Commentary: House of Lies — the uncanny allure of 'Girl on the Train'

Everybody lies. Studies show that we engage in deception two times day on average — and that’s not just “yes-your-hair-looks-great” pleasantries, but actual lies meant to mislead people on matters of at least passing consequence. And here’s an even more unsettling bit of news: The closer the relationship, the bigger the whoppers. As University of Virginia psychologist Bella DePaulo puts it, “You save your really big lies for the person that you're closest to.” Ouch.

Emily Bunt plays the title character in 'Girl on a Train.' Barry Wetcher/Universal Pictures

In English, the word “romance” describes a love affair; in French, a work of fiction. The connection doesn’t seem accidental.

Perhaps that’s why we’re fascinated by tales that dramatize links between love and lying. The latest exemplar is Girl on the Train, a new film based on Paula Hawkins’s 2015 bestselling thriller, which follows in the path of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s 2012 blockbuster, brought to the screen in 2014 by director David Fincher. Both feature unreliable narrators and irreconcilable accounts of reality.

At a time when issues of “he said/she said” are beamed into our homes daily in the form of Donald Trump’s breathtaking distortions and denials and Hillary Clinton’s artful dodges, the sense of fractured reality is particularly acute at this moment in history. Everywhere we turn, we’re being told not the way it is, but the way it most likely isn’t.

Both Gone Girl and Girl on the Train present a missing woman, a man fingered for murder and characters who have a less-than-firm grip on the truth. But they are more than formulaic crime stories — each delves into the deceptions baked into our traditional roles as men and women and the harrowing dynamics of marriages gone sour. They concern not only the lies we tell each other, but those we tell ourselves and the masks we wear for the benefit of society. Each hints at a dark truth: Particularly in matters of love, perhaps none of us can be trusted.

In Girl on the Train, Rachel Watson is devastated by her inability to have a child with her ex-husband Tom, who has left her for his lover, Anna. Rachel is a pretender: She takes the train every day to convince her roommate that she is off to work.

In reality she has lost her job because of drinking. She spends her days hitting the bottle, seething with jealousy over Anna, who has had Tom’s baby, and fantasizing about the seemingly perfect married life of Megan Hipwell, a young wife whose home she observes from the window.

A mystery develops when Megan disappears and the police suspect her husband has killed her. Rachel, Anna and Megan each tell the story from her point of view. None, we gradually realize, has a full claim on the truth. Rachel’s credibility is hampered by her frequent boozy blackouts. Megan is hiding a dark secret from her past. Anna mistakenly believes her marriage is picture perfect.

Gone Girl, the biggest literary sensation of 2012 after Fifty Shades of Grey, revolves around the disappearance of Amy Dunne and the alternate accounts of events from her husband Nick’s present-day perspective and Amy’s diary entries of the past. The two unhappy marrieds don’t agree on much: Amy presents Nick as a moody, aggressive jerk; he describes her as an anti-social Type A. In the second half of the story, we learn that neither character is reliable.  

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The delicious whirl of a psychological thriller gives audiences the chance to dance around a little yearned-for truth and reconciliation. If we’re not going to get it in the public arena, perhaps we could have it in the private realm of love.

Questions pop out of the vertiginous twists and turns: Should marriage be a life-sentence? Does a man have to want to be a breadwinner to be a good husband? Must a woman want to be a mother to be a good wife? If monogamy is not our thing, do we pretend otherwise? How do we reconcile the different layers of our identities? What are the risks of telling the truth? Do we even know what the truth is?

Girl on the Train and Gone Girl feature women hampered by their desire to project perfect images as wife, lover or mother (or all three). In Gone Girl, Amy’s troubled adulthood seems rooted in a false narrative inflicted upon her in her early years by her parents, who wrote children’s books of a perfect little girl based on her life. She was not a perfect little girl, nor does she grow up to be a perfect wife. But she’s exceedingly skilled in inventing charismatic personas to fulfill the fantasies of the men around her. And Nick’s no saint himself.

Amy rises up as a kind of fury against him, unleashing the rage of eons of women who could not manage to be perfect wives and mothers. What’s different is that she’s a woman of the 21st century. She’s got the better part of both the money and the brains in her marriage — and the thirst for revenge. Nick is outmatched.

In Girl on the Train, Megan, who looks to have an ideal marriage, is actually unhappy with her controlling husband, engaged in multiple affairs and plagued by the memory of negligently drowning a secret child. All the women in the tale try to be the perfect feminine object for Tom, who turns out to be quite different from what he seems. His smooth and charming mask is intact only until someone asks him to take responsibility for his reckless behavior. Like Nick, he is outmatched — but far more deserving of what he gets.

In both Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, the fictions we create as lovers and partners are a driving force in relationships, the mechanisms by which we seek to redress some perceived imbalance of power. If good relationships are about reciprocity, deception is something that throws the balance out of whack. One person’s lying or betrayal triggers another person’s withdrawal or quest for retribution.

If a man feels trapped in his role as monogamous husband, he may attempt to right this perceived wrong by sneaking off to a lover. If a woman feels betrayed by the demands of her role as wife and by her husband’s lies, she, too, may seek to right her wrongs. In the past, she may not have gotten far. But the shifting roles of men and women may be altering how we view the truth of our relationships. Some lies may be less tolerated, and certain contradictions cry out for resolution, even violent ones.

A breezy disregard for the truth, for example, was long seen the privilege of men — a kind of “he who makes the rules gets to break them” clause in matters of morality. In 1998, President Bill Clinton survived his lies about extramarital liaisons. In 2016, former-Representative Anthony Weiner will not.

Trump has long cultivated a kind of old-school Mad Men masculinity, where contortions of reality in matters large and small are the prerogatives of men in positions of power. But today, that doesn’t fly so much with women. And it just may cost him his path to the White House. Like the fictional Nick and Tom, he could find himself outmatched by a powerful female.

In recent decades, women have assumed more power in every realm, including love. The time for accepting “boys will be boys” hypocrisy is passing, helped along by technology that thwarts the most practiced deceivers. As women participate in the writing of the rules, they may have more confidence in their own perspectives.

This power can be wielded for good or ill: In Girl on a Train, Rachel’s increased ability to trust her own memories stops a murderer in his tracks, in Gone Girl, a woman’s commitment to her own distorted perspective brings death and destruction.

The immense popularity of stories like Gone Girl and Girl on the Train make one thing undeniably clear: We’ve got an awful lot of skeletons rattling in our relationship closets. But both offer that the truth, eventually, will out.

The question remains: Will reality follow fiction?

About the Author

Lynn Stuart Parramore is a contributing editor at AlterNet, co-founder of Recessionwire and founding editor of New Deal 2.0 and She is the author of Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.