December 2, 2022 | OPINION | By Evelina Levy | Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster
If you’re in any of the same media circles as me, you’ve probably heard of the TV show “Tell Me Lies.” Despite taking place primarily in 2007, the Hulu-original feels almost offensively targeted towards our situationship-obsessed generation.
The elevator pitch goes as follows: sexy, emotionally stunted college freshman Lucy enters a preppy liberal arts school and is immediately pursued by a similarly sexy, similarly emotionally stunted junior Stephen. He really sees her — the parts of her that no one else sees.
What follows is a horny game of intrigue and a slow yet scathing tale of self-destruction. Lucy will do anything to maintain Stephen’s interest. Stephen will do anything to get what he wants at any given moment. Somehow, there’s a highly suspicious and fatal car crash involved. It’s the kind of show that reviewers love to call “propulsive”. Whatever that means, they’re totally right.
For me, Tell Me Lies started as a distraction and morphed into something of a lifestyle. I became obsessed with identifying the “Stephens” in my friend’s and my lives. The men who roped us in with promises of how special we are, how much we “understood them,” before stringing us through an endless cycle of intermittent validation.
The men who merited eyerolls from exasperated friends at any mention of their name (while all genders are capable of this behavior, it’s much more satisfying to generalize men, so forgive my binary approach). There was no way Stephen wasn’t real. How could he not be? He’s all around!
A quick Google search and I had my answer. “Tell Me Lies” is based on a 2018 book by Carola Lovering, a CC alum from the class of 2011. The relationship, though deeply fictionalized, is inspired by a man she dated at the time. The school, she maintains, is unrelated.
In a confessional article in New York Magazine, Lovering writes, “It had started with his hungry stare at a party in college years earlier, which morphed into his unabashed, almost manic pursuit of me. His approach was different than that of any guy I’d ever met and my reaction surprised me: I became obsessed with the feeling of being wanted, and it persisted, even when I learned, through the grapevine, that I wasn’t the only girl…He was like blood from a cut that refused to heal; he kept reminding me that he was there, that he still wanted me, that he could change, that our future held limitless possibilities. He itched, I scratched, blood pooled, and the cycle began again.”
The connection felt fated. I Instagram DMed Carola asking for an interview. What follows are excerpts from a 30-minute conversation I had with her about turning pain into writing, finding community in shameful experiences, and loving yourself first.
The Catalyst: How did writing the character of Lucy help you connect and better understand your college self?
Carola Lovering: “I started writing when I was 24 — so college was pretty fresh in my mind when I wrote this. That’s why I was able to be so honest with the content. I had a lot of feelings and thoughts that I needed to process about hookup culture in college. Ways that I felt, ways that I had been treated, just certain relationships and dynamics that I experienced which left me feeling very unsettled and like I had a lot to say. Writing this was really cathartic for me and really helped me process some hard experiences that I went through in college.”
C: What did your writing process look like? Did you find writing the book to be similar to the process of journaling?
CL: “I started writing this as a collection of vignettes. Each chapter was a different story that took place during college for Lucy and Stephen. That’s how it started and I didn’t know if I wanted to turn it into a novel or what. I kind of just gained momentum and then decided, ‘I think I might have something here. I want to make this into something.’ I started to fuse these separate stories together to become a novel. It started out more personal and then, once I got my agent, we added more plot and storylines.”
C: How does it feel to have a fictional story, which many people relate to, based on your real-life experience?
CL: “It’s something that I was really nervous about when the book first came out in 2018 and I think I’ve just gotten used to it. You have to have a thick skin if you’re gonna be a writer. If you’re gonna put something out there, people are gonna judge your work. There’s really nothing you can do about it. I’m always honest with anyone who asks that the dynamic between Lucy and Stephen is definitely something I’ve experienced, something that’s personal to me. Not that what happens in the book is real, but that it’s based on personal inspiration. I also try to be honest with the fact that there’s so much in this book that’s not from my personal life.”
C: How did it feel to write a selection of chapters from Stephen’s perspective? Was it difficult to enter the mind of a narcissist? And where did you look for inspiration for his personal narrative?
CL: “It was more of an intriguing experiment for me to go into the mindset of someone like that. I obviously can’t claim that that’s exactly what a guy like Stephen would be thinking. I didn’t know who he was until I got in his head and decided that he was going to be a sociopath in many ways. But he also has a lot of repressed feelings and trauma and that’s how I decided a guy like that would look at the world and his relationships and justify his behaviors. It was fun but it was also cathartic to write those chapters. It helped me understand how I had gotten myself into a situation like that and what a person like that would be thinking. Why would he be leading a girl like Lucy on for so long?”
C: Do you think any parts of this narrative are unique to Colorado College?
CL: “Honestly, no. Maybe there’s a part of the story that’s unique to a small liberal arts college, where you know most people on campus and everyone’s seeing each other at the same parties. Everything can feel insular, you’re unable to avoid people. But, no, I didn’t see it as unique to CC. I’ve received so many messages from people who said that it’s scary how much they relate to Lucy, how familiar that relationship is. That’s probably the most rewarding part of this book. At first, it was surprising to me. There’s so much shame surrounding being in a relationship like this, if you can even call it that. People don’t really talk about it. I know I didn’t. It’s humiliating, you’re debasing yourself. Especially now that the show is out, one of their taglines is “Everyone has a Stephen”. It’s true. Most people have some form of a person like this in their life. This toxic relationship, unfortunately, exists everywhere. Especially when you’re young, in college, and having these formative experiences. It’s easy to mistake excitement, newness, and passion for deeper feelings.”
C: Is there a piece of advice you’d give Lucy?
CL: “I always wonder what college would be like for me now that I’m such a healthier person. I would just say — love yourself first. Self-love is something I struggled with finding in college. That journey to self-love is what the book “Tell Me Lies” is about. Don’t give energy to anyone who chips away at your self-worth. Just don’t give them the time of day.”