top of page

Part 100: The Big Fish

I wrote this piece during the pandemic, which includes information from prior blogs.


Photographic artwork by Thomas Schworer ©2023



Lorene, a small-town grandmother in her 70s, died before she could become my aging father’s seventh wife. She died before I could meet her in person, and I was surprised to learn that Lorene died believing that my father had produced her favorite film, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”


My father and Lorene lived in Porterville, California, and when I called from Seattle my dad sometimes put her on the phone. “Say hello to my daughter.” She was sweet, and I detected a southern twang, “I’m originally from Texas,” she told me. I had no idea at the time that she thought Dad was a movie producer. Her own family couldn’t shake her faith in him––her grandson’s efforts only frayed their relationship.


Long after their deaths, Lorene in 2007, my father in 2009, I spoke to her grandson, Wesley, on the phone, who told me that he tried to reason with her. “Before your dad, we were close,” he said, frustration still clear in his voice. The relationship between my father and his grandmother created a rift in Wesley’s family that was never healed. There was no convincing her, she believed my father over the evidence Wesley produced. Dad had spun this yarn about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 2005, by which point it was easy to look things up online. Richard Shepherd, the producer in question, was still very much alive, married, and living in another part of the state. Yes, my dad’s legal name was also Richard Shepard (different spelling), but we all called him Riley. My father was in show business, he’d been an actor, a singer, songwriter, and many other things, but he was not a movie producer.


At first, I found myself judging Lorene for being gullible. But truthfully, for most of my childhood, I believed that the United States Post Office was so freakishly bad at delivering mail that it managed to destroy my father’s reputation by consistently losing his checks sent to various people, including landlords. When I was in grade school, every single time I mailed a letter to anyone, I’d scrawl on the outside of the envelope “you better deliver this letter, OR ELSE!!!” Those postal workers would think twice about screwing me over! I believed in my dad back when I was a kid, he was the sun and the moon, only temporarily not famous, his jobs working at diners as a cook only a glitch until he got back on track. Back then, I believed that I was to someday inherit a large sum of money from songs my father wrote, royalties stashed away at a bank in England.


My father had plenty of real things to brag about––he’d been a published songwriter, was one of the first singers to record the song “Blue Christmas,” (later made famous by Elvis Presley) toured with several country western bands and had his own radio shows. He created an encyclopedia of folk music, which he sold to at least one publisher (pocketing the advance money, but never handing over the manuscript). Tall, in decent health, a full head of hair, my dad was a great talker as well as a good listener, and women adored him. He told many people, including me, that not only did he record the song “Blue Christmas,” but that he’d written the song as well. I’ll never know the truth, maybe he did have something to do with writing that song, who knows? The music industry is as murky as my father’s tall tales. Trying to unravel why he lied so much about so many random things–– and what to believe, turned my brain upside down, it feels like a bag of broken cords at times.


*


When I was eleven, Dad took me along to pick up his paycheck from a restaurant where he worked as a cook. Breezing through the dining room, he stopped at a table to ask how they liked the food, introducing himself as the owner. I hovered behind, startled and embarrassed. Looking at their facial expressions, it was clear they knew he wasn’t the owner, but my father kept talking, astonished faces didn’t seem to impact his monologue. We didn’t own anything besides Dad’s beat-up Oldsmobile with muffler problems. After an awkward pause, where I stood frozen and mortified, a man at the table said everything was fine, just fine, and we left them to finish their lunch. I trailed behind Dad into the back office, where he picked up his paycheck, and we left.


Looking back, by that age I’d probably witnessed him making up stories before that moment, but not about something I clearly knew wasn’t true. Each passing year of my young life, I got the feeling something wasn’t quite right, but I desperately wanted to believe him, even when grand promises were broken over and over.


*


Habitual liar. Compulsive liar. Pathological liar. I’d spend hours searching the internet for answers, even while my father was alive. Using the internet to find answers can be random and unreliable, (this will probably get worse as time goes on) and with a confusing psychological disorder, getting accurate information can be tough. When I confided to a friend that I was struggling to figure out why my father made up so many strange and untrue stories, she said, “Did you see that movie, ‘Big Fish’?” I watched the film, tried to enjoy it. It left me wondering if I could (or should) just see my father as a larger-than-life character out of a book or movie, rather than someone who created problems.


Everyone lies occasionally, usually to spare someone’s feelings, sometimes to puff ourselves up, or to get out of doing something we don’t want to do. Researchers suggest that most people tell these somewhat harmless lies a few times a day. My experience with my father showed me another side of lying, not only lying to spare other’s feelings, exaggerate accomplishments, or hide shameful secrets, but something more. This type of over-the-top lying is often associated with a cluster B personality disorder, or narcissistic personality disorder (according to psychiatrists), but since my father didn’t seek help while he was alive, it’s unclear what he was suffering from. And he did suffer. He'd alienated people, including his parents and siblings, he was often broke, and spent a great deal of energy avoiding certain people. I wonder what might’ve changed for him if he'd received treatment. At times I thought maybe he believed his own lies, but did he? If he didn’t believe his own lies, did he know something was wrong? Chronic, uncontrollable, compulsive lying remains poorly understood, but knowing that didn’t stop me from ruminating, trying to seek answers.

“He just enjoys tricking people,” my mother said to me when I was a teenager, as if she was talking about his love of card games. Although they never married, my parents stayed together for twenty-three years, my mother lasting longer than any other girlfriend of wife, partially because she had a strange sense of humor about his constant lying, which I adopted at times. I sometimes managed to view him as a great character, harmlessly making up stories to impress others. But that wasn’t quite right. He did harm people with his tricks. Eventually, after more than two decades together, he told my mother that he was taking a short trip to Los Angeles for the weekend, but he left town, having secretly packed up his books, encyclopedia of folk music, and other essential belongings. He disappeared. She had no idea where he was for an entire year, nor did I––until he sent me a long letter of apology, telling me why he had to leave, saying people were after him for money he didn’t have. We stayed in close touch after my parent’s separation. I saved all the letters he sent, filled with love and encouragement.


*

Back when I was twelve, my father made a strange deal with a neighbor, an elderly man who lived in a nearby trailer park. Apparently, Dad convinced the neighbor to invest money in the encyclopedia of folk music, which not yet published, and was perhaps much too large to ever be published. It would've been a huge cost for a publisher to take it on, without much profit left over–– the idea that my father would sell "shares" in this work was absurd. When the man realized he’d been swindled, he became enraged and took out his frustrations on me, shouting that my father was a crook and a liar. At first, I was shocked, then bewildered, then angry. Not at the neighbor, because I believed him, and my mother said, "Riley probably did rip off that man. I tell people not to give him money, but they don't listen."


After I confronted my dad, he denied it, asking me how I could choose a stranger over him.


Later, he sat me down for a talk. Not a lecture, I wasn’t in trouble. He often gave me talks about life, advice on navigating situations, pontificating on how the world worked, bits of wisdom, usually focused on show business. This time, the topic was all about how being a suspicious person was the absolute worst type of person you could possibly be.


“Going around being suspicious all the time is cheap,” he said with the gravitas of a stage actor, his face expressing fatherly concern.


Perhaps he already sensed that I was beginning to doubt him. It was true. I started to realize that some of what he said didn’t add up. I didn’t want to be cheap, though, and I certainly didn’t want to be one of the people my father didn’t like. I loved my father, and I felt loved by him.


*


When I was in my early twenties, he pulled me aside for another talk, this one about the future. He and my mother were separated by this time, a bitter break-up. Puffing on a cigar, holding a folder in his free hand, he was in a serious mood. He said someday I’d have a large inheritance, currently in “The Bank of England,” and I shouldn’t tell anyone about it. Opening the folder, he handed me two sheets of paper––one, a letter instructing me to put the second paper, a Last Will and Testament, in a safe place. The second page, an official looking paper he’d typed up on his Corona typewriter, bequeathing me, in the event of his death, all his earthly possessions, including “any and all real estate, royalties, song titles and monies on deposit at The Bank of England, London, GB.” At the bottom of the page, he signed his legal name, and wrote out by hand, “Yes! The signature is genuine, and I so declare in my own handwriting.”

Perhaps he wrote up the papers to stop me worrying about the future. Earlier, I’d made him feel bad about not being able to help with my college tuition, perhaps the shame drove him to concoct the “Bank of England” story? I tried to project reason onto the situation. By then, I knew there was no money or real estate, but still clung to some tiny hope that maybe some of his royalties were stashed in another bank. It didn’t add up, but I was confused. We’d been evicted several times before I graduated high school. I’d loaned him money from after school jobs as a teen–– he rarely paid me back. If there was money somewhere, why didn’t he use it when we were so desperate?


I thanked him for the will, promised him I’d keep it safe. I wanted him to think that I believed him. It seemed to make things easier. I never brought it up again. And so, we went on like that, and we remained close.


*

Chronic liars make you feel constantly gaslit––the shifting stories, sometimes based on a grain of truth, can knock a person off balance. You wonder if you’re just mis-remembering a detail, or if they’ve changed the story. I lived in an off-balance state. This is how it works for those who are close to people who lie, and eventually, you become an enabler, so confused that you just want to move past it. There’s a chance that this kind of person doesn’t understand what they did, and only feels the sting of rejection, and then you get stuck feeling bad for them, even after they’ve lied to you.


What went wrong with these lying liars? When did it all begin? I’ve spent so much of my life trying to understand it, and I never arrive at a full understanding.


Christian L. Hart, Ph.D., a professor in the Psychology department at Texas Women’s University, studies deception. He runs a "deception lab" which gets the imagination going. I mentioned some of what I’d read online, and how confusing it all was, a few suggesting that there’s a difference between compulsive liars and pathological liars. He said, “One of the problems in the literature on pathological lying is that people have historically defined it in many different ways.” He added that the few articles he’d seen that aim to distinguish pathological lying from compulsive lying have been written by people with no clear expertise on the topic, and without providing any data to support their contention. Most professionals prefer the term pathological, but basically, the words are used to describe the same disorder.


In 2019, Hart published a paper with Drew Curtis that argued that pathological lying has enough distinct features to warrant classification as a unique disorder. Currently, it’s listed as a symptom of other personality disorders, but hopefully that will change, and possible behavioral therapies can be used to help people who struggle with pathological lying.


“Lying generally received little attention by researchers until about 25 years ago,” Hart said. “I suspect that part of the issue is that people rarely seek mental health treatment primarily because of pathological lying. Also, most pathological liars don’t impose a huge drain on society, as they tend not to be especially successful swindlers. Lastly, lying is heavily stigmatized, so finding people who admit to being pathological liars is a challenge.”

This made sense to me. My father swindled people, but not for huge amounts. I know I should stop thinking about it, since it’s baffling and unresolvable, even to most professional psychologists and researchers. But time and time again, I found myself searching online, trying to see if I could find anything that sounded like an answer–– as if I, with my BA in theater from Chico State might be the one to crack the code.


*


Children who live with constant fear from abuse will lie to avoid severe punishment, a survival tactic. At an early age, my father struggled. His uncles were cruel, two were bootleggers who lived on the same property as his family, and my father’s small infractions made him a target of their abuse. Another uncle was his teacher in grade school. “I could never get away from them,” Dad said, his eyes downcast, his large frame sinking, as if remembering impacted his entire being.


In 1930, when my father was twelve, he walked to the grocery store his grandmother owned in Wilmington, North Carolina, broke the large glass front window, swiped food, and gave it to random people on the street. When he told me this story, he said he felt bad for the poor people in town, he wanted to feed them. I’ll never know if that was his true motivation, but it was The Great Depression––I choose to believe the account he gave, even though I admit he did tend to make himself out to be the hero or the victim in his stories. Apparently, after he was found out, his grandmother was the one who decided on a punishment. She sent him to The Eastern Carolina Training School for Boys in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where kids as young as eight, and as old as nineteen were held; kids sent there for simply skipping school, and young men off the chain gang for rape and assault––all housed together with no supervision, and no locks on any of the doors.


It was called a training school, which makes it sound decent. In fact, it was a prison for boys and young men, not a school.Seeking staff to run the place, they ran an ad saying, “Looking for good Christian men with a strong interest in boys.” I read that in the Wilson Library at the UNC, Chapel Hill, and it struck me with such anxiety I had to stop reading, leave the library, and go outside to catch my breath.


My father confided to my mother that he was brutally sexually assaulted in that place, whether by the adult supervisors or the other boys, or both, I don’t know. He told me about being sent to the “boy’s home in Rocky Mount” as he called it, but never told me about the abuse.


The child inmates were put to work, building the housing, farming the land, cooking the food. The state paid for two horses to plow the land, but one of the animals was worked to death in the hot sun a few weeks after arriving. The supervisors didn’t seem to know much about farming.


My father ran away three times, once making it all the way back home to Wilmington. The second time he bolted, (at age thirteen) he joined a vaudeville troupe, singing and dancing (and hiding out in costume) under the stage name Lanky Bill. The third time he escaped, he went to Jacksonville where he stayed with cousins, but a sheriff caught him and took him back. Each time he was caught, the supervisors would shave his head and put him in what they called “The Jug,” a solitary confinement cell, where he’d remain for days, allowed only water and crackers to eat.

From age twelve to age fifteen, he was incarcerated in Rocky Mount, with breaks only when he ran away. All that for a smash and grab. Perhaps he would’ve grown out of stealing. I decided that this punishment––combined with being abandoned by his entire family to this dire place for three years––did something to him. Or was something wrong with him before? Was he born with something hardwired inside his brain?


Yaling Yang, a researcher at the University of Southern California, conducted a study showing that people who lie, cheat, and manipulate others have structurally different brains. Imaging shows an increase in white matter in the brain’s frontal lobe, suggesting that this difference may be a link to pathological lying. The study suggests the increase in white matter may represent a predisposition to lying. If that’s the case, it’s almost as if liars are prisoners of their own behavior, they have no control over it. I never considered this back when my father was alive, but it makes sense that he couldn’t stop the behavior, much like a compulsive gambler.


*


As an example of one of the pointless lies he told, I’ll tell you this story from my teenage years. My father was an incredible baker, the king of desserts. A favorite was his double layer grapefruit cake made with cream cheese frosting, the texture light, the flavors balanced. He made a three layer “red devil” cake, loaded with cocoa and buttermilk. They weren’t decorative, the icing was plain, but everything was from scratch, his own recipes, and they were delicious.

On my fifteenth birthday, he presented me with a fancy white cake, piled high with pink icing roses. It was the fancy icing that tipped me off.


“Wait, you made this?” I said, frowning, swiping my finger across a pink rosette.

“Of course,” he said, smiling.


I looked at the glob of greasy icing on my finger and stuck it in my mouth, letting it melt on my tongue. It wasn’t smooth like Dad’s icing; it was mostly lard, gritty with sugar.

“You made these icing roses?” I said, scowling. Did he think I was an idiot?

We argued. The more I pushed back, the more hurt and defensive he became.

“Forget it then,” he finally said. “If you don’t want it, just say so.” He waved me off.

We didn’t speak for a few hours, until I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Arguing with him was confounding. Plus, I hated to see him suffer, slumped down in his chair, chin to chest, silently fuming. Did I hurt his feelings? Or was he angry that he didn’t get the reaction he was after? Was I his kid, or his audience? It was just so twisted; his cakes were so much better, why take credit for the mediocre store bought one?

Later, taking out the garbage, I found the original pink box from the grocery store bakery. He didn’t even bother to hide the evidence, like he knew I knew he was lying, but once he told the lie, he couldn’t back down. I wanted to wave the box in his face, but even as a teenager I understood it wasn’t a matter of proof, or facts, or even forcing him to admit he’d lied. None of those things worked. Anyway, he gave me the cake to celebrate my birthday, and looking back, it wasn’t meant to make me angry. My father never forgot my birthday, not even when he was old and frail. Even in my forties I’d get oversized, glittery birthday cards gushing with sentiments and always a handwritten note saying how proud he was, how much he loved me, how my husband better be treating me right.


Maybe, I wondered then as I do now, I should focus more on the gestures and less on the lies.


*


My father fell and broke his hip when he was 90, requiring a long stay in a skilled nursing home. Flat on his back, flat broke, and broken, I barely recognized him. Gaunt, his skin waxy, he was so still, I was alarmed. Was he breathing? Moving closer, I saw the slow rise and fall of his chest. I pulled up a chair, and sat down near his bed, gently cupped his hand in mine.

“Dad, it’s me,” I said. His eyes opened only for a moment. His hand slipped out of mine, up to his forehead.

“You don’t know what it’s like in here,” he said, his voice desperate. He was far away, in a suffering trance.

I looked around the room, which he shared with two other men. One had the television on a religious program, it blared from the set.

“I’m sorry. I know it’s not great, but maybe I can get you a private room,” I said, leaning in to hear him better.

“No, you don’t understand,” he said, tapping his forehead with his fingertips. “You don’t know what it’s like in here, inside…my mind. I’m being punished.”

“Punished?” I said, caught off guard. I’d never heard him talk like that before.

“I’m seeing all the bad things I did, like a film in my head. It’s terrible,” he said, his voice filled with anguish. “This is my punishment, seeing everything over and over. You don’t know what it’s like.” He said all of this with his eyes closed, as if seeing all his lifelong behavior clearly for the first time, all rushing in at once, and it was unbearable.

I wanted to save him, make him feel better, even though I knew he’d hurt people.

“We aren’t punished. We don’t believe in that,” I said, as if that settled it. But he wouldn’t be swayed by my assurances. I began to be filled with dread, wondering if we all end up like this, seeing all our mistakes, every screwed-up thing we ever did, reeling over and over like a never-ending nightmare.

Later, I regretted that visit the most–– that I didn’t let him tell me what he was experiencing, what he was re-living, this remains a burr on my brain.


*


My father saved everything; old newspaper clippings, manuscripts for half-finished and finished

books, variety shows, piles of old sheet music. After he died, I dug around in his papers, I found a huge pile of old recording contracts, but no evidence that he’d written “Blue Christmas.” At least one of the contracts in that box was forged, attempting to pass off the children’s song “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” as his own. I had an entertainment lawyer look over another pile of official looking papers from his career and discovered more forged letters and documents.

Sorting through it all after his death was exhausting, and in the middle of it, I thought about chucking it all into the recycling bin, but I kept going.


Since he died in 2009, I’ve tried to figure out what went on in his past. I’ve spoken to many people who knew him, Lorene’s grandson, Wesley, as well as family friends, my father’s brothers, my older half-siblings he’d abandoned, ex-wives, and girlfriends. All had different stories to tell.


At least two of the women who gave birth to his children didn’t think they could get pregnant with him, he’d convinced them he was sterile, and told them not to worry about birth control. I’ve located five half-siblings and met four of them. One half-brother told me that our father never divorced his mother back in the ’40s. She was wife number three. Which means that none of his subsequent marriages were legal.

“He told me the FBI was after him, for some lefty group he joined back in New York,” an old family friend once said. Some of his wives knew him as Richard, some as Riley, others thought his name was Dickson. After my father died, the nursing home gave me his wallet. It was stuffed with different social security cards, all with various aliases and numbers. Recently, I noticed for the first time that he didn’t even put his real name on my birth certificate.


©2023 Stacya Silverman

©Stacya Shepard Silverman Riley Shepard’s Promise 2023 All Rights Reserved


Two newspaper clippings, the lower one gives songwriting credit to Riley Shepard for the song "Blue Christmas."

© 2023 Stacya Silverman

Kommentit


Recent Posts
Archive
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook - Black Circle
  • Instagram - Black Circle
  • YouTube - Black Circle
bottom of page