Lies I Still Tell

My first BFF (not to be mistaken with my first best friend -- a BFF is a very particular kind of friend; it requires the vocal or written acknowledgement of the Forever-ness of a friendship, usually in the form of the exchange of plastic broken heart friendship rings from Claire's Accessories) was a pretty upstanding person. She never ate too many slices of pizza, because her mom told her that too much pizza could make her sick, and without ANY SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE she just BELIEVED that. She always took turns while playing "Photograph The Dinosaurs at The Science Museum" (that wasn't the actual name of the game, but that was what you were supposed to do in the game), and never put up a fuss when she had to let someone else on the computer. Also, she didn't lie. I know this, because she told me over and over again that she didn't lie. She reiterated to me again and again that lying was wrong, and she wouldn't be able to live with herself if she told a lie.

This became a pattern. Everyone I have ever become seriously close with in my life has been a self-described altruist: the kinds of people the American Justice System depends upon for jurisprudence to maintain any sort of respectability in this country. Most of my current best friends can remember the first time they  lied, because (they tell me) lying feels so TERRIBLE to them. They all say things like, "I'm such a terrible liar. I probably couldn't effectively lie to save my life." Never mind that you have to say things like that if you want to be even a remotely good liar. Let's take these people at their word.

As a kid, I wanted to be an equitable person, but I knew that I wasn't. Lying did not feel bad to me, even at a very young age. Researchers in child development say that 90 percent of children grasp the concept of lying by the age of four; I believe I was an early bloomer in that department. I lied so often and to so many people that I couldn't possibly tell you about the first time I did it. But I'll tell you this: when I went over to my first BFF's house for pizza, I would always take, like, three pieces more than she took while she wasn't looking, and then blame what was missing on her older brother. I never got sick from it. I was, however, clinically severely overweight by the time I was 12.

America is, in principle, all about the truth. The Founding Fathers' poster child, George Washington, carries a story around his legacy about chopping down a cherry tree and then telling his father about it, because he "could not tell a lie." There's no way that story is factually accurate, ironically. It was likely borrowed from English folklore, meant to paint Washington as the picture of our distinctly American values -- which included difficult, punishing honesty. 

It makes sense why a biographer would include the cherry tree story in a book about a man that would be read by schoolchildren across the country, though: adults want children to learn not to lie. Never mind that adults lie to children all the time in order to turn them into the kinds of people who don't lie. Adults invent all kinds of modern day cherry trees to try to lure kids into being more honest. And while research overwhelmingly shows that children who are lied to are way more likely to tell lies themselves, adults lie anyway. 

Psychology Today lists all kinds of ways in which people lie. Here are just a few:


As a kid, I did none of these. The lies I told are what you would call "Totally Pointless Lies."

I have NO IDEA why I did this. To this day, I cannot fathom the logic that was going through my head when I decided to tell roomfuls of schoolchildren OBVIOUS LIES. I didn't have ANY BFFs by the time I was in middle school, and I'm sure it was because I was so clearly dishonest all the time. Everyone just kind of had to deal with it and keep a safe distance. The person who bore the biggest brunt of the Totally Pointless Lies, however, was my sister Alexis.

Alexis is one of those self-described altruists in my life who never really lies, even when lying is convenient. That is NOT something she learned from me, because I began lying to her before she could talk. The most memorable lie was an elaborate, longterm operation so cruel it made Bernard Madoff look kind of normal. 

Here is how the lie worked: Every couple of days, for no reason whatsoever, I would be hanging out with Alexis and suddenly open my eyes REALLY WIDE and say:

I would then interact with Alexis as though I was possessed by a kind alien named Hobart for probably 40 minutes at a time. Then I would go into the bathroom, flicker the lights, and re-emerge as Human Sophie. As Human Sophie, I described to Alexis all the cool things I had gotten to see on the space ship while Alien Hobart was possessing my body. I told Alexis that when SHE was 9 (I was 9 years old at the time), she would be able to go on the space ship too. When Alexis turned 9, she IMMEDIATELY wanted to know how she would get on the space ship. I said, "Shame on you. Grandma just DIED!" (Our grandmother had just passed away.) "How can you think about SPACE SHIPS at a time like THIS."

In 1859, an archaeologist named Charles Dawson discovered, buried deep in the pitch black soil of Piltdown Quarry in Sussex, the skull of a homonid that would go on to be declared the "missing link" in the story of human evolution. "Origin of the Species" had just been published, and human evolution was a hot idea. It wasn't until the 1950s that scientists figured out that the skull was only 600 years old and the jaw came from an orangutan, making the Piltdown Man one of the biggest lies in scientific history.

The thing that is so wonderfully mysterious about this lie is that most historians believe that Charles Dawson REALLY DID dig up this skeleton in Piltdown Quarry. Therefore, Dawson wasn't the liar. The liar was some person who for some reason pulled an unimaginably elaborate prank, and planted a fake skeleton of a fake species for a real archaeologist to find. No one really stood to benefit here. I prefer (unpopularly, of course -- scientists would NOT agree with me) to believe that this was a gigantic Totally Pointless Lie, dreamed up to fabricate the world into a more wonderful place.

As an adult, I lie all the time. This is psychologically unsurprising: there's a very popular scientific study that shows that 60 percent of people can't have a 10-minute conversation without lying at least once. But I don't lie about the normal things. ( Well, OK. I still tell people I ate two pieces of pizza when really I ate seven. But on the other hand, I don't eat pizza nearly as often as I used to. I just try to not have it available to me. I actually think I'm totally powerless in the presence of pizza. I'd fail the Marshmallow Test for sure.) I won't lie about how I'm feeling anymore; I won't lie about what I want; I won't lie about what I believe to be true in order to be polite. In these spheres -- the deeply human ones -- I believe honesty is the most important quality.

The bottom line is that telling the truth in your relationships with other people is not so bad -- so long as everyone is willing to do it. Telling the truth means acknowledging that you are only a human person, making mistakes, stumbling through life, trying the best you can when you can. So long as I am honestly operating in the world out of love, the truth will never too difficult a thing to tell.

I do "lie" about magic, though. Last week, a three-year-old in our neighborhood came over to our house to play, and I gave him three objects from a jar I keep on my desk specifically for three-year-olds who might come over. (It happens more than you might think.) I gave him a plastic pirate that sings songs at night to make sad people happy again; I gave him a little jar of fabric flowers that is a seductive charm for nearby dinosaurs; and I gave him a marbled rubber ball that you can bounce really hard against the cement if it's terribly cold to make fire.

I know it's somewhat cruel. It IS. But I would rather tell children totally ridiculous things about love and beauty and possible marvel -- the kind of stuff that is difficult to believe but equally difficult to disprove -- than to tell them ridiculous things about little boys in powdered wigs chopping down cherry trees and telling their fathers about it. We spend our entire lives being lied to. That's just a fact of our evolution. Children will learn at school that Christopher Columbus "discovered" America, and that the systemic genocide of the Native Americans was somehow consensual. They will be told that racism was eradicated with the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Movement, and that the senseless killing of young black men is justifiable in the name of safety. If that is "the truth" we are living with, I guess I think we could use a little magic.