Manufacturing Lies: Dina Nayeri on How Our Cultural and Bureaucratic Norms Often Betray the Truth
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Writer Dina Nayeri joins co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss her new nonfiction book, Who Gets Believed?: When the Truth Isn’t Enough, an examination of whose narratives are considered trustworthy and why, with a focus on refugees and asylum seekers. Nayeri, who was born in Iran and granted asylum to the US when she was ten, talks about the case of a Sri Lankan Tamil man who sought asylum in the UK in 2011, and how British officials failed to believe his story of torture.
She also describes her childhood feeling of performing a role in her new American home, as well as the origins of her own skepticism—and how a personal tragedy led her to reassess how much she could trust even herself. She reads from her new book.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Rachel Layton and Anne Kniggendorf.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: The topic of your book seems timeless, but it’s also really urgent with asylum seekers and refugees surging in number all over the world. Who Gets Believed opens with a short meditation on believability and evidence—specifically scar imagery—and then that section concludes with the lines, “I am an unbeliever but I see that now.” I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what it means to be an unbeliever and how not only your own experience as an asylum seeker but also your own skepticism shaped your approach to writing the book.
Dina Nayeri: I guess one of the biggest things I learned about myself—not just over the course of writing the book, but over the last few years—is that there’s something about the quality of my experiences over the last couple of decades that have made me a skeptic because of the fact that I’ve been in so many situations where I’ve had to perform for a different audience starting from when I was a child asylum seeker. And coming to terms with this cynicism has been a very long process that has had me questioning things like my faith, my spirituality, my relationships with other people, and my relationship with myself.
The obsession with the ideas around being believed and belief started when I was a kid. We were, like you said, in Iran, and then we had to escape the country. Over the course of the two years that we were on our way to our new life in America, when we were refugees, asylum seekers, I saw us degrading in the eyes of the outside world.
I saw that we had been people who were respected and trusted and we weren’t anymore. And I became obsessed with how to be that again, or how to—as an adult—be the right kind of American enough. I was constantly aware of all of the different doors and the gatekeepers beside them, and I became obsessed with that.
We had started with things like universities, you know. “Where will I go? Which class of American will I be? What rooms will I be allowed into?” And then throughout my life it kind of cemented for me that each of these places has their performance and you have to learn and adapt to become, I guess, a bit of a chameleon. I think I didn’t see myself becoming a… I don’t know the right word. Is it cynic, really? But definitely very cynical, very questioning.
Always wondering if a person is telling me the truth and always wondering if what I’m getting is a performance that other people think that I want. I felt this way until very recently. What was difficult about this book was that I was examining so many stories of people who were tragically disbelieved. And I was digging in this sort of detached, journalistic way and thinking about the ideas behind it—meditating on them.
And then the whole tragedy came to our door, in that we had this huge family tragedy in the middle of the pandemic, which I talked about in the book. He was a person who I didn’t believe at all. He took his own life, and… I should have believed him. I was absolutely wrong. For a long time, I lost trust in myself and my judgment. For a long time, I went back and grieved my own arrogance and who I had been.
A lot of that reflection worked its way into the book; I felt that I couldn’t be honest without it. It’s a very long-winded way to answer that question, but that’s why I wrote that first page. Because we don’t always believe the evidence that’s right before our eyes. You mentioned scars—scars are often disbelieved, and many of our scars are not even visible. So I wanted to write about my biases right up from the front.
Whitney Terrell: One of the things that I feel like you’re talking about in the book—you can correct me if I’m wrong in my reading—is that someone who’s an outsider, like a refugee or an immigrant, is going to know the system better than the people who are inside. They have to learn it to negotiate it, right? It’s more explicit to them. They have to pay attention to it. I talk about this when I write about women who are working in the military. But you’re also talking about the way that truth is manufactured or expressed—or the things that we take to be markers as truth—are not necessarily worth believing in. Western ways of producing truth deserve to be questioned.
It seems to me like that’s at the core of what you’re talking about here, in addition to looking at the system by which we go through to establish truth. One of those really interesting examples… You have refugees and immigrants in the book, but they are these two men who were accused of burning down their house with their families in it, right? You talk about what caused them to not be believed.
And one of the things that you’re talking about is the Reid technique—which I have seen on television, as you pointed out. It’s one of our ways of establishing truth, but it’s a very dangerous way of establishing truth. I wonder if you could talk about that.
DN: Sure. Before I go into that, I just want to say that one of the things that shocked me about those two men who were accused of burning down their own houses was just the fact that the whole thing hinged on how they performed their grief. It was all about, “You’re not shocked enough; you’re not stunned enough; you’re too mellow or you’re not mellow enough.” In fact, the two of them each had gone a different way—one of them was too calm and one of them was too agitated and shocked to the officers. And it just felt absurd.
The Reid technique is… I learned about it for this book and I realized, right off the bat, that I had seen it on television a lot, too. It’s kind of, I guess, what we casually call “the third degree,” which is this technique that officers use to get information from their suspect. And the idea is that they go in having decided that this person did it, and their goal—the original purpose of this technique—is to extract physical information. Evidence that will help them prove that this person did it.
But the evidence is supposed to be something that is just undeniable. So they go in, they perform this technique, and then their goal is to get the location of a body, a weapon, some kind of evidence that can definitely show that they were right.
And if they find that, if the person gives them that, of course it does prove that they were right. So what they do is go in and say, “There’s no question about your guilt, you’re definitely going to prison for a long time. We believe you did it.” And they say the worst possible reason, the worst possible outcome, and the worst possible punishment. And then they come in now that the person is frightened and despairing and thinking, “Oh my God, there’s no way to get out of this.”
So the officers come in and say, “Well, you know what, though, I want to help you. I don’t want you to go down for this, I know that you’re a good guy inside. I know it was just that one time or that you made a mistake and you were trying to do good. If you just help me out to make this particular reason stick, which is a reason that’s more understandable, things can go easier for you.”
WT: The officers can lie, right? I mean, that’s the thing. This method of establishing truth–a confession is our gold standard of truth–creates false confessions, as your book shows. And the people who are employing this method don’t have to tell the truth.
DN: They don’t have to tell the truth, and then they get the false confession. There’s people who were put through this—like the example in my book—where they’re on the autism spectrum. The people believe every single thing that they’re being told. They’re frightened and they don’t know how to respond to these extremely well-trained people.
And so there’s a lot of false confession, but here’s the thing. The officers don’t then use those confessions to go and find real evidence to test themselves. There’s no gut check anymore. They use that confession as the evidence. You see the logical flaw there, right? Because obviously the confession itself was never the purpose when this technique was devised, but now it’s used in courts as the evidence that they got.
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