All the Pretty Little Lies by Amy V. Borg
Amy V. Borg’s “All the Pretty Little Lies” is one of two essays picked as an editors’ choice selection for the 2022 CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award. Our editors chose pieces that showcase the remarkable range of forms and styles in creative nonfiction.
Can creative nonfiction utilize the fictional device of the “unreliable narrator”? Amy V. Borg pushes the boundaries of the genre in her innovative essay “All the Pretty Little Lies.” The “unreliable narrator,” first defined by Wayne Booth to describe stories such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” depends upon an understanding between the writer and the reader that the narrator cannot be depended upon to tell (or in many cases even to know) the truth. Without that distinction between the writer and the narrator, Borg takes us on a wild ride, only gradually expanding upon partial truths. The story opens when the narrator confesses that she helped her friend Thomas escape from the mental ward. Thomas, it turns out, is working on an experimental short film suggesting that “some things are only true in retrospect.” We won’t disclose the twists and turns the plot takes from there, or the truths that emerge in retrospect. We’ll let you enjoy them instead. —CRAFT
Content Warning—suicidal ideation
The story I tell goes something like this:
Did you know I once helped a boy escape from a mental hospital?
When I tell it that way, people start imagining things: guns blazing, alarms blaring, riding a motorcycle into the psycho ward—
I’m quick to correct them. It didn’t happen like that, not at all. It was quieter, simpler. A boy I knew was being held after a suicide attempt, I tell them. His name was Thomas, or at least, that’s the name I tell people, nowadays. We were students at the same university. After holding him for two weeks, the ward gave him visitor privileges, but they still wouldn’t let him out. He asked me to help.
So I brought him a subway ticket. I hid it in a planter in the hospital lobby, so that during their smoke breaks in the hospital courtyard—one of the few humane privileges left to those locked up for their own safety—he could slip away and pocket it and be halfway to Queens by the time they noticed he was gone.
I left the ticket. He slipped away. He made it back to his apartment in Astoria. And after three days of freedom, he thanked me, gave me a hug, and took himself back to the ward after all.
Except it didn’t happen like that, either.
At least, not exactly.
New York University may be one of the most prestigious institutions of tertiary education on the Eastern Seaboard, but it is also far too well known for far less savory distinctions. Take, for example, the rate of suicides for NYU students. During the 2003–2004 academic year, no fewer than six students offed themselves, at least a couple of them electing to do so by throwing themselves off of the top floor of the Bobst Library.
To be fair, if you’ve ever been to the ninth floor of Bobst Library and looked down—at the checkerboard floor spinning below, the glass elevators and the waves of people flowing in and out—you would hardly be surprised that people jump. There’s something about that height, about the dizziness of it, about the checkerboard, about the people turned to blobs of spinning color, that prods that part of you, the wildly irrational, self-destructive part of you, the part that gets high enough off the ground and starts thinking, no matter how sane and stable you are—what if I jumped?
By 2009, they’d installed a wall of glass behind the banisters on the ninth floor, making it impossible for anyone else to succumb to vertigo. In addition to the plate glass, the NYU board began taking a greater interest in the mental well-being of their students, building one of the most responsive student counseling organizations in the entire state. They’ll tell you they take student welfare seriously, making note of even the most subtle signs of impending mental breakdown so that they can respond quickly and appropriately to the situation.
In a school environment as high stress as NYU, such precautions are necessary—not only for the Stern kids, who, as eighteen-year-old freshmen, still look like toddlers playing dress-up in their daddies’ high-powered business suits, or for the Tisch kids, for whom performance pressure, audition anxiety, and stage jitters can too easily become something acidic—but also for out-of-place small-town students at the college of arts and sciences. Students whose first taste of independence hasn’t just landed them in another city close to home, but in the City, the Big Apple, the biggest, baddest, brightest, busiest, loneliest place on the East Coast.
It’s one thing to be nobody famous in a town of some hundred thousand nobodies. It’s another thing entirely to be nobody at all in a city of three million souls, a good number of whom are, in fact, famous.
So these small-town kids come to the city expecting to make something of themselves, only to find that even with one of the top colleges on the Eastern Seaboard setting you up with a scholarship in the tens of thousands, success is a terrible stretch. And NYU counseling services are good for those kids too.
For kids like Thomas.
When I first met Thomas, I was taking a break from a relationship that had started taking a turn toward the toxic. We were sitting next to each other in one of the common rooms, Thomas with a pack of cards and me with my books and notebooks, scribbling down stories and scenes. At some point, we’d exchanged smiles, and catching my eye, he’d asked, as people sometimes do:
“What are you working on?”
I told him I was writing a book—my first novel, a draft of which I’d finished at this point. I was hoping to use my time to rewrite it, and when he heard that, he grinned.
“Linguistics, actually,” I answered. “But I’ve been thinking about switching.”
Thomas, it turned out, was one of those Tisch kids—film studies, third year, already moving toward putting together his graduate portfolio. Part of that portfolio required full-fledged films—a series of shorts: experimental and narrative and everything in between. Thomas had been working on his first one for a while now. “It’s an experimental short about how we only ever look at things through the lens of time. You know? Like how some things are only true in retrospect.”
“You mean…when you look back and you realize that guy was flirting with you the entire time?”
He laughed. “Not quite. I mean that we make it true, by how we remember.”
For a long time after that, I wondered about that idea. Could something only actually be true in retrospect? Or did looking backward simply make the truth more obvious, a truth that was masked by the way we experienced it?
We’d run into each other after that, passing each other in the halls, sometimes sharing dinner together or keeping each other company in one of the common rooms throughout the evening. One day, he showed me what he could do on an acoustic guitar, and we spent an entire afternoon composing silly songs on top of basic chord progressions.
I never asked him how he ended up in the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital—whether he had taken pills or cut himself or if he’d been caught looking dodgy near the train tracks or on the top floor of Bobst. Perhaps I should’ve asked, though whether the answer would’ve changed anything is impossible to say.
Instead, on Thursdays, when they allowed visitor privileges to the patients, I sat next to him in the ward’s cafeteria, watching other patients as they met with their friends or, more often, their families: parents come with cake and news and words of encouragement.
Thomas received none of that support. His family, like mine, were all a hundred miles away and he didn’t have a girlfriend or boyfriend or anyone else to visit him. So instead, I was the one who sat with him as he recounted what he’d done—or rather, failed to do—on the smoke break he’d taken not an hour before.
“It was eerie,” he told me. “The city was so close, and yet if I went out there? Where could I go, no money, no phone?”
Eventually, our conversation petered out, but Thomas got the idea to ask one of the nurses if he could have a moment with his computer. On the ward, electronics were forbidden, confiscated upon first arrival, but if you asked very nicely, the nurses might let you take yours back for assignments, so long as you had supervision.
“I meant to show it to you earlier,” he said, opening the oversized laptop up on the Formica table. The nurses had taken pity on him. “But this is that film I’ve been working on….”
He played it for me, a series of quick scenes: tearful faces mouthing unheard words, beverage glasses shattering across tiled floors, clear liquid spilling away through the cracks….
And then, miraculously, the images reverse, the tears disappear into smiles, the shattered glasses rise and become whole. There is no going back, not once you’ve broken a thing, but for a moment, watching Thomas’s film under the flickering fluorescent lights and the gaze of the nurses, I wondered if maybe, just maybe, it was possible to fix something by looking back at it.
“I just wish I could get out of here,” he confided as the clock counted down toward the end of visiting hours. “I hate it here. I don’t know how they expect us to improve things when we can’t do anything.”
The nurse had taken back the laptop and was starting to usher the visitors out of the cafeteria. I stayed put, pulling my legs up onto the chair and folding them beneath me. “I don’t know,” I answered. “What would you be doing if you weren’t here? Stressing out about class?”
He thought about that for a moment as he leaned back and looked up at the pitted ceiling. “Right now? I’d skip class. I’d wander down to a café on MacDougal and get a coffee and a cake and I wouldn’t worry about how much sugar was in it, and I’d sit there, watching the people, looking for inspiration.”
I frowned at that. Sometimes I wished I could imagine a better way to live my life than the way I was living it—but so often, I was too caught up in the stress to think about any other way of being.
“I mean…you know, when they found me, I hadn’t left the house for weeks,” he said, pressing on. “I’d made the decision that I’d rather die than go out there, rather die than go back to class. And once you’ve made that decision—well, then I guess it’s just a matter of remembering that there are other options.”
All the visitors were gone. I sat with Thomas, reached out to grasp his hand in mine.
And then the nurse came up to me. She smiled warmly and gestured toward the hall. “Amy,” she said. “It’s time to take your meds.”
I’m sorry. I’ve told this story all wrong. Hidden myself behind half-truths, focused on all the wrong details. But you see, that’s how we make meaning. Some things are only true in retrospect; only when we’ve sifted out all the noise can we figure out how the signal comes through.
By the end of my first semester at NYU, I’d gotten a boyfriend, a part-time job, a straight-A exam record from one of the most competitive universities in NYC, and a grade-A mental breakdown that ended with me being prescribed a veritable confetti of psychoactive drugs to tame the depression and budding paranoia. By the end of my first year, that first-semester boyfriend had put me in the mental hospital.
It happened when we were coming back from one of his friends’—a neat, expensive little brownstone in the nice area of Brooklyn, where we’d split a pizza and marathoned a mixture of Tarantino and Wes Anderson films, flipping from stylized gore to sepia-tinted nostalgia until we were dizzy. It was almost exam time, and the boyfriend and I were no longer on the best of terms—there had been so many nights now, too many, when he’d abandoned me in the midst of a stressful studying session only to go out with friends—with the clear implication that I wasn’t invited.
This evening had been one of the bright, rare occasions when he’d actually asked me to tag along, and as far as he was concerned, I’d only proven to him why I shouldn’t be invited places.
“You could’ve at least tried to join in on the conversation—or said two words. About anything. But instead you’re just sitting there, scribbling in your notebooks, and god, it is so awkward.”
“You know I don’t know what to say to people sometimes.…”
“Well, you could at least fucking try—”
“Maybe I don’t really feel like trying with your friends right now,” I said, cutting off the conversation before it got really nasty. “Maybe next time.”
“Yeah, next time, I think you should find something else to do.”
That stung. I pulled away from him and quickened my steps toward the subway. It wasn’t like I could go anywhere else but home with him, but at the very least, I didn’t have to walk with him the whole way.
“For fuck’s sake, where do you think you’re going?”
“Away from you.” I threw the words over my shoulder with the wind. But the boyfriend sped up, and I sped up to get away from him, and before I knew it, I was running, every muscle in my body just pumping to get out of there, to get away—
I darted across a side street just before a car pulled through the intersection, the driver honking his horn angrily at me as I continued to run down the sidewalk.
He caught up to me at the subway stop, grabbing my arm before I could get through the turnstile with my MetroCard.
“What the fuck was that?” he said. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“I just don’t want to deal with this right now—”
“Right,” he said. “Right. Let’s just both fucking shut up, then.” And we said nothing more on our way back to our apartment.
But the next morning, when I went to check in with my shrink about my medications, the boyfriend was there, waiting for me.
And so was the whole psychiatric counseling team.
He’d told them that I’d thrown myself in front of a car.
I guess it wasn’t such a stretch—after all, safety first and all that, you’re supposed to look both ways before crossing the street. But if you put every jaywalker in Brooklyn in a mental ward…well, there’d be no place left for the jumpers.
Not that such distinctions mattered much to them. They bundled me into an NYU ambulance and ferried me to Bellevue Hospital, where I found myself set up in scrubs and paper slippers while they picked through my belongings.
My cell phone disappeared into the patient lockers, along with my belt, my jewelry, my wallet, and $2.65 in change. They let me keep the notebooks and my worn copy of Jane Eyre—after all, even mental ward patients need something to do all day, and writing and reading were considered among the less distressing entertainments that a resident might subject herself to. They shook out all the notebooks first, and the pens I had to ask for nicely, only allowed to use them in the common areas under adult supervision.
Still, it was better than nothing.
They gave me back my T-shirt and trousers, but kept my bra, and ushered me into the ward proper—a white-walled stretch of purgatory, with windows overlooking First Avenue. My room consisted of a single, lumpy mattress wrapped in scratchy white sheets, a desk bolted to the wall, and a window barred from the outside. The nurse gave me a couple of pills for my nerves and I took them.
Drained and penless, I threw myself down on the bed to sleep, or something like it.
When I woke up, it must’ve been nearing two in the morning, the city outside the windows gone an electric shade of orange. I drifted toward the barred window and pressed my face against the glass. Below me, stray yellow taxis cruised the wide avenue, a few straggling homeless folk picking their way along the sidewalks. The lights of the city pulsed.
I shuffled back to my bed and flipped through the notebooks I had brought with me, scrutinizing the pages under the thin bars of city light. My diary, my current novel, my scrapbook of morning pages—I half feared they’d ask to go through them, gathering evidence of my self-destructive tendencies. They wouldn’t have to look very hard.
I let the diary fall open, and there, tucked between the pages and half stuck in the fold, lay my subway card.
Somehow it had managed to survive the nurses’ routine shake and seize. I held it in my fingers, the smooth card heavier than it had any right to be. It would be safe in my diary. My pillow crunched as I closed the book and slipped it behind the headboard.
After all, you never know when a transport ticket might come in useful while trapped in the psych ward.
There are always other options, that’s all you’ve got to remember. And in Bellevue, away from the boyfriend and the exam stress and everything else, I was starting to remember what those other options were. As the days stretched on, and then the weeks, my notebooks blossomed—the empty time transformed into ideas and introspection, sketches and words.
Thomas, on the other hand, was wilting, retreating more and more from the common areas, from our shared meals, spending more and more time in his room. Alone, unless I managed to draw him out.
Friday morning, the day after he shared his film with me during visitor hours, in the hospital common room with the guitar, I slipped Thomas the subway ticket. “Next time they take you out on a smoke break…” I said.
I let the rest of it hang.
How long does it take a mental ward to realize that an inpatient has escaped? The answer is: longer than you’d think. When Thomas didn’t come back from his smoke break that afternoon, I knew immediately what had happened, but it took the nurses a bit longer to realize he was missing.
Or perhaps it just looked that way to the rest of us. Perhaps, behind closed doors or even on the way back, they were already calling on hospital security to track him down, convinced he’d only slipped into another section of the hospital—one of the gardens, perhaps, or out to the gift shop or visitor canteen.
It wasn’t until just before dinner that they called me in for questioning.
They’d been monitoring how close we were, but still, there were no real accusations in their interrogation, or if there were, they were carefully hidden. “We just want to make sure he’s safe.”
I told them, honestly, that I had no idea where he’d gone. After all, I’d handed the subway card over without any stipulations. It was his to use—and I didn’t even know where he lived. He could’ve taken the A line all the way through to Jamaica and JFK, called his parents for help for a flight home….
…or he could’ve headed to the upper floors of Bobst Library, looked down at the suicide floor.
Was it any of my business? In that moment, I told myself no. But sometimes things are only true in retrospect.
Sometimes meaning comes from an ending, sometimes from a lie. I wish I could say the ending of this story was a happy one.
Two days after Thomas’s escape, I was released from the ward and thrown back into the relentless flow of NYU life. Some weeks later, we met up at the café on MacDougal Street, shared a cup of coffee and a slice of cake and didn’t worry about the amount of sugar in it.
“And they didn’t come after you?” I asked him between bites of cake. “Surely they had your address.”
He shrugged and smiled, lifted his coffee to his lips and said, “It took them a few days, and seeing as I hadn’t killed myself in that time….”
But no, that’s something that never happened at all.
The truth is, I never saw him again. I heard rumors though. That he’d turned himself back in, a day after I’d left the hospital. That he’d hurt himself, and someone had called an ambulance, and he hadn’t even fought as they brought him back to the very same ward, the very same room. That he’d never come back at all.
For months after, I tried to get in contact with him, to find out what had happened.
I heard nothing.
So the story I tell goes like this:
Did you know that I once helped a boy escape from the mental hospital?
I did it because I wanted to imagine there could be a better ending; I did it because I couldn’t have known what the ending would actually be.
But there’s no going back once you’ve broken something. All you can do is try your best to remember, to make meaning from all the shattered pieces, all the forgotten details, all the pretty little lies.
So let me start again. And this time, I’ll tell the truth.
Half Filipino, half Maltese, AMY V. BORG has spent her life slipping between countries and continents. With a master’s degree in creative writing and publishing from Kingston University London, she currently authors fantasy novels and short stories for both adults and young readers, as well as select nonfiction. Her work has been shortlisted for both the Penguin WriteNow Mentorship and the inaugural Gollancz and Rivers of London Award (now the Future Worlds Prize). Follow her on Twitter @thatexpatgirl.
Featured image by Jeremy Huang, courtesy of Unsplash.