hilden can be pretty sure she's the first young Williams and Connolly associate to recount a first meeting with a colleague (at a previous firm) that ended with the speedy shedding of both parties' lawyer's pinstripes. So she's got her lawyer's answer ready: "This firm does a lot of First Amendment work," she says. "If someone's going to say, 'It's inappropriate for you to write about sex,' well, I'm sure the firm has defended people who've done just that."But with a little prompting, she gives a more candid reply. "Sure, I have some trepidation about what people will think of the book, and me," she concedes. "Maybe it will be awful; I don't know." She grins, adding that "with middle-level acquaintances, it might be a little weird."Then she betrays the fact that she actually relishes this coming clash between the circumspect lawyer and the recklessly honest writer. "Anyway," she says, with an added jolt of animation, "I'm much more comfortable being an excessively honest person now than the excessively inhibited and private person I was for so many years."For most of her adult years, the law had become a place for Hilden to hide: a separate sphere of cool, clean logic that shielded her from the messy facts of her life. As The Bad Daughter reveals, her life fell apart early, after her parents divorced and her mother fled, with Julie in tow, from their home in Hawaii back to Mom's New Jersey family of dour, hard-drinking Irish Catholics. For Julie, a beach child who "still put Sun-in in [her] hair" and wore uneven cutoffs and flip-flops, it was a rude expulsion from paradise. It turned to nightmare as her mother descended into alcoholism and abusive rages. "Jugs of yellow-green Gallo wine ... shone threateningly in the center shelf of the refrigerator," she recalls. In one painful scene, her mother flipped out on Julie's birthday and heaved her layer cake toward the kitchen ceiling, then collapsed to the floor, a mass of sobs, with cake, icing, and decorative bunny rabbits splattered around her.By high school, she says, her mother's implacable, irrational rages were almost nightly events. Friendless -- she couldn't stand the thought of bringing other kids home -- she barricaded herself behind her books, managing to win both early admission and a scholarship to Harvard. She skipped her senior year of high school and was gone, rarely to look back.At Harvard, she majored in philosophy; she loved the discipline's abstractly argued moral dilemmas. Then she headed straight to law school at Yale and, she says, a life increasingly defined by deceit.She had moved away from home in her early days at Harvard. Her mother was by then frequently incoherent, and Hilden kept her mother's existence a secret from almost everyone she knew. Then, at Yale, came the dreaded call from an aunt: Her mother had finally fallen apart completely and needed the help of her only daughter. Hilden hung up on her aunt in a panic. She was terrified of losing all she'd gained, of getting sucked back into her mother's black hole of a life. She finally called back, but only to refuse to help her. (Her mother, only 50, was institutionalized and eventually diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.)Ashamed of abandoning her mother, which she viewed as both necessary and indefensible, Hilden desperately immersed herself in her law studies. She spent vacations at school, studying. The law, she writes, "was an alternate world into which I could escape, separate from the real one."In the real world, she lied a lot. She didn't listen to her phone messages in front of friends. Longtime boyfriends knew nothing of her family dilemmas. And she was compulsively unfaithful, notably to the perfect New York lawyer Aaron, who wanted the pair to move into Trump Tower even as she trysted with engaged fellow lawyer Paul. "I wasn't able to have intimate relationships when I was lying so much," Hilden reflects. With a mordant laugh, she avers, "I've been lying all my life."When her mother finally died in 1992, Hilden skipped the funeral. But she also recognized that the time had come to reckon with her past. After an abortive try at psychotherapy, she escaped back to academe. But this time she chose Cornell's MFA writing program."It was a big change for me," she recalls. Writers were different from lawyers. She found a mentor in Pulitzer Prize -- winning novelist Alison Lurie, who told her she enjoyed working with Hilden because "we both write about our [sexual] affairs." Classmates like the writers Junot Diaz and Carey Harrison pushed her to be more honest in her writing and in her life. "I'd been surrounded by law students, people who wouldn't call your bluff," she says now. "But with writers," she says, "you can't get away with that shit. They'll call you on it." Lawyers, she says, "have sort of done everything right their entire lives. But writers" -- she laughs approvingly -- "have often fucked up catastrophically."She originally wrote The Bad Daughter as a 400-page novel, but pared it down to the present not-quite-200-page memoir shortly after her arrival in Washington in 1996. It's a decision she's quick to defend: A friend had suggested she "get [the] fiction out." "I had superimposed this whole stupid plot on it, and it just wasn't working," she says. "The book is much more emotionally affecting as a memoir."Now that she has written one, Hilden pronounces herself a fan of the personally revelatory "new memoir" -- books like Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, James McBride's The Color of Water, and Susanna Kaysen's Girl Interrupted. With its themes of sexual promiscuity and the abandonment of a sick mother, The Bad Daughter fits right in with this lot."That's the part of life that's most significant, that you want to be the most honest about," she argues. "It almost benefits you the most to know what other people's experiences are in really intimate areas -- families, sex -- in interpreting your own experience."But in fact, some readers may wonder if The Bad Daughter is honest enough: The line that divides memoir from diary is easy to cross, and diaries, as we all know, can be self-serving. Hilden often seems to resurrect her past only when it fits her emotional agenda, especially in regard to her continuing need to see herself and her mother as very different people. She sees her mother's post-divorce move back to her family in New Jersey as proof that her mother was "deeply in love with the past," while Hilden was "falling in love with the future" -- not as, just possibly, the reasonable decision of a woman who suddenly found herself alone with a child to raise. Time and again in the book, Hilden refuses offers from friends and family members to share their memories of her mother. Her determination to silence anybody's view but her own starts to seem bitterly ironic, given her mother's death from Alzheimer's.To an extent, Hilden acknowledges the problem. "I think the book is a little trapped within my own perspective," she admits. "It probably would've benefited from some more reality checks from outside." But ultimately, she's unrepentant. "It's not a reportorial book," she insists. "It's far from being the truth about my family. What I wrote was the truth for me at the time."Hilden's opting for writerly candor over lawyerly equivocation isn't, for the reader, quite the clear choice it first seems to be. The Bad Daughter is in many ways brilliantly written. But it may make some readers wonder if the "new memoirists," as they spill their guts under the rubric of nonfiction, are indeed telling the truth.