My sister and I are great liars. World-class liars. Maybe we were born with the trait (after all, our paternal grandmother's top hobby was shoplifting. Brooklyn-born Great-Aunt Sally (Jewish, like the rest of the family) pretended she was Catholic and French -- and went to the Sorbonne. She even spoke English with a Gallic lilt. A great-uncle took a new identity -- and nobody knows why.
Whatever side of the family you examine, Jill and I were born for fabrication. In childhood we had all the appropriate Psych 101 lying factors: substance abuse, instability, disappearing act -- lying was our safest course of action. In a world of quick slaps and slow forgiveness, our motto was 'admit nothing.'
"No, we didn't break the lamp!" (We did. And then precariously glued the pieces together, shrugging when our mother barely touched it it shattered.)
"Why would I take your shirt, Mom?" (Because I wanted to wear it.)
"I didn't cut school! They're crazy." (Yes, the school secretary was crazy all 22 times that term.
Eventually, I became so frightened of the consequences of upsetting my family -- eventually, of angering anybody -- that if I spoke, a lie was as likely as the truth. Lying made for an easier world. For a time it made my first marriage perfect (everything is wonderful -- really!) and kept me from examining the irrational choice I made to marry at 19. I wanted a flawless marriage, however no marriage is unflawed, so for 10 years I fibbed our relationship into an idyll. By the time I choked out some truth to my now ex-husband, it was too late to revive anything.
Fear of truth was deeply ingrained. (As a little girl, I'd lull myself to sleep with imaginary stories of lives I pretended to live, including my fantasy that my true parents were the president and his wife, who'd placed me in this Brooklyn home to test my mettle.) I went from fear of facing my mother's wrath, to fear of facing a spouse's wrath, to fear of facing boyfriend-employer-friend-sister-everyone-in-the-world's wrath. My dread of conflict lay so deep that I'd lie about any situation if it kept the peace. I didn't shift blame -- often I'd take unwarranted culpability to avoid a scene or, most of all, to avoid someone's anger. Anger -- anyone's anger -- seemed akin to the purest distillation of danger.
As I got older, lying started to seem a habit without sense. Nobody stood over me with a punishment-ready belt anymore. I began examining the practice of lying. I started wondering why I lied, when the truth was perfectly acceptable.
What I said: No, that shirt isn't new. I got it on sale three months ago. I showed you!
What I could and should have said: Yes, that shirt is new. No, it wasn't on sale.
I began examining the meaning of truth -- my search engendered by a marriage to a man who didn't want to scare me, and who wasn't frightened of my truth, and a job working with batterers, criminals, for whom lying was akin to breathing. In my study of lying, I separated social lies, meaningless lies, and awful lies. When someone asks you if they look fat or old, or if the haircut they just got looks OK, they're rarely looking for unvarnished truth -- they want reassurance. And surely one's relationship with the person should presage the answer to whether you should lie or be truthful. For instance, I could count on my now husband to tell the truth with kindness. It was a treat (if sometimes shocking) to be able to rely on someone's truth 100 percent of the time, and not to be frightened of what I'd hear.
The abusive men with whom I'd worked (for 10 years) claimed their abusive behavior was simply 'being truthful': "But she is fat, so why shouldn't I tell her, right?" From them I learned that truth isn't always right, not when it's used as a weapon. I thought about William Blake, who wrote, "A truth that's told with bad intent. Beats all the lies you can invent."
I began examining whether telling lies ever makes sense. Exploring lies is the backbone of my new book, The Comfort of Lies, the lies we tell ourselves to feel better, and the lies we think are for the protection of others, but which serve to hide our darker side.
Why and when do people lie? We lie for social reasons; because we grew up in homes where only lying made life bearable; because we're afraid to tell the truth; because we are too weak to access the truth; because we lack courage; because we are mean; because we are selfish; because we think we are being kind.
Sometimes lying is a kindness. Other times it's a true sin. I think, in the end, what good people pray for is the wisdom to know the difference and to be self-honest about one's intent.
Finally, examining lies brought home enormous truths:
I didn't have to lie anymore.
I was safe.
I was no longer 7 years old. No one will hit me, no one will get drunk, no one will scream in my face, and no one will punish me with silence. (And if they do any of those things, I can walk away.)
I was safe.
My husband doesn't even know how to lie, so we virtually have a mixed marriage. Being with him has been a lesson in learning that though my default is lying -- there's no reason for me to use that go-to. I've learned that telling the truth can be comforting. Amazing. He's learned that he has an in-house liar when he needs a social nicety fib.
It's nice to bring something to the marriage table.
After writing two novels where falsehoods have a leading role, in the end, I could only conclude that the "comfort of lies" is sometimes a necessary evil, but is usually thin consolation indeed. Living a life that doesn't require lying is a luxury. Truth is where I find my comfort these days. Being able to tell it, being able to hear it, and most of all, being in a life surrounded by reality.
And now I had a place to put my passion for duplicity. I could take all that skill, all those years of perfecting dishonesty, and put it into my work. Writing novels was where I could lie, lie, and then lie some more. I could even get paid for lying! I could not only take whatever traumatic experiences fed my lifetime of fibs, I could blow those occurrences into bigger, worse, ever-more dramatic happenings.
Finally, I had a home for my practice of deceit; I could leave a life of the comfort of lies, and instead weave them into novels.