The first conversation I ever had with my girlfriend began with a lie.
It was the most electric conversation I’d had all year. I was stood in the bathroom of a strange flat one night of late December with my phone nuzzling my right ear as a brief pause allowed in the muffled chatter from the main room. Thirty two, I said. Is that too old? No, she replied. What about you? Twenty two, came the voice down the phone. Is that too young? she asked. No, I said.
Much later, when I told my friends the story of how we met, and how at the end of our fourth date I came clean and she almost called the whole thing off, they showed no mercy. Why would you lie by two years! one of them cried. At least go big, said another. It had been a stupid little lie. But now I think of it my life has been devoured by stupid little lies. I’ve spent the last week wondering why. And my answer always comes back to the same thing.
I never lie because I don’t fear anyone. You only lie when you’re afraid.
Like most of us I must have been three when I told my first lie. I don’t remember what it was, I wonder if it was any good. I’ve always been quite bad at lying, my shame would cry louder than my subterfuge and my technique started badly and stayed put. I imagine most lies children tell are a means to get out of trouble, more than likely this was the case with me.
Growing up, my father had the patience of a fart in a gale. He was old-school and bad-tempered and not overly interested in the idiosyncrasies of young children. Anything that bothered him, which was everything, was us shouted out of the room and out of sight. The sound of his feet on the stairs is an enduring memory of my childhood, as if his presence meant my wrongdoing.
I tell him now and he laughs and calls me a snowflake. But the more I think about it the more I put my habit of bending the truth down to my father’s anger. His moodiness instilled in me a fear of wrongdoing, a terror of always being in trouble. He was the furnace to my snowflake, each time he scolded us it would scare the very sweat out of my skin and send me tumbling into a mire of shame.
Having worked out that punishment was waiting in ambush for me, I did some maths. If whatever I was doing was wrong, a different version of events might not be. And after all my priority wasn’t honesty, it was not being shouted at. So I began to lie out of fear, I suppose. Figuring out the roots of my malaise now is easy if I work backwards. Because I haven’t changed very much. I still lie, and I am still afraid.
A cat bitten once by a snake dreads even rope.
The extent of my fear is comical.
I won’t pick up a call from a private number because it means I’m in trouble. A missed call from anyone means I’m in trouble. If I have a bunch of new emails, one of them will land me in trouble. A knock on the front door means trouble. A tap on the shoulder, trouble. I’m almost forty and I feel about three heartbeats away from a bollocking all the time. I don’t know why I ever leave the house.
This feeling of being on trial is what compels me to lie. I lie about the stupidest things. I’ll lie about what I ate for lunch. I’ll lie about what means of transport I took. I’ll lie about what time I woke up. I’ll lie about what I watched on tv. I’m not trying to deceive. I can say hand on heart I lie because nested deeply in my gut is the fear that if I tell the truth, I’m going to be told off.
Sitting outside a cafe in Recoleta, Buenos Aires, with my father one afternoon some years ago he spoke to me of the anger he felt towards his own father. The subject meandered onto us, and at one point I said to him, but couldn’t you see whenever you screamed at me as a child my heart was breaking. Perhaps I hoped he would deny it, that he would tell me my recollection of events was skewed. But he didn’t. Instead he stared sadly into the middle distance and told me he was sorry. You know what I’m like, he said. You were small, I wouldn’t have noticed.
I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the Opera. It’s terrible.
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye
You’d think if you were going to lie you might make your life sound glamorous. Like I used to be a spy, or the Queen is a personal friend of mine. But making people think I’m better than I am isn’t it really. Holden Caulfield wanted you to think he was into Opera. I think buying a magazine is going to make you lose your shit.
I think it comes down to not being or feeling enough.
That’s why I told my girlfriend I was thirty two. It was some fear that she wouldn’t accept me as I was, a thirty four year old, because there was something wrong with that. Nothing specific, just something wrong with it. I always found it difficult to believe people could love me, I spent most of my adult life disappearing, before they had time to realise I was me. When the tisane of life is infused with wrongdoing, the fear of being found out, being alone is the safest place around.
Speak the truth, and leave immediately after.
But I didn’t just sit down to write about what a tremendous liar I am.
I did it because I’m sort of trying to do something about it.
I’ve realised something.
The bread and butter lies that have devoured me whole are the most dangerous of all. The tiny silly little ones. Not buying a Ferrari or sleeping with a supermodel. The forgettable half-truths, so evanescent that two seconds later you’ve forgotten all about them. The thing is they don’t forget you. They slither around in the shadows waiting for you to believe them. And before you a door to a dark foreboding room creaks open, a place where truth ceases to mean anything.
I became seriously worried as I wrote this of a slowly creeping possibility: I had spent so long distorting the truth that I could no longer tell the difference between the real world and my constructed world. My life was a matrix of lies, a wall of 1s and 0s spelling out a made up reality different from the one beyond the walls of my perception.
I’m not upset that you’ve lied to me. I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.
Lying is a double bogey.
The duff approach shot is the lack of trust I breed in the people around me, in a girlfriend who loves me and just wants to believe me, to whom any lie however small upsets the apple cart. If I’m lying about brushing my teeth what the hell else am I lying about, the opposite of truth has a thousand faces and stares back with as many eyes.
Then the wayward putt is me. Because each time I lie I remain the scared child. The little boy with fear in his eyes, always thinking he needs to invent or distort to save himself from punishment. Every lie chops away at the little bit of ground beneath his feet, tearing at his sense of self until there is no self left, and there he is floundering, with no choice but to react to his fantasy of other people’s judgement, a fantasy grounded all those years ago in the memory of an impatient parent who loved him but was hard and uncompromising and clumsy.
So where is the redemption.
It begins with writing this I suppose. I can’t be all that bad if I’m writing this, I tell myself. In a way that’s true. All the stuff, the lying about what I had for lunch, or what I watched on tv, the terror of a knock at the door or a tap on the shoulder, the never feeling enough, the disappearing act, it’s a million times better than it used to be. The fear is still there, the instinct is always the same. But I fight that bitch.
I said before I don’t remember the first lie I ever told. But I remember the last one. It was yesterday morning. I left my girlfriend a video message of me about to go running, I’m going to listen to a podcast on ancient civilisations, I told her. But this wasn’t true. The podcast was about lying itself. And just before I sent it I caught myself red-handed. I stopped, frowned, shook my head, deleted the video and sent a new one.
Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.
What would life be like without lies. A place where what you said and what you did were the same thing, where the truth was a mate you had no reason to fear, who you could walk up to smiling and let them take you by the hand. Every time I stood up for my truth, I realised, I claimed back a piece of territory that was mine. And the scared six year old had one less reason to be afraid.
What a big old waste of time it is. To be afraid all the time. If I have nothing to lie about then just stop. And if I’ve done something wrong, tell it like it is and take the slap. Because anything else will come back and bite me on the arse. How liberating must it be. Mark Twain famously said the greatest thing about telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you said.
But it’s more than that too. I read somewhere that the truth is an adventure, maybe the defining adventure of all our lives. And remarkable things happen when we start telling it. So what now, I ask myself. Now, there is this me walking around with a mind bent on trying not to tell even the smallest lie. Which is probably asking too much right now. But there must be a beginning. In any event, I thought to myself if I was going to write something about lying I should begin with the truth. And be sure I wasn’t lying to myself about it.
So here at least, is that.