By the time this photo was taken circa 1974 in Great Neck, New York I was a practiced liar. Not that I invented a whole new persona for myself like my father. His lies were meant to seek attention and admiration from others as the person he fantasized being. My lies were meant to conceal my activities and inner life from my father and step family during the rocky period I lived with them November 1972 to June 1974.
Not that lying was anything new. At about age four, when we lived in Venice, California, I climbed on a set of glass shelves to reach for something in the bathroom medicine cabinet and slipped, breaking a shelf. A piece of broken glass embedded in my foot as I fell to the floor and hit my head on the toilet. The commotion brought my mother to the scene. She saw my bloody foot and yelled at me. Scared of her fury I lied and told her the shelves had fallen on top of me. “All by themselves?” she asked. I remember looking at the shelves and realizing they probably couldn’t do that all by themselves.
Later that year an older playmate and I were taking turns digging a hole in my backyard with my father’s dirt shovel. It was her turn when we got into a spat and she lunged the shovel toward me as a warning. In an instant the heavy shovel broke free of her grip and struck me as it flew, gashing my head just below my right eyebrow before clanging to the ground. As blood flowed from my head she begged me to not to tell and I promised I wouldn’t. My mother and grandmother came running outside shouting “what happened?” and through streaming blood and sobs I told them the shovel flew up and hit me in the eye when I stepped on it by accident. On the way to the hospital, during recovery from emergency plastic surgery and during the weeks leading up to the follow-up visit to remove the stitches, a painful procedure, I stuck to my story.
Sometimes it was possible to put off the moment of telling an outright lie. Still in Venice, CA, the same neighbor girl and I got the idea to slither on our bellies under the crawl space of my family’s rented house with flashlights to see what was under there. Finding nothing, we emerged, eyes blinking in adjustment to the sunlight, with torn and filthy dresses and two pairs of ruined shoes and socks. I don’t recall what my friend did but I was able to scoot undetected down the hall to my room and quickly change then wash up in the bathroom before my mother got home and paid the babysitter, a lazy woman who spent the day watching TV while my older brother and I had adventures with other unsupervised kids in the neighborhood. I hid the little bundle of dirty clothes and ruined shoes under my bed where they remained undiscovered for months.
To remember the details of a lie I learned to believe the lie was what really had happened. Of course I knew it hadn’t happened, at least at first, but I practiced living as if it had, spending hours developing an elaborate fictional version of the real event that fully accounted for the lie and going over it again and again in my mind until it felt like the true version. I got so good at it that to this day I can’t always remember which version was the lie and which was the truth. I’m pretty sure my father also experienced this sort of confusion.
As I got older I lied more out of habit than fear, sometimes lying for no good reason. Walking home from Sunday school one Fall morning in Somerville, New Jersey circa 1965, I stopped at the bridge overlooking a brook near our apartment complex and saw some boys my age, about 7 or 8, playing in piles of new fallen leaves along one bank of the brook. They called up to me to jump down. I shook my head no. They tried again, hands cupped over their mouths, this time calling “we dare you.” I jumped and fell into a huge, soft pile of leaves. The boys whooped and laughed, pulling my arms to stand me up. I laughed too, shaking the leaves out of my hair. Then I noticed my muddy shoes. I told my mother I slipped and fell running home and got a scolding for running when I could just have well have been scolded for jumping.
For a long time I lied about mostly little things like saying I’d vacuumed when I hadn’t and saying I’d not eaten the Oreo cookies when I had. The worst lie I remember telling, at 10, was that I didn’t let our dog Jello out when she was in heat. I did let her out. I did it on purpose because I wanted her to have puppies more than anything in the world; that Winter morning the pups were born was the happiest day of my life.
Later, at 12, I started lying about more serious things like smoking and drinking and where I went out with my friends.
In 1973, at 15, I told a lie that set an irreversible chain of events in motion. It happened because I forged my father’s signature on several school absence excuses for the days I skipped school to go sailing or take trips to Manhattan with my best friend. I came home from school one afternoon to find my father and stepmother waiting for me with the forged excuses laid out on the kitchen table. Busted, I blurted out that I was recovering from a miscarriage, shocking them both. It took a few minutes for me to register the fallout of this announcement, to absorb the looks of disgust on their faces and feel the balance of step-family opinion tipping in favor of removing me from the household. In terms of damage control, I had grossly miscalculated which of the two scenarios, playing hooky versus getting pregnant, would be more palatable to my parents. I wanted to take my words back, but it was too late. I either had to stick to the story or admit the lie and I couldn’t admit telling such a preposterous lie. Not because I was ashamed of lying: the bonds of trust were broken long ago. I didn’t want to tell them the truth because I didn’t want them to know a single true thing about me, including the stupid extremes I was willing to go to in concealing the adolescent behavior most of my friends and I were up to right under their noses. At least that was how it felt at the time. From a distance of nearly forty years, I see the lie more clearly as a coded message of protest against my father for marrying a woman who openly resented me, and, after all but abandoning the role in his former life, rising to the occasion as a father figure with an erased past. I was too young to challenge my father’s new version of reality let alone its unhappy effect in further distancing him from me as a father, but I did behave as if something had gone wrong with the picture.
Not long after this incident my step-family had a meeting to discuss my behavior and decided that I had to leave. On the surface, this decision was a logical one arising from the situation at hand. My father and stepmother were struggling as a new blended family raising two other adolescent children and didn’t need the stress involved in parenting an alienated, uncooperative child of my father’s previous marriage. At a deeper level it wasn’t an immediate decision at all but a gradual, inevitable outcome of years of troubled family history.
Struggling to gain a foothold as a prematurely emancipated adult ended my short career as a liar. I wish I could point to some kind of moral epiphany, but the truth is that lying just wasn’t necessary anymore. In relationships with other people outside of my family of origin I formed bonds of trust based on mutual honesty. If you trust someone and they trust you, there’s no need for lies. At least not important ones. Like everyone else, I’ve told some lies in the ensuing years, like calling in sick to take a mental health day or making up an excuse to decline a social obligation. And in the past I’ve been guilty of dishonesty in avoiding or delaying painful transitions in personal relationships. But for the most part, I avoid lying, even to myself.
Note: this is a true story, but I changed a couple minor details to protect privacy.