“Tell the Truth But Tell it Slant:” Advice from Emily Dickinson

At Heliotrope University in Weeder’s Clump, Illinois, there lives an outstanding college professor named James Canada. Dr. Canada teaches health science and has an international reputation as an educator, scholar, and lecturer. Owing to his vast knowledge and wisdom, Jim is regarded by his students as being a university all by himself. His wife brags that he is the only professor on the Heliotrope campus who has ideas the instant he awakens in the morning. Jim is incredibly successful at obtaining lucrative government grants for summer expeditions to search for the philosopher’s stone, the fountain of youth, and the elixir of life. 


One year, however, Dr. Canada and his wife Mary decided to devote the summer to the education of their five-year-old daughter, an intense, precocious child named Alberta. Dr. Canada and Mary are faithful disciples of John Locke and his emphasis on the importance of experience. Consequently, they planned to take little Alberta to various places of interest and importance in America and to meet famous and accomplished people. They had also agreed that they would always tell Alberta the truth, believing John 8:32, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Furthermore, they were determined that Alberta would not be limited by a culture that was defined by gaudy, trashy, superficial, and narcissistic values.

They decided to start the summer with a visit to Graceland, and from there take her to meet such famous people as John McEnroe, Tonya Harding, Pia Zadora, Willie Nelson, Hugh Hefner, Walter Brennan, Dolly Parton, and Ephraim Zimbalist, Jr. 

When they arrived at Graceland, Mary Canada had developed a bad headache, and so she could not accompany Jim and Alberta in their tour of the mansion. Jim was delighted to take charge of the bright, lively, outspoken Alberta, who had survived “The Terrible Twos” and had reached that delicate stage where nature’s intellectual aggressiveness manifests itself in the forming of a healthy human brain. Alberta was especially good at linear thinking and literal meaning. 

Although there were Elvis Presley items everywhere in the mansion, Jim and Alberta stood staring for a long time at a large portrait of a young Elvis, who had that famous sullen, underprivileged look on his face. Marlon Brando introduced that look, James Dean added a few refinements to it, and Elvis perfected it to make him a beloved celebrity throughout the world. Jim Canada wondered how Elvis could have maintained the sullen, underprivileged look in his later years since he was rich and famous and everyone called him “The King.”

Since the mansion was furnished like a home, Alberta then asked a difficult but logical question, “When is he coming back?” 

Believing in answering Alberta’s questions truthfully, “Jim said, “He isn’t coming back. He’s dead.”

Given Elvis’ youthful appearance in the portrait, Alberta asked another logical question: “What bad guys killed Elvis?”

Getting a bit nervous because Alberta’s voice was becoming louder, Jim answered, “Bad guys didn’t kill Elvis. Drugs did. His heart couldn’t take it, and he died.”

“ELVIS TOOK DRUGS?” Alberta asked in a voice that could be heard everywhere in the mansion. “I don’t believe it. Why would Elvis take drugs?”

Again, Jim tried to be truthful. He said, “Alberta, many people in the entertainment business have trouble with drugs.”

Sometimes when children think adults are holding something back from them, they become loud, impossible, and demanding. And this one was of those times. Alberta shouted, “I don’t believe Elvis took drugs!”

By this time a crowd of angry, grim looking people had surrounded Jim and Alberta. The people were mainly middle-aged women and grandmothers who were convinced that Elvis loved them, but one person stood out from the rest. He was an Elvis impersonator. The portly fellow, who looked like he took all of his meals at Burger King, stepped up to Jim, pointed a mean finger in his face, and said, “Look, Dude, you know, society killed Elvis, you know.”

Jim didn’t know what to say, and the Elvis impersonator continued, “Dude, society expected, you know, too much of Elvis. You know, he gave and gave until, you know, Dude, he couldn’t give any more. You know, Dude, nobody dast blame Elvis for, you know, dying young.”

Then the ersatz Elvis removed his dark glasses, bent down, turned to Alberta, took out a picture of Sinead O’Connor, and said, “Little girl, you know, if you don’t stop asking those questions about The King, you’re going to, you know, look like the lady in this picture.” 

Before Alberta could open her mouth to respond—and Alberta was not in the least intimidated by threats of any kind—Jim lifted her up and raced out of the mansion, barely escaping the wrath of the Elvis worshippers.

When Jim and Alberta rejoined Mary, Jim explained the close call father and daughter had at Graceland. Jim summed up the experience as if it were a cautionary tale: “It is important to respect the truth; however, the truth need not be made into a blunt instrument.”

[Author’s note: The incident above is true. Jim Canada, himself, told me the story; however, I have changed the names to protect the innocent.]


Dr. Loren Logsdon is the much-loved English professor who has inspired students at Western Illinois University and Eureka College for many years. He lives in Eureka with his wife, Mary, and writes a weekly story for the Woodford County News Bulletin.