A good friend of mine read me a chapter of a non-fiction book recently, named The Life Examined, by Stephen Grosz. This particular chapter was about a compulsive liar, and the way that it manifested, until the therapist helping him finally came to the root of the problem, and his reasons for doing it. He told lies that were fairly blatant, and easy to check, but rarely of any real significance. He told the lies with such nonchalance that, since they never became a problem for anything but trust, the people who discovered them felt no need to call him out on it, instead just drawing away from him and putting little stock in anything he said.
What interested me was the discovery of the source of this strange trait. When wetting the bed as a child, he lied about it, hiding the wet bed clothes from his father, who he presumed would be angry. His mother, discovering them, washed and ironed them, and he found them ready for use that night. The situation was never discussed, and while he eventually grew out of it, it became a secret only he and his mother knew about, repeating itself every night that he wet the bed. The fact that she protected him, and covered up his failings, drew him closer to her and forged a bond between them, made of trust, and built on a lie they shared. His blatant, yet inconsequential lies to those around him in his adult life was said to be his form of unconsciously trying to recapture the unspoken bond with his mother. It didn’t say if this discovery actually cured him of compulsive lying, but for me it wasn’t important.
We’re taught that lying is bad, that it destroys the trust that’s so crucial to being a part of any friendship, relationship, or society. Yet here a lie, used to protect, to shield a child from the embarrassment of a problem he could not control, became a symbol of parental love. The idea that the ultimate trust is the willingness to help someone hide a wrong, to lie on their behalf, and without the need for appreciation, or assurance of any form. The uncomplaining spouse who looks the other way when their money fuels an addiction, and simply works harder to make room for it. The school child who tells their parents stories of their fun day at school, hiding the bruises of bullying. The best friend who helps to hide the bodies, never to mention it again. These are the most common forms of this protective love shown in our media, and each one is extreme in its own way. The story of a mother shielding her child from facing an issue that to most would be small and common place, but to a child can be a highly emotional embarrassment, is one that to me shows the most depth. She doesn’t do it because of the potential implications or judgement from outside, but because she knows that he’d be hurt. She doesn’t just shield him from the embarrassment he already feels, but from potential embarrassment that could come of even mentioning it.
His subconscious reaction to this was extreme, and fascinating as the human mind and its reactions to things is, it’s not really the point of this post. He told small, unimportant lies to give others the opportunity to cover them up for him, and prove their willingness to play a part in the illusion he had concocted, just like the original illusion that he did not wet the bed. It strikes me how important these comforting illusions are to so many people. They serve as barriers against the parts of reality we find harsh or unfair, the things we wish weren’t so, and actively look away from. We conjure these illusions so that we don’t need to face those hard truths, and it makes us happier to only see the parts we enjoy and cherish, or gain some form of benefit from. I won’t give examples, because highlighting them seems unfair, and perhaps that’s because I’m just as guilty of them as everyone else, and wouldn’t want someone to use my own illusions as examples and show them for what they really are. It’s because of this that I understand why such a lie might forge a bond. To see that you’re hiding from reality, to see that weakness and instead of forcing you to face it simply joining in, allows that pleasant illusion to become all the more real. You feel more secure in your lie, because someone else is lying too. And through them you can rely on that lie protecting you, and place your trust entirely on them to keep you safe from what you’re afraid of.
It isn’t healthy, and the alternative isn’t easy, but I do understand. I think, in some way, we can all understand.