My father hated liars. Lying was a line he wouldn’t cross himself (partly because he didn’t need to, as I will explain in a moment) and something he didn’t forgive in others. I saw very early on that if you made up a false, childish story to hide something from him, he’d see through the lie and label you a lying piece of shit forever.
I understand that a lie can make a lasting impression of lack of character, or sometimes no impression (if the lie is minor and doesn’t really affect you). The trouble is, before you lie you never know which way it will go.
The obvious problem with a lie is that the person you are lying to can be holding the proof of your lie in his hand. “Did you ever write a letter denouncing me to Child Protective Services as a ‘vicious monster unfit to raise children’?” my father could ask. If you said it never happened, and he was able to pull out your childishly pencilled letter to Child Protective Services, point to the verbatim quote right there on the lined paper, that would be it, for the rest of your life, the verdict: fucking liar.
I actually did lie to him once, about having taken mescaline as a teenager. “Did you ever take mescaline?” he asked the sixteen year-old version of me pointedly. I denied it, weakly, and he pulled out a letter I’d written to a girlfriend, written in mercurochrome, which might as well have been blood. The bloody looking scrawling, with plenty of ghoulish drips and glops, was a raving love letter to psychedelics and included a vow to take a lot more of it in the coming days.
“Shit,” I thought, when he disgustedly pulled out the letter “I never mailed that letter to Barbara, must have fallen behind my parents’ bed when I was sleeping in there for the AC when they were out of town…” My lie was a one-off, my father recognized, and no big referendum on my character resulted from it.
Not so for other people we knew who lied to my father, even once. My sister, when she was maybe seven, hatched a caper with her seven year-old accomplice, Jefferey Seigel, to break into my little cash register-shaped piggy bank and use the illicit proceeds to buy candy. The plan went perfectly, until I came home and found the little cash register pried open and empty of its perhaps 80 cents in coins (this would have been 1965 money, probably $5 or $10 in today’s candy buying coin, shit, maybe more — a Milky Way cost maybe a dime in those days, I think) and the list of culprits was quickly narrowed down to my little sister. She rolled on her henchman, after a series of the seven year old’s best attempts at lies was brushed aside by my prosecutor father.
He never let her forget this childish act of piracy on the high seas, made a hundred times worse by the lies about not being a childish brigand. Anytime he got angry at her, the first salvo would be about how she lacked character, stole from her own brother to buy candy, AND LIED ABOUT IT. A little thief, AND a liar.
A lie can be maddening, it’s true, and I’ll never know the roots of my father’s hatred of lying, but the reason people lie is also usually understandable. People don’t often lie without a reason. The reason is most of the time to avoid feeling bad, to avoid having to take responsibility for a mistake, to avoid punishment.
This makes the whole exercise kind of ironic: you lie to avoid telling the truth, to make yourself feel less vulnerable, and this places you in the category of ordinary, very vulnerable, fucking liars. If the lie can be shown to be a lie, you’re a proven liar, and often, in the eyes of many, mostly honest, people, a weak and contemptible person.
My father was an angry brute whenever he felt he needed to be, in the privacy of his own home. He’d never confront people in the street, or at work, but around the dinner table, with just the four of us there, he was fearless and fierce in protecting his turf and asserting his dominance and superiority. In this way he was like many other narcissistic people with terribly painful wounds doing his best to feel like a whole person, in the face of unbearable early life humiliation. I don’t even hold it against him any more. The thing I’m thinking about now is his basic honesty, the way I almost never knew him to lie. As I said, he didn’t need to. Check this out:
If you can control the conversation at every stage, you can change the subject to whatever you want to talk about, before there is any reason to lie. A lie is told when the liar finds himself in a corner, nowhere to go. The truth leads to an electric shock, a lie might get you off without the voltage going through you. The trapped rat chooses option two, sometimes avoids the sting of electricity. My father mastered the art of never finding himself in a corner. No corner trap, no real urgency to lie. He was very good at reframing every argument to quickly turn it back on the person he was trying to cow.
You can say, big man, reframing and gaslighting his own kids!, and sure, when my sister was seven and I was nine, it looked pitiful enough to see this brilliant adult using sophisticated tools to argue his children into submission. He did the same when we were twenty, thirty and forty. I eventually went to law school, in a misguided attempt to do something to please the unpleasable old man, and only after graduating and passing the bar did I fairly easily beat him into silence during our last argument, about two years before he died.
But, check this out, if you lack the adroit mind of my father, and find yourself in a heated no-holds-barred argument with someone in command of the facts, with a clear memory of events, who cuts through your rationales quickly and decisively, you will likely feel cornered. The first line of defense might be just reflexive defensiveness: no, you say I hurt you, but you hurt me, that’s why I did it, because you hurt me, you merciless fuck! A second line, change the subject, to anything. Why are you still talking about this when I’m now talking about that? See, you won’t talk about what I want to talk about, what I need. HOW ABOUT WHAT I need?!!!! You selfish fuck.
If the relentless argument continues, and the attempts at reframing, misdirection, gaslighting and everything else are not working, you find yourself in a corner and there is only one card left: lying. What you said I said I never said and even if I had said it it was only because of what you said, but you are lying, I never said that! In fact, I remember exactly why I said it and I was completely right to say it, even though I never said it!
In the end, one party can shake its head sadly, regarding the liar with a shaming expression on its face. “Dude, at least I never fucking lied to you…”
The person who lied, if humiliated enough to lie and then be caught in the lie, and, the ultimate shame, being name-called a liar? They’re not going to be arguing with you ever again. Neither are they going to do you any more favors, or laugh at your jokes, or invite you to dinner or take any chance of a repeat of the horrific shit that just happened, even though you were completely wrong and they never lied, and, even if they did, it was your fault for backing them into that corner of the cage and putting the electrodes on them, and what trapped rat wouldn’t lie under those merciless conditions, you sick fuck?
My father never found himself in this position, never had to bend the truth at all, because he was a master at his craft. He never found himself cornered. To him, lying during a conflict was contemptible, it showed you had no fucking game.
So, during our long, senseless war, I accepted his perverse gentlemen’s agreement: we fight to the death, and that’s the way it has to be, but we will not consciously lie to each other during our fight to the death. I shook on that deal, for better or worse.