Posts Tagged ‘pathological liar’

One of my favorite Saturday Night Live characters was Tommy Flanagan, Pathological Liar. Flanagan, created and played with gusto by Jon Lovitz during SNL’s late-eighties seasons, never Lovitz met a fact he couldn’t embellish, exaggerate and outright twist. He’d start small (“I belong to Pathological Liars anonymous; in fact, I’m the president. Yeah, that’s right.”) and build up steam  by piling on lie after lie, interrupting himself as he came up with new outlandish claims, until he’d topped himself by throwing out the biggest whopper imaginable: he’d come back from the dead to meet his wife Morgan Fairchild and was now on the cover of Newsweek Magazine every day.) Satisfied, he’d rub his hands together and declare, “Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

Of course no one is likely to be quite so obvious but we’ve had some truth issues hit the news lately in spectacular fashion. At four-liars first there was a great deal of denial, from John Edwards denying adultery to Floyd Landis denying drug use. Now it’s commission, not omission; the addition of military service to the resume,  Dick Blumenthal and Mark Kirk being the latest twin online obsessions.

Lying isn’t exactly new to our culture; it’s been the default position of corporations and politicians for some time now. But the liars are being taken to task, thanks to the ubiquitous online “checkers” who thrive on outing them. Knowing how relentless bloggers can be and thus how tough-minded mainstream media is forced to be, why would anyone take a chance on lying? We can all check on each other online. Why pad the resume, fib to the significant other, make false claims to clients, or forge a document? Your chances of getting caught are pretty high even without hiring a private detective.

And yet we all lie: we obscure, omit, embellish, exaggerate, fib, fudge, add, subtract and otherwise modify the outlines of our personal and professional lives in ways large and small. Lies seem to roll so much more easily off the tongue. Storytellers arefingerscrossed aware that what a story might lose in “truthiness” it could gain in entertainment value if just one little fact is obscured or slightly altered. There are the small lies we think will harm no one: “I can’t imagine how that taillight got broken.” “No, I don’t know where that last piece of cake went.” There are the big lies, too, about weapons of mass destruction or having sex with that woman or never, ever cutting corners when it comes to drilling for oil or supporting our troops.

Maybe we just can’t handle the truth. Even as we’ve become superficially more self-righteous about Truth, with many of us insisting on our version as without a doubt the right one; we’ve also become artful, one might say dodgy, in the ways in which we communicate who we are and what we’re doing.

Chronic liars, it seems to me, are oblivious to the possibility of being caught; others are oblivious to the possibility that the lies can do so much damage. Still others may have negotiated forpinnochio themselves a separate moral contract, wherein whatever they’re claiming ought to be theirs to claim. Most of us have probably been caught up in the lies of a close friend or relative. I have, more that once; the mortification I felt–not only because I was unprepared to go along with an altered truth, but also because I was so profoundly embarrassed for the liar–was excruciating.

Setting aside the notion that we are a nation of Tommy Flanagans (I don’t believe we are), the truth is: most of us want to look good or at least not look bad. We want to puff ourselves up, win the admiration of a would-be friend, impress the boss, ease the spouse’s worries, get the job; get the girl. Right now, looking good for politicians seems to be all about identifying with the vets. Maybe Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Kirk got swept up in the moment; maybe (as one of them claimed) they almost believed they had served.  I don’t know that most vets have asked or expected every supportive politician to have faced combat; what they want is the support and the clout it means in terms of attention and resources focused on their needs. As one vet told me, “If you direct money to us, I don’t care if you’re a pacifist.”

That last line, by the way, is untrue; that is, no vet ever spoke those words to me, although it sounds plausible and makes for an excellent closer to the paragraph. Journalists and citizen reporters alike are constantly tempted to inject a little “I was there” or “I knew him personally” into their reports because it seems to add credibility to their words. And after all, what’s the harm? Without editorial insight, as the retired deputy editor of the Providence Journal pointed out in a letter to the New York Times, any blogger can claim to be a reporter. May he’s recycling another’s reporting and claiming it as his own; maybe she’s adding the personal touch by “remembering” an encounter with the subject that never took place. Either way, it’s false.

That doesn’t mean I believe in so-called brutal honesty.  Nothing ticks me off more than meanness masquerading as truth-telling; it cheapens the very idea of truthfulness. “I’ve just trying to be honest” too often follows an unnecessarily cruel statement: “Look Rose, the truth is; I never loved you;” “Honey, face facts: you’re just not as smart as the other kids;” “You’re likely to be alone for a long time.”

On the other hand, some sort of up front honesty, some admission that you were the one who screwed up the [take your pick: marriage/war/negotiation/test/project/child-rearing/accounting/sentencing/oil spill, some offer to make it right pronounced right up front could save us all a lot of money, heartache, humiliation and time. The only problem is, we might not have the series, “The Good Wife.” Then again, we can alwaysGoodWife make something up; let’s see: a fictitious situation in which a woman whose husband cheated may have told her the truth about some of his escapades but not others and she’s meanwhile lying to herself about her feelings for her boss. Maybe we’ll call it “The Great Wife.” Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Image credits: SNL archives, TPMDC, aupairmom, Disney, Inc, CBS Television

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