I’ve lied to my boyfriends. Who hasn’t? It would be easy to begin with the big ones, the ones that come to mind most readily: telling a boyfriend, “No, there isn’t anyone else,” after a breakup, when of course there was. Or the lies of omission: Not saying I’d been drinking since the middle of the afternoon. Not saying I’d gotten drunk and cheated with a random Irish motorcyclist in the Bolivian Andes.
But it seems to me that the obvious lies aren’t necessarily the most illuminating ones. They might be the bigger blaze, but the little lies — the pointless daily lies — are the kindling: the twigs and twisted rolls of newspaper that got the fire started. I used to lie to my boyfriends about what time it was — to pretend it was a few minutes earlier than it actually was, if we were running late. I used to lie to the man I lived with about what radio station I listened to — never explicitly, just switched the radio back from Top 40 to National Public Radio before I killed the ignition, so that when he started the car up he would think I’d been listening to coverage of the Gulf Coast oil spill. When I was 21, I lied to my boyfriend about my age. I told him I was 22. A year! I love that, looking back: the sweet determination of telling that pointless lie with so little payoff. What was I afraid of? I was afraid of being too young, too naïve, not enough for him. I was afraid of being just a footnote in the story of his life, and somehow my age seemed to doom me to being inconsequential in that way.
These little lies were always about telling a boyfriend what I thought he wanted to hear, or trying to convince him that I was who he wanted me to be. If there was something that might bother him — even the slightest bit, like running 10 minutes late — my impulse was never to state it directly. It was always to hide it, so that it wouldn’t seem so bad, so that no one would be upset. I spent much of my life trying to make sure that no one would get upset with me about anything.
To be clear: We’re talking about lying to change the time by five minutes. But there’s something about the absurdity and utter pettiness of the lie — its uselessness — that broadcasts the impulse even more clearly. I felt compelled to smooth out even the slightest sources of friction. If my boyfriend was going to be upset about me being late, I wanted to avoid that moment of displeasure as long as possible. I wanted to shove it under the rug, our lateness, and pretend it didn’t exist; the way you might close your eyes and hope that closing them would make whatever was right in front of you disappear.
At 25, I spent a month in Bolivia — before my boyfriend was supposed to join me there for the rest of the summer — and ended up spending the night with an Irishman who was touring the continent on his motorcycle. It was like a terrible movie, but there we were, drunk out of our minds on singani, a kind of brandy made from grapes grown high in the Andes. More precisely, while we were drunk by the end of the evening, at its start I was absolutely sober and feeling perversely destructive: I wanted to get drunk enough to give myself an excuse for doing something that might break apart a relationship that had grown claustrophobic.
Doing something destructive wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was getting through the weeks after my boyfriend arrived, feeling the distance deepening between us and talking about that distance but never the other man I’d spent the night with. I boxed that truth away and kept it on the other side of a wall; the way you might close your eyes — once again — and hope that closing them would make whatever was right in front of you disappear.
Lies are always about disappearance. For me, they were often about forcibly disappearing the person I was, and constructing — in her place — the person I wished I was, or the person I wanted others to see me as being: a woman who listened to NPR, driving on the icy backroads of Iowa, through snow-covered cornfields; a woman who cared about the world, not just herself, who had smart opinions about everything; who was not constantly crying for no good reason at all; who was not drinking alone in her kitchen at dusk, before her boyfriend got home. Lying could not bring this woman into being, but it could allow me to forget — for stretches of time, at least — that she did not exist. So much of me had always been constituted by the vision of others — how they saw me, what they made of what they saw — that shaping the woman they perceived felt nearly indistinguishable from actually being that woman, anyway.
When I was 18 years old, restricting my daily calories until I looked like a child’s stick-figure drawing, I went to a doctor who asked me to think about my eating disorder not just in terms of what it was doing to me but in terms of what it was doing for me: What was I getting from it? It seems useful to think about lying in a similar way — not just as a pathology but as a coping mechanism, a flawed solution to a deeper problem.
The first two lies I can remember telling were very different, but both were ultimately about attention. I told the first one when I was maybe 4 years old: I’d gotten deeply angry about something — I can no longer remember what — and used a pair of scissors to cut a hole in my family’s couch. It was a black leather couch with pale stuffing inside that you could tug out through the hole I’d made. When my parents asked me about it, I pretended I knew nothing. What was this lie? It was about avoiding getting into trouble, sure — as if I was fooling anyone — but it was also about evading whatever it was that had made me angry in the first place. Somehow it was easier to articulate that anger by stabbing the fabric with scissors — destroying something irrevocably, however trivial — than it was to simply say it.
I told the second lie when I was in first grade: My best friend and I concocted a story about seeing a man covered in blood standing right outside the fence of our school’s playground, holding the chain links with his bloody palms. We never explicitly conferred about making up this story: We simply egged each other on, feeding each other details, convincing ourselves that perhaps it really had happened. Convincing ourselves? That’s actually another lie. Or at least, I was never convinced. I always knew our story about the bloody man was a fib, that he had never existed, and it felt both thrilling and terrifying to tell our teachers about this thing that had never happened.
This second lie is even more useful to me than the first one, because it had no obvious purpose: We weren’t trying to get out of trouble or secure some obvious reward. It was just about the adrenaline and pleasure of bending reality, for a moment, or believing that we could — remaking the world as we’d imagined it, positioning ourselves as important characters (witnesses!) in the narrative we had constructed.
Why raise the specter of the bloody man who never grasped the fence with his red palms? Or the scissor-stabbed couch, leaking stuffing from its wounds? I believe that these smaller lies — about the couch, the time of day, the radio station — are like small torches held up to the broader exposure of the larger lies: the drinking, the cheating. In the small lies, you find the fractal blueprint of the larger ones. Often with these bigger lies, self-flagellation got in the way of any meaningful analysis. I got so stuck on that was terrible that I never accepted that there was some reason I was doing it in the first place.
Before I got sober in my late twenties, I’d always considered myself a deeply self-aware person. Even during the worst of my drinking, I had a boatload of theories about why I was doing it. It was easy to mistake this self-awareness for honesty. When I got drunk and spent the night with the Irishman in Bolivia, I dissected the incident — and why I hadn’t told my boyfriend — relentlessly in my head, convinced I had figured out every angle of why I’d done it, and what it had meant: It was a way of making concrete the more nebulous, festering doubts that lay inside a relationship that had quietly gone stale. And it was a way of turning myself into someone who didn’t quite deserve the relationship itself.
But at a certain point, I became aware that complexity could become its own alibi, another kind of lie, another mode of disappearance. The honesty of sobriety wasn’t about getting to the most complicated version of the truth so much as it was about allowing the truth to be simple: I’m afraid of getting left. I’m afraid of not being good enough. I’m afraid of conflict.
Lying and its more dramatic cousins, drinking and cheating, have been ways to avoid friction, to construct a different version of myself, to feel — in whatever tiny way — in control of the world, rather than utterly subject to it. Drinking and cheating might seem like odd ways to avoid friction, but for me they were often just that: a way to handle whatever felt difficult inside me — boredom or claustrophobia or jealousy — without acknowledging those difficult feelings to my partner or asking him to fix them. If I got the affirmation or the rush I needed from someone else (or from the booze itself), I wouldn’t burden my relationship with my restlessness or my endless insecurity. That was the unspoken logic — often unarticulated, always ineffectual. But it was an attempt to construct a different version of myself: self-sufficient, autonomous, the opposite of needy. This version of myself drove cross-country listening to the news of the world, and changed her own tires. Seeking booze, or the affirmation of men, was a way to control the terms of my own need, to regulate the feedback loop myself.
In this way, summoning the phantom of the bloody man was not entirely unlike summoning the shallow relief of the bottle, or the temporary fix of another man’s attention. It was a way to pull the puppet strings of the world, or convince myself — for a moment — that it was possible to control what lay beyond my grasp. Lying, at its core, is little more than this: an attempt to tell the world a story, or tell yourself a story, and to believe that the telling of that story is enough to make it true. It never is. But sometimes it can be enough to help you figure out what the false world you’ve forged might say about what you want from the world itself — the one you are bound to, the one you cannot bend to your will. ●
Leslie Jamison is the author of The Recovering, published this April, as well as the New York Times best-selling essay collection The Empathy Exams and a novel, The Gin Closet. She is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the director of the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University.