The corrosion of truth in these strange times is terrifying | Richard Flanagan

Lies have become alternative facts and truth irrelevant in the face of power, while we all give up our privacy

In Book 8 of The Odyssey we read that the gods weave adversities so that later generations have something to sing about.

It wasn’t a god but a conman who now leads me to describe how- some decades ago, while working as a labourer, with one child and twins on the way- I was struggling to write my first fiction. It was going badly in every way. I couldn’t stimulate the novel work, and we were living in desperate straits.

And then the phone rang.

It was John Friedrich.

He is forgotten today but in 1991 this conman- Australia’s greatest- was front-page news. Some years before he had taken over a small charity called the National Safety Council which would, in the working day before health and safety became a national blight, going to see mills and workshops distributing posters exemplifying the wisdom of hairnets, or operate classes on the necessity of bending knees to lift heavy weights.

Under Friedrich, the NSC transformed within a few years from a handful of employees into an upper-class international search and rescue operation, with a large paramilitary limb of some hundreds of uniformed young men known as parachute jumpers, a small navies of barges, ships and submarines, an air wing, and so on.

Their achievements seemed fabulous, if occasionally inexplicable, such as being the first people in Australia to parachute out of planes with German shepherds attached to themselves.

Dark rumors “ve been given” credence by media reports that the NSC was a CIA front, rumours never precisely confirmed or denied by an organisation that had unprecedented access to Australian defense facilities and even the top-secret US spy facility at Pine Gap.

And, when it all abruptly went belly-up, topics began to be asked. Investigators discovered that the NSC had debts of $300 m- about a billion dollars in today’s terms- that Friedrich had embezzled. It was the biggest corporate fraud in Australian history.

John Freidrich, an Australian conman who killed himself in 1991 while he was on charges of hoax.

Banks collapsed in consequence of their exposure, Friedrich vanished, the biggest manhunt in Australian history ensued, and he was finally caught at Monkey Mia in Western Australia. Extradited back to Victoria, he had been 12 hours in the Melbourne watchhouse when he took a phone call from the celebrity agent Harry M Miller.

Don’t sign anything, Miller advised. I’ll cut the deal.

The deal Miller constructed was a very handsome one for a memoir. Friedrich was released on bail to await his trial, and the publisher, having stumped a large sum of money, keenly awaited delivery of a manuscript. A year or more passed.

As Friedrich’s trial and inevitable imprisonment loomed ever closer and no manuscript appeared, the publisher, growing understandably nervous, insisted Friedrich work with a series of editors, all of whom speedily gave up because of Friedrich’s attitude.

Exasperated and, with Friedrich’s trial now merely weeks away, worried that there would be no book, the publisher told Friedrich if he wouldn’t work with the publisher’s choice of cowriters, that he find a novelist of his own whom he could work with.

Friedrich didn’t know any writers.

But his bodyguard- a Tasmanian- did.

He told Friedrich that he had a mate back home who wanted to be a writer.

And in this way, late one night, I received a phone call from Australia’s most wanted, offering me $10,000 to ghostwrite his memoir in the six weeks left before he went to trial.

I didn’t immediately say yes. I worried about what impact it might have on my literary reputation, until I realised I didn’t have a literary reputation to worry about.

I flew to Melbourne the following day to begin work with Friedrich. A strange dance ensued in which he told me almost nothing about himself but frightened me in a manner that is I had never been frightened, a dread it was to take me many years to understand. Three weeks later he shot himself dead.

For several days, his suicide was front-page news and top of the TV news bulletins. His death only created more questions: where had the millions run? What did the NSC actually do? Although Friedrich had received an Order of Australia, he had no passport and there was no record of birth or citizenship. Was John Friedrich even John Friedrich?

Meanwhile, the publisher was everywhere, saying Friedrich had left a tell-all memoir that answered all these questions and more, but refusing to divulge any details prior to publication.

Just as well, because I was sitting in a Hobart pub urgently trying to construct them up. Most writers’ first fictions are criticised as autobiography. My first autobiography, though, promptly degenerated into a novel.

The book came out and was an immediate failing. There was a campaign by a group called Don’t Buy Books by Crooks, which in other circumstances I may have found offensive.

To be frank, it’s not much of a volume, or as much of a book as someone who has never written a book can write in six weeks about their topic when their subject kills himself before saying what his life was.

Still, I gained a lot from it , not least money. With the $10,000, I was able to stop labouring for six months and finish my first fiction, Death of a River Guide.


And, for another, I learnt so much from Friedrich who, as a conman, traded as a novelist does in stories. I learn about the nature of writing and volumes from having to write a volume in the first person in six weeks about someone who I thought was evil and who, since they are happened to be dead, couldn’t tell me what “peoples lives” had been. And, ghostwriting a ghost, I went far further as a writer than I would have in six novels. It’s not too much to say that I learnt to be a novelist in those six weeks.

Years, and then decades, passed. Friedrich was forgotten, and a new world came into being. Lies became alternative facts and truth became irrelevant in the face of power, while we all become our own Big brother, meticulously recording every aspect of our personal living on a daily, hourly and even more frequent basis for nation and corporate power to harvest and use as they wish.

Most of us didn’t care.

We cared so little we could even be persuaded these things were a welcome culture change. Mark Zuckerberg was to famously declare that privacy was no longer a social norm, a statement that was to define our era as much as Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that there is no such thing as society defines another.

Yet Zuckerberg tapes over the camera and microphone on his computer- as Edward Snowden does, as James Comey does, as people who know do. For even if we did not sign up to social media, something was happening that fretted even the individuals who understood far better than we what the world was.

It has become common knowledge that telephones and computers can be remotely hacked and used to watch us and listen to us, but many were shocked to discover in 2014, when WikiLeaks revealed the CIA’s Weeping Angel project, that TVs, even when supposedly turn off the light, could also be used by nation bodies to eavesdrop on us.

Australian novelist Richard Flanagan. Photograph: Joel Saget/ AFP/ Getty Images

And when I heard of Zuckerberg’s comments I was taken back to Friedrich, who in order to con and rob those around him, had always begun by first seeking to know everything about their private lives in order to gain control of them.

And something connects Friedrich’s swindles to Zuckerberg’s prescription, and Zuckerberg’s prescription with a breakdown in the idea of human beings as anything other than divisions to be monetised- as the new word has it -or subjects to be surveilled- another new word for which the old term snooping once sufficed. Something connections the growing social inequality, the increasing powerlessness felt by so many, and this growing insignificance of individual souls.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that each of us has a public life, a private life, and a secret life.

And this private life, this secret life, seem to me are required to us as human beings. The erasure of these aspects of our spirit- our otherness- has long been the goal of totalitarian regimes.

In the past they sought to achieve it through the elimination of civil society on the one hand- the demolition of any social organisations not pressed into the service of the state- and on the other through a system of surveillance and punishment.

Social media’s methods are different.

” The days of you having a different image for your work friends or coworkers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an objective pretty quickly ,” Zuckerberg has said.” Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity .”

Like the character in Philip Roth’s Prague Orgy who writes his own reports on himself for the secret police, Zuckerberg’s method is to so completely enmesh and entrap us in the social media of public revelation that no private life is possible and, in return, expect us to be grateful to the corporations which have liberated us from our private lives and given us his gift of integrity .

And, astonishingly, most are grateful. The darkest dream of totalitarianism is now our everyday lives, carried in our handbag and pocket.

Greasing these great social changes of recent years is the cult of solipsism, a cult that results everyone on their various social media wanting to be the first person, just as John Friedrich was always the first person in his inventions.

And yet, strangely, each first person feels more than ever that nothing offers them any insight into their own mystery. Every first person feels ever more alone and lost, and prone to the great pandemics of our age: depression, sadness, emptiness.

In the world of literature these tendencies led to an explosion in the cult of literary memoir. This cult- elevated to dogma in some North American circles- starts out of a sense that invented tales can no longer do justice to our world, and that only stories rooted in demonstrable personal experience have validity, that we can only know the one identity that those around us know us as.

People younger than 30 have sometimes written three volumes of memoirs- most of which increasingly deal with “peoples lives” writing memoirs. The literary equivalent of the selfie, it is as if everyone writes memoir now, and sometimes it seems that the less you’ve lived the more valid the memoir. For all I know, as I write publishers may be signing ultrasounds for six-volume memoirs.

Scott Fitzgerald- being both Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, as well as Daisy Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson, Dick Diver, Nicole Diver and Monroe Stahr- correctly observed that no biography could be written of a novelist as they were not one character but hundreds.

We all contain multitudes, and that is why anyone who reads a novel as a memoir is in error. And, equally, anyone who does not read a memoir as a fiction is even more mistaken. Novels remind us we are not one, but many. That is the power of novels, and it is our power to opt or relinquish.

In any case, I was a little haunted. Over hour I kept returning to what had happened to me in those six weeks in 1991, to the route that experience raised so many questions for me about truth, about our need for stories, about the evil of some stories and the necessity of others.

In his narcissism, in the power of his lies to pervert and destroy, Friedrich, with his darknes visions, seemed to me a harbinger of something strange and terrifying that had begun forming out of the darkness all around us.

And to write about these things I returned to the form of the novel to do it. Using some elements of my experience with Friedrich, I created new characters and fates for all involved.

I set aboutinventing a story about a human who devises himself while devising someone else’s memoir. Written in the first person by a reality Tv producer, First Person tells the story of how years before, as a young, penniless novelist Kif Kehlmann is asked to ghostwrite the memoir of conman-cum-corporate criminal Ziggy Heidl.

My novel utilizes a little of “whats happened to” me but, because it is a novel, at a certain point it departs radically from my experience. As the writing progresses, Heidl becomes ever more fearful he is about to be murdered, while Kehlmann is tormented whether he is writing Heidl’s story, or Heidl is writing him – their own lives, his future.

Rather than being about me, First Person is about writing novels and a defence of them- that strange battle of writing, that beautiful alchemy of read. Above all, it is about the necessity of narrative, invented narrative, that defines us as a species different than any other.

Heidl’s great success is to create a delirium, and perhaps our world today is a similar delirium. In this strange day lies are presented to us as reality, truth is denied by other lies, and the more implausible the lie the more likely people are to believe it. And behind this shroud of delirium is the growing horror we have neither the imagination nor moral lucidity to fully grasp: growing injustice, war, exoduses of the dispossessed, ecological catastrophe.

Yet we are told to believe in this delirium as reality, a word increasingly used to describe entertainments of television or politics. But reality is not the same thing as truth.

As Karl Rove, George W Bush’s Svengali, said in 2004:” We’re an empire now, and when we act, we make our own reality .”

This is the voice of power, and this really is power’s greatest ambition: that it- and if not we- will choose the words by which we understand our world.

Photograph: Marie Waldmann/ Photothek via Getty Images

It is often said that such reality has outstripped fiction. This is a particularly popular refrain in the USA. But it is not so. From the weapons of mass destruction to the Brexiter’s notorious PS3 50 m EU weekly tax to the crowd sizing at the last presidential inauguration to Tony Abbott’s claim that climate change is good for humanity, it is untruth that has outstripped truth.

And when Donald Trump lies, when Vladimir Putin lies, when corporations and power lie about climate change, about refugees, about our world, it is not simply that they are lying about a particular issue. It is that they are saying the truth is of no repercussion .

And it is this corrosion of the very idea of truth that is so terrifying.

We in the west have been led to believe, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980 s, that progress and liberty are each necessary for the other, that it is not possible to have one without the other.

But what if progress and freedom are not inevitably joined? What if truth is the precarious hinge that holds freedom and progress together?

China’s great advances are, after all, the proof that if all that matters to you is progress, you can have progress without liberty. But there will be a void, and in that void a great darkness will arise.

Truth is the only force we have, the one illumination strong enough to combat such darkness. And if we can be persuaded the truth doesn’t exist, the sunlight runs out, and we are condemned to darkness.

I don’t pretend that literature has any power to alter these things. That power, those options, will be made or not made by each of us. But in constructing those options, literature matters, and perhaps it matters more than ever.

As politics and the media collapse as spaces for debate and questioning, as the commons of the internet are rapidly enclosed by the richest for their exploitation- novels, despite reports of their imminent death, continue to grow in popularity and influence. Dismissed by mainstream media , fictions sometimes feel like the new counterculture. Could this be because we are seeking our own terms for divining our own experience?

If you think this is far-fetched, meditate the story of the American actor Shailene Woodley, superstar of Big Little Lies . At the 2017 Emmys she was asked on the red carpet what TV proves she was watching. She replied that she didn’t have a television and preferred read books. For this innocent remark, she was immediately condemned far and wide.

This anger towards reading is new, if not surprising. After all, in a world ever more hostile to privacy, reading remains a private act- deeply private. In an ever more conformist age, when the most powerful firms in the world want such private acts ended, when they want human beings to have the integrity of one identity and one identity only, reading has become a subversive act.

Because fiction is not the reality of Karl Rove, or of television. Nor is it a lie, but a truth, a fundamental and necessary truth, that we need as much as we need food or sex. Without fiction we poison ourselves on the lies of the first person.

And perhaps that was the anxiety I had felt with Friedrich all those years ago- the terror of becoming the first person trapped in someone else’s lies. For if story as lies leads us to a dark place, narrative as fiction offers the possibility of transcendence and freeing, the recognition of the many things each of us are.

Why is it in every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thinks? asked Emerson. Perhaps the answer is that we each contain an facet of genius, but we are too ashamed, too embarrassed, too uncertain to give it tongue in our public life. But reading allows us to recognise our common humanity.

Near the end of writing First Person I came to think that it was about freedom, about the way we choice whether we are free or unfree, and how the choice is not simply ours to construct but ours to live.

More than ever we need fiction to understand our world afresh. For how else do we divine a Nauru? An Aleppo or a Bataclan or a massacre in Las Vegas or a child in a street not far away attempting meaning from an Isis website video? The pandemics of sadness, of emptiness, of the forces which we feel hollowing out something central and fundamental in national societies?

My fiction has no answers.

But I hope that it does ask a few of the necessary questions.

For we need to once more start choosing our terms for divining our experience, and not the words and images power chooses for us, just as I feared John Friedrich was choosing them for me all those years ago.

* Richard Flanagan’s volume First Person is published in Australia by Knopf ($ 39.99) and is available in the UK on 2 November( PS18. 99 )

Make sure to visit: