If I’m intolerant of anything, it’s B.S., and I came by my bias the hard way. My mother, the person I’d once trusted most in my life, lied to me for 26 years about who my father was.
See, I was the result of a drunken one-night stand mom had with a casual acquaintance home on leave from the Merchant Marine. Ashamed, she didn’t tell him that their shtupping had gotten her pregnant. Instead, she conceived a lie, blaming her predicament on an unscrupulous young man—the scion of a wealthy family on Long Island where she worked as an au pair—who claimed he wanted to marry her but reneged when he knocked her up. This story made her the hapless victim in an era when nice girls didn’t get laid before marriage, much less get pregnant.
So I grew up believing my snooty but nameless father had rejected mom and me. On the plus side, this belief fueled an I’ll-show-him attitude that motivated me to be the perfect kid, earn straight As and never get into trouble. I fantasized that someday I’d confront him, he’d be blown away by all my accomplishments and lament how he’d missed out on being part of my life. Take that, you d*ck. And BTW, where’s my inheritance?
On the flip side, I was tremendously insecure, especially with members of the opposite sex. If a boy wanted me, it validated my worth—regardless of whether I wanted him. This fallacy made for some, um, questionable choices in relationships early on.
As I got older, I began pressing mom for my father’s identity. I couldn’t understand why she was protecting him when he was the cad who’d abandoned us. Finally, after a few beers one hot summer night, she blurted out the truth.
This kind of betrayal shakes you to the core. For so long, it had been mom and me against the world, a private club of two who shared the sting of rejection from the same class-conscious snob. But it was all a lie, and I’d spent my entire life trying to prove my worth to someone who was fiction. And the man who was my real father didn’t even know I existed.
But this story has a happy ending. After some good therapy and support from great friends, I eventually felt confident enough to risk real rejection and reach out to my birth father. He remembered the night I was conceived and never doubted that I was his daughter (when we finally met, the resemblance was unmistakable). We were part of each other’s lives for 22 years, and I held his hand when he died (well, that last part wasn’t happy, but I felt privileged to be the one with him at the end).
I also was eventually able to let go of my anger toward my mother and forgive her lie. It wasn’t easy. But I came to accept that she did the best she could.
And I learned a lot. About how lies can alter who we are. How trust is the most important underpinning of a relationship. How the devil you know really is better than the one you don’t (or only imagine) because what-ifs can make you crazy (for example, not knowing my father’s identity, I used to worry, “What if I accidentally sleep with a sibling?”). Gawd.
In the summer 2016 issue of Vanity Fair, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma is asked, “On what occasion do you lie?” He replies, “When I cannot bear the truth.”
I can’t imagine a truth so horrible that I wouldn’t want to know it. A terminal diagnosis. A cheating partner. Whether these pants make my ass look fat. Or flat.
Because without the facts, how can you make the right choices?
I also don’t think there’s such a thing as “brutal” honesty when it’s delivered with love and compassion. Lies may make for good drama—it’s hard to think of a story line in a soap opera or even most literature that isn’t based on a lie (think of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or Ian McEwan’s Atonement). But in real life, they suck, especially when you’re on the receiving end. Respect me enough to tell me the truth.
And then there’s karma to deal with when you’re the liar. Case in point: After we’d been seeing each other for seven years, my first love hooked up with a married woman and didn’t tell me what was going on until after they moved in together.
It broke my heart. But it also taught me to trust my instincts (I knew in my gut that something had been going on, but didn’t have the guts to confront him). And decades later, I learned that his wife (not the married woman he’d shacked up with) had left him for another man. Payback’s a bitch, huh? And it inspires this haiku:
Don’t you wish liars’
pants really burst into flames?
So, fellow boomers, what do you think? What have you learned about truth-telling at this point in your life? Do you always tell the truth, no matter what? Do you think there are degrees of fabrication (as in “little white lies” or fibs) that are okay? Has a lie you’ve told come back to bite you? Please share.