Zibby Owens: I'm here today with William, Bill, Billy, Willy, Whatever, [laughs] Dameron, the author of The Lie: A Memoir of Two Marriages, Catfishing & Coming Out, which was so good. He just showed me the hardcover which is so beautiful. Welcome, welcome.
William Dameron: Thank you. Thanks. I'm really thrilled to be here. Thank you for having me and for your love of books. It’s wonderful.
Zibby: A little more about you. William Dameron is the author of, as I said, The Lie: A Memoir of Two Marriages, Catfishing & Coming Out, which was chosen as the Amazon First Reads Book Pick for June 2019, which is really exciting. He is an award-winning blogger and essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and HuffPost, among others. He's also published an essay in the book Fashionably Late: Gay, Bi, and Trans Men Who Came Out Later in Life. That's a fantastic title. He is the IT director for a global economic consulting firm and currently splits his time between Boston and the southern coast of Maine -- they're closer than I thought, now that I hear about your train schedule -- with his husband and their blended family of five kids. Good?
William: Yes, thank you.
Zibby: I have to say for this new hardcover, you can't tell from looking, but the bottom is a parchment-y type feeling. The top is this smooth wax paper.
William: It’s vellum.
Zibby: Vellum, thank you.
William: It’s a very tactile feel.
Zibby: It’s great, even just to hold it. Can you tell listeners what The Lie is about? What inspired you to write it?
William: About a few years ago, I received an email from a woman I had never met. The first line of the email said, “Your face has meant a lot to me. Now I found out it’s a lie.” She went on to describe how she had a four-year online relationship with this man who used my pictures to catfish her. When I did a Google image search, I found out my face is synonymous with the search phrase “Forty-year-old white man.” They just got married somehow. When I found that out, I also discovered it wasn’t just her that was catfished. It was countless women who had been catfished. They have contacted me over the years.
Zibby: In case someone doesn't know what catfishing is...?
William: Catfishing is when somebody pretends to be somebody they're not on the internet. They’ll use somebody else's picture to lure people into an online relationship. A lot of people think it’s just for money. It’s really an emotional thing. Somebody is uncomfortable with who they are, so they become somebody else. It was like the universe was calling me out. A decade prior, I had pretended to be somebody I was not to my wife, to my daughters, and to myself. I was a gay man in a straight marriage. That experience caused me to take a look at what we do when we put on these false identities and become someone we’re not. It forced me to take a look not just at my actions, but how my actions affected everybody else. It’s a book about what we do with all of that pain and lost hope when our supposed truths are unmasked for lies.
Zibby: How did it become a book? What made you write it? You had all these amazing, compelling experiences.
William: I didn't start writing until I came out because nothing sounded authentic. I always wanted to be a writer. After I came out, I suddenly had all this energy. I started writing personal blog posts about my life with my now husband, how wonderful it was. I realized I needed to look back. I took an online writing class, Gotham Writers Workshop here in New York. I started on December 12th, 2012. It was 12/12/12, just little steps. I started writing chapters. It took probably about five years to put that together. It was important for me to get this story out. After so many years of telling lies, I really had to tell the truth.
Zibby: I said to you earlier when we were chatting, it felt like you sat down and wrote it all at once, not in a bad way. It flowed so seamlessly, one thing into the other, even though some of it was so long ago. Some of it was much more recent. Did you, at the time, keep a journal? How do you remember everything so clearly? It feels like when you're reading it, that you're right there. It was almost surprising to me when I found out it was a while ago.
William: That's fantastic that you say that. Thank you. I actually have this really good recall. It freaks some of my friends out. I remember sitting at a company dinner once. Somebody was telling a story about how they moved to Mashpee. I recounted that whole story, how her father decided that he should do that. I realized everybody was looking at me like, why do you know this? It’s just a recall that I have. I remember conversations. I remember what somebody wore, the way the weather was that day. I think that's why it’s all still in my head.
The other thing is after I came out, I went to a therapist. He introduced me to a man named Hanz who had gone through the same thing. We had an email correspondence. He was Jehovah’s Witness. He came out. His firm was mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t allowed to speak to him because he was gay. He had no one to talk to during the day. I had nobody to talk to because I didn't feel like I could tell anybody else. We had probably six or seven emails a day, every day for a hundred days. I have an email journal of that entire period. I know exactly what day, what happened, and conversations we had. I can refer to those.
Zibby: Wow. You described your relationship with Hanz so nicely in the book too. I feel like I could see the whole thing. You wrote an article in Modern Love in The New York Times called “After 264 Haircuts, a Marriage Ends,” which becomes part of this book. Was it excerpted? What order did everything happen in? How did that come about? It became the fifth most read essay of 2017. That has to feel good.
William: It was surprising and overwhelming and wonderful all in once. Modern Love has forever been one of my favorite columns. I actually went on a writing retreat with this writing group in Vieques, Puerto Rico. My manuscript was done at that point. Everybody read it and said, “You're ready. Let's go ahead and publish it.” I didn't think I was ready. I went home. I wrote maybe three or four query letters to agent. They were half-hearted. I didn't hear anything back. I thought if this is meant to be, I'm going to take my best writing, which was the haircuts chapter, I'm going to whittle it down. I'm going to send it to Dan Jones at The New York Times. I didn't hear anything for months and months. I thought, all right, it’s not meant to be.
Then he sent me a single email that said, “I love your essay. I want to print it. I need to do it right away. Is your family okay with it?” which is similar to your response. It sounds like this just happened. He was of the feeling that this just happened too, though it was years in the past. He had an essay that was falling apart for whatever reason and needed to fill that slot quickly. His assistant gave him a stack of ninety-nine essays. Mine was on the bottom. He turned it over, started from the bottom, and that was mine. Timing and luck are so much in this business. Once that was published, thirty minutes after it was online, an agent contacted me and said, “I hear you're writing a memoir. Maybe I can help.” The wonderful thing is, it was my dream agent. It’s Christopher Schelling. He is Augusten Burroughs’ agent and husband. I loved Augusten’s book Running with Scissors, Dry, all of that.
Zibby: Me too, some of my favorites.
William: We felt like it was meant to be. The book came first. I knew that essay, that chapter was, for me, the most important. It showed how hard it was to say goodbye and the love that I had for my family. I needed to make sure that came through.
Zibby: It was beautiful. This is a random question, but I've been curious about it. Maybe you could spend two seconds on it. Your ex-wife was adopted. You go a lot into her story of life as well. You, in just one paragraph or something, say, “It was like an Oprah Winfrey moment when she met her birth family. Now they're in touch.” Could you give me a little more about that experience? After reading the book, you get really invested in Katherine and her life and her mental health struggles and all the rest of it. I know this might come out of order for people who don't know what I'm talking about. During the book, she goes on this quest -- she has always known she's adopted -- and finds her birth family. I hope I'm not giving it away.
William: No. That's a really important part of the book. The connection that Katherine and I had was rooted in this feeling of being a little lost. What's our history? Who is our family? There was a missing puzzle piece. I knew what that felt like. She was adopted. She always wanted to know where she came from. She always wanted to know who her birth family was. From the moment we were married, we really started searching in earnest to try and find her birth family. We actually went to the adoption agency and sat down across the table. The social worker pulled out this folder and gave us a sanitized version of what her birth mother and birth father were like, physical characteristics, things they liked to do. Then she left the folder on the table. She went to go answer the door. We were so young and naïve then. We didn't know that this was, “Here it is. Just take a look at it. Open it.” We sat there staring at that folder for five minutes. Do we pick it up? Do we not? We didn't because we didn't know. She found a man who’s called the searcher. The searcher is some sort of shadowy figure who has information that other people don't. He was able to get Katherine’s birth mother’s address, phone number, age. All of the information matched up. I left her with the kids, went down to the park.
Katherine got on the phone, called her mother, and said, “I was born on this date at this place.” Her birth mother said, “Oh, my god. Let me call you back.” She had not told her then family that she had this other child. She called her back. She said, “There's not a day I haven't thought about you.” She found this puzzle piece. They became like a real mother and daughter. The thing is, she also had a birth sister, which she always, in her head, thought that she had. Her birth sister didn't know she had this older sister. They became best friends. Their mannerisms and the way they look, they’re so similar. Here was Katherine searching for this blood family when she was in this adopted family. This family gave her up. She was looking for a family that would choose her and never give her up. She found them again. Here I was with my blood family feeling so disconnected. It was those two stories really meshed together in a way. I knew the truth. She didn't know the truth. Both of those things were crushing for us. She continues to this day to have a wonderful relationship with them.
Zibby: What a story, one of many great stories. When you write about Katherine’s brief hospitalization, you write, “Insanity is the inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Could I see the difference? I thought I could. But I honestly believed my secret thoughts and desires were disordered and if acted upon, would condemn me to hell and ruin all that we had built.” Carrying that around, you describe it in the book, but tell me more about how it felt feeling that sense of -- how did that feel for you?
William: As children, we learn these absolute things that go into our heads without any sort of filter to process them. You learn about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or things like that. You just accept it. This is fact. You're a child. You don't know how to process that. Even as you grow up, there's this belief still in your head that maybe Santa Claus really does exist. You also learn the other things. For me, my church, my family, everyone said being gay is disordered. It’s not normal. It was classified as a mental disease. All of that went into my head as an absolute. If I acted on that, I would go to hell. That was just the belief. I never questioned it. As I got older, it was always in the back of my head niggling at me. There was this cognitive dissonance. I know this isn't true. It’s still in my head that this is true. Little by little, it begins to tear you down. It begins to make you act out in ways that are so uncharacteristic. It’s so tiring to always hide yourself. You have to keep everything super organized in the closet because you're afraid somebody might find something. Eventually, you can't exist that way.
Zibby: It’s so funny. You always hear the expression “in the closet.” Now you have a visual of what that closet is really like. Turns out it’s from The Container Store.
William: [laughs] I do have to say my husband is very much like that. Everything is organized.
Zibby: In the scene in which your daughters and your ex-wife -- you dabbled with steroid use at some point and really revamped your body. That was a big theme throughout the book, your physical changes as your emotions started coming out. You wrote about this scene like this, I have to read it even though it’s a little bit long because it was so beautiful. “When I looked into the eyes of Olivia and Claire now” -- those are your daughters, obviously you know that; those are his daughters [laughter] -- “I felt something slipping away, my hands unwrapping from theirs. It drained me and dissipated in the crack beneath the front door like the vanishing sunlight. If this were a film playing out and the camera panned, you would see a family of four standing silently by the front door with no sense of whether they were coming or going. Pulling farther back, a set of upset kitchen chairs lying on their backs. And then drifting above the house, the gnarled branches of leafless trees hovering over a roof where chattering squirrels pranced and mocked a barking dog. Just beyond this house were other similar homes where warm yellow lights began to illuminate windows and the headlights of cars cast yellow triangles in the dark driveways. Behind the doors of those houses, you might hear the muffled cries of excited children running toward the front door holding out their hands and shouting, ‘Daddy’s home.’” That was so beautiful. Tell me more about that scene. By showing it in that way, you're really suggesting who knows what's going on in all the other homes, right?
William: Exactly. That chapter, that was the second time that I used that technique of pulling back the camera and looking at life from a different angle. I wanted the reader to be able to see it that way. The first time, I was on top of a slide with my daughter Olivia. She was young, four years old. She wanted to go down the slide. She was afraid to do it. I said, “I’ll go with you.” We climbed up to the top of the slide. We could see the playground from a bird’s eye view. Then the second time, I used this technique where my ex-wife and my daughters have discovered a bag of syringes and these steroids I was taking. I used that technique there because for me, it was an out-of-body experience. That's what it felt like. This scene was a memory before it even played out.
Sometimes things affect us that way. The slide and this discovery of these steroids were sort of the same thing. We were up at the top. We were in this beautiful home in this beautiful neighborhood, all the things that we always wanted. Here I was with Sophie on top of this slide. It was inevitable that we were going to slide down. There might be ruination at the end of that slide. Sophie said, “Daddy, please don't let go as I go down the slide.” Somebody waxed it. I couldn’t hold onto her. You have to decide. Are you going to hold onto your child and possibly crush her, or do you let go? This is what was happening. We never know what's happening in people's home. We just see these beautiful exteriors.
Zibby: You let go of her, right?
William: I let go. I had to let go. She tumbled. Here again this other time, I was in a way letting go because my daughters discovered this terrible secret that I was holding. I knew in that instant that eventually I was going to have to let go of them to rescue myself. Otherwise, I would crush them. Things happen in other people's homes that we’re unaware of. Who knows what was playing out in all the other houses in our neighborhood at that time.
Zibby: It was really beautiful. When your ex-wife Katherine confronts you about being gay, she finally says, “Okay. Are you gay?” You come out to her by simply admitting, “I don't want to be.” Tell me about that moment in the car.
William: It seems like such a simple statement. It was something that took me -- Katherine was the first person that I came out to. I tried to come out to my mother decades previous. There is a chapter about that. There was this heaviness that was over us since that previous chapter. I think we both knew what was going on with our marriage. I used an analogy. It was like Jenga. Each of us were pulling out blocks, but we both silently agreed not to pull out the one that would destroy our marriage. There comes a point where you have to ask that question. I wasn’t even able to say, “I'm gay.” I had to say the opposite of that. “I don't want to be.” For my entire life, I had tried so hard not to be. I knew the answer would crush her. I tried to be as honest as possible. It seemed like an eternity between her asking and me answering. I knew at that point, when you love someone, you can't continue to lie to them. I had to give her the truth knowing that would be the sledgehammer that would crush our marriage. At the same time, when you tell the truth after lying for so many years, there's this lightness that you feel because you finally told someone. It was such a strange, raw emotion to tell the person who you love, who you've been with, that this is who you are. This might be the end of us.
Zibby: Later in the book, people ask you why did it take you so long? Why was it so hard? You list many reasons. I'm going to take out some of your curse words just in case anybody's listening with their kids, which I doubt anyway at this point of this interview. “Because my mother ****** me over every single day by saying being gay was disgusting and that I would never be happy. Because I thought being gay was disgusting and if I was gay, I was disgusting. Because I thought I would go to hell. Because religion ****** me over by telling me my feelings were sinful. Because I was broken.” This is a continuation on the rest. All of those things building up, is that what made it so hard to admit everything? There are many reasons, I'm sure.
William: It was all of those reasons. Again, those were all the absolutes that I had learned growing up. They were a part of me. I actually thought those things when Claire was going to bed and she asked me, “Are you going to tell your mother? Why did you wait so long?” That's when it hit me. All of these absolutes that I thought were truths were all lies. When that hits you and you're looking at your daughter, putting her to bed, and you realize the pain that they're going to experience and that you've created, I think that's why so many of the f-bombs make it into that statement. I had to let it out in my head. When we force someone to be somebody they're not, we’re not just hurting that person. There's collateral damage. That collateral damage was Katherine and my daughters. All of those supposed truths and absolutes were just lies. That's an important message in this book, to learn what the truth is.
Zibby: Someone who's a teenager now, do you think things have changed enough that they could avoid this whole trajectory? Do you think it varies by what part of the country you're in? I know you grew up in the South. To someone who's of that age, would they have to go through it? What do you think?
William: It still happens. I know it still happens. In certain parts of the country, certainly it is still occurring, especially in the South. Because of the different articles and essays I've published, I hear from people who are going through this. I hear from teenagers and twenty-year-olds who are still trying to figure out how to come out. I think it’s lessened, which is great. There is this entire generation like me who made this promise back in the seventies and eighties that they were going to get married to a woman, or it’s a woman who is going to get married to a man. They were going to stick with that promise. Then little by little, you build an entire life on that. How can you then roll that back or destroy it?
Zibby: It can be tough. Luckily -- I shouldn't say it’s luck. Fortunately, you end up falling in love and starting this new relationship. You detail the beginning of dating and all of that. Now you've ended up in this beautiful relationship with Paul. You're married. The five kids and all of you laying on the ground -- is that giving it away? I can take this portion out.
William: No, certainly not. That's fine.
Zibby: It’s so nice. I know it’s your life. Can I give away your life? [laughter] You can go on Instagram and see that you're happy. How great is it? This is such an inspiration, this whole story of yours. It’s never too late, really, is it? You only have one life.
William: That's right. I was forty-three when I came out. Now at fifty-five, my first book will be out. It’s a testament that it’s never too late. It isn’t ever too late to become your true self, to become your authentic self. It took a lot of work to get there. It was really important to end this book with a celebration. When you're in the closet, you have these celebrations, but you never truly celebrate. Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, they're all celebrations. When you're in closet, you're not celebrating those completely. I think that's why the queer community, LGBTQ people take so much pride in celebrating. June is Pride Month. It’s a time for celebration because we want to not only be accepted and tolerated, but celebrated because for our life, we don't get to do that. When you come out, you can have these celebrations. It was like my world exploded. Then all the pieces came back together in a way that made sense. With that scene with Paul and all of our kids, we’re laying on the dance floor looking up at these paper lanterns that Paul hung up for our wedding. They look like a constellation of planets. That’s the way it felt that we were. We were suddenly this constellation in this new universe that really worked.
Zibby: That's so nice. Oh, my gosh. What a story. Do you have any advice for people who are trying to write their own stories like this, or people who may still be in the closet and they're not sure what to do?
William: Yes. [laughs] Those are two separate good questions.
Zibby: I wasn’t going to ask the other one, but maybe if people are listening, maybe there are moms out there sending this to friends. I don't know. Who knows?
William: They're related in a way.
Zibby: Even if it helps one person.
William: For anybody who's still in the closet, I want them to know it’s never too late. It is really never too late. I have spoken to men and women in their fifties, sixties, seventies. They're going through this. It’s never too late to tell the truth. I do believe that it’s really important to tell the truth, even if that means sort of hurting relationships because that person that you're with doesn't really know who you are anyway. You deserve to give them that truth. If you truly love them, you deserve to give them that truth. You deserve to tell yourself.
The other thing for writers -- this is how it’s connected. For writers, I would say write the thing that you think you cannot say. Once you put that down on the paper, you gain power over the truth. That's what I had to do in this book. I had to write the thing I couldn't say. It’s so much scarier in your head than it is on the page. Once it’s on the page and you look at it, you're like, “Okay. I've got you. You're not a monster anymore. I can tame you.” I would say for writers to do that and to never give up. When people tell you your story’s not compelling or your writing is nothing special -- I've heard those things before. Don't give up. That's your story. Nobody can tell it the way that you can.
Zibby: Beautiful. Have you seen these ads -- this is so random -- I feel like they're for Verizon, about people who are coming out and calling their families? They're saying it’s never too late to call back and tell someone that they love you.
William: I actually have not seen that.
Zibby: Oh, my gosh. We’re going to turn this off. I'm going to play this for you. You're going to cry.
William: I probably will.
Zibby: I cried watching. It might not even be Verizon. I don't even know who it is. It’s some phone company. I’ll show it to you next.
William: That's fantastic. [laughs]
Zibby: Free publicity, perhaps, for Verizon, if it’s even that. What is coming next for you now, as a last question? Are you going to write another? What's next? I know you have a big job anyway in your real life.
William: Yes, I do. I have my day job as an IT director with a wonderful firm. I have to say my firm has been so supportive. My first actual book reading event was for my firm at a corporate retreat. They asked me to read to them. They're so supportive, as my family has also been of this book. It’s actually healed old wounds with my daughters and with my mother. They have all come out in support of it. I feel like I've already succeeded, so that's good. The next step is the book actually comes out publicly July 1st. I've got a list of places that I'm going to go and tour. I have an essay coming out in The New York Times on June 14th for Father’s Day, which is wonderful. Next, I am going to write another book. I have decided to write, however, a novel that's based on true life. My aunt was a lesbian. Her uncle was gay. His aunt was a lesbian. We have this long queer line that goes through our family. We have all these stories that are yearning to be told that just haven't been told. My mother is so into ancestry.com. She has found out everything about them, where they’ve been, what they’ve done, who they lived with. I'm going to fictionalize that and create a novel between two aunts and two nephews and two different generations.
Zibby: That's great. Thank you so much for sharing your story with the world and for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
William: Thank you so much.