Why I'm an Excellent Liar

In my family, you lied like your life depended on it.

Posted Jul 20, 2009

"Where did you learn to tell stories?"  Listeners and readers often ask me this and, funnily enough, I try to be honest in my response.

Here's the full story:

I come from a family of accomplished liars.

I don't say this by way of apology or warning; I say it as a preface the way somebody else might say " I come from a family of bankers" or, even more basically, "I come from New Jersey."

My father, uncles, aunts, brothers, even my long-dead shadowy mother, all lied like their lives depended on it.

You could never, ever depend on anybody to be honest about even the most minor details. You could ask "What did you have for lunch?" in all innocence, just to use your mouth while you washed the dishes with your hands and planned dinner with your head. The man, who had an egg and sweet pepper omelette, would reply " A B.L.T. on rye with a side of potato salad."

It didn't matter at all what he actually ate, you understand, the point was to fudge the truth--that was the important part of the meal, that fudging of the truth.

He would need to lie, the young man (or old man, age was never a factor) just to keep in practice. What for? Maybe for the big lie he might be expected to make one day, and which might keep him in a job ("I was out of town when they broke into the warehouse"), or married ("Amy? I don't know anybody named Amy. Somebody named Amy calls and all of a sudden I'm a criminal?"), or alive ("Officer, I swear on my mother, I have no idea how Leo died. Anybody can get run over if he walks around at night").

And it wasn't only the men in my family who lied. My aunts lied daily, going to hell in a handbag of little sneaky, tinsel untruths. One swore the bracelet her husband gave her was made of real garnets. No matter that the uncle hadn't had a real job since Carter was president and drove a Pinto which would explode if you so much as leaned against it. This uncle somehow managed to buy his wife forty garnets and not colored glass? He managed this despite the fact that he treated her with all the affection and attraction you'd exhibit for used chewing gum? Everybody knew the bracelet was glass, most people believed she bought it for herself, and nobody gave a damn one way or the other. She lied anyway.

But I believed her.  And she betrayed me, laughing at the kid stupid enough to mistake the lie for truth.

While it was clear that nobody told the truth in my family, it was also made clear, in an unspoken but daily routine, that you couldn't trust anybody outside the family--that tradesmen were out to screw you over for every dime, that hairdressers lied about how your hair would look once they cut it, that teachers would choose to torture some kids for no good reasons, and that not one doctor alive ever told the truth to a patient, so why bother to go? You agreed to see a doctor in my family only if you were ready to die, and since no doctor ever came to the house before a priest was already set up to perform the last rites, it turned out to be true. My relatives saw doctors and then died; that there was a flaw in the causality of the relationship didn't occur to me until much later on.

More than anybody else, we were warned against the way that people who came into the family through marriage could not be trusted. You might have to trust them a little, maybe, but the family was still the only place you could count on the truth.

The kind of truth you could count on, for example, was made clear by the way one uncle could bring his mistress to his sister's house for a drink every week before they went out for the evening and my aunt would never think to tell her sister-in-law, his wife, what was going on because she, the wife, just wouldn't understand. The truth was that this uncle really loved his wife and was a good, good husband, that was the real truth. The little, incidental, small truth of an affair that lasted eighteen years was a truth his wife could not be trusted with. That made his wife untrustworthy. That passed for logic.

"You make a story out of everything" they told me when I was a kid, and it wasn't a compliment.

It meant I had a big mouth. It meant I wasn't good at secrets. But making up a story was the only way to translate a wound into a strength, to turn a lie into an accomplishment, to make it something that had an ending.

Something that would stop.