As a minister’s daughter, I thought being a good Christian meant you had to avoid hurting others at all costs. I didn’t know that when someone asked me out, I could say no. There were times when I found myself lying in bed with a man, wanting to be anywhere but there. Sometimes I made excuses that helped me exit, but I never told the truth.
On my wedding day, I looked up into my husband’s face as I recited my vows, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. A dark thought arose: What have I done? We had fifteen years and three children together before he initiated the divorce.
Years later I bought a house with another man. I knew within a week of moving in that something was wrong. My son knew it too. After five years he could no longer tolerate my partner’s dictatorial behavior. The next night my son called me from his dad’s house and said, “Mom, I love you more than anyone in the world, but I won’t live with him anymore.” That Friday night I sat down before my partner — with whom I’d spent hours in therapy, trying to get to the truth — and told him that no part of me wanted to work on the relationship anymore. I offered no false hope, no softening of the blow. I was leaving.
Since then I’ve doggedly told the truth, no matter what the cost. What’s most important is to tell myself the truth, to see the world as it is, rather than how I want it to be.
San Jose, California
One hot summer day when I was a girl, tired of television and board games, a friend and I got into my parents’ photo albums and began flipping through the pages. One album was thinner than the rest and faded with age. I had never seen it before. I opened it to find pictures of myself as an infant. In one photo, I was lying on a plaid blanket, using a crushed beer can as a teething ring. Another picture showed my mother sitting in a lawn chair and cradling me in her arms. There was a dark-skinned Latino man sitting next to her, holding a can of beer and playfully shaking his fist at her.
That evening I showed my mother the photo and asked her who the man was. “Just a friend,” she said. A few days later she called me into her bedroom, where she was getting undressed. As she pulled off her stockings, she said, “You remember that picture you showed me?” I nodded. “Well, that’s your father.”
My mother continued undressing, taking special care to avoid my eyes. I got up and left the room in shock. In the hallway I looked at the framed photographs of my mother’s wedding, at which she’d married the man I now knew to be my stepfather. I had seen those photographs for as long as I could remember, but that day they told a different story.
When my husband and I sold our home, we planned to rent for a few months before we bought another house. I found a real-estate agency specializing in month-to-month rentals, but our rental application was rejected. The manager made it clear that our planned short tenancy was the problem.
When we found an ad in the paper for another month-to-month rental, my husband and I agreed in advance to be vague about how long we’d need to rent. I felt bad, but the need to find a place to live outweighed my guilt.
Our application was approved. The manager who called to give us the good news asked, “Do you think you’ll be able to mow the lawn?”
I hesitated; it was unlikely the grass would need mowing before June, and we would be gone long before then.
“Um . . . we do have a push mower,” I said.
“Great,” she replied.
I hadn’t lied outright, but I felt terrible about my lie of omission. I began to reexamine instances in my life when people had lied to me. I had always assumed that dishonesty was an integral part of their character. I decided I would be a little less judgmental in the future.
I park in front of my friend Tanya’s house and turn off the engine. My seven-year-old son, Jake, is testy, but he’ll do his best to be polite, because he knows how important this visit is, especially to Tanya, whose life has been shortened to precious days.
I take his hand and lead the way to Tanya’s back deck. She is curled up on a lounge chair, her once-athletic body a faint outline under her favorite blanket. Chemotherapy was not an option for her, so her hair is still thick and curly.
I lean down for a gentle hug. Tanya slides her sunglasses off to show me that her eyes have turned yellow, like marigolds. She slips the glasses back on, gives me a brave half smile, and shrugs as if to say, What can you do?
“You look beautiful, sweetheart,” I say. “And you’ve baked cookies today. You’re doing great.”
Tanya says to Jake, “There’s a bag of ginger cookies on the table with your name on it.”
Jakes smiles and whispers, “Thank you.” He takes the bag of cookies and returns to my side.
As we’re driving home after our visit, Jake gently says, “I don’t really like ginger cookies.”
“Sometimes it’s OK not to tell the truth,” he says.
“It is? When?”
“When your friend is dying of cancer.”
Mary Jane Taub
I come by my alcoholism honestly. For generations, every male in my Irish family has been alcoholic, and those who didn’t go into recovery often died from drinking. During my teens and twenties, my ambition, education, and professional training kept me from becoming addicted to alcohol, and I hoped I would be the exception to my family’s rule. But my mother’s sudden death in the last year of my psychiatric residency triggered a ten-day binge that blossomed into addiction.
For the next few years my wife and I fought about my drinking, and I made many vows to cut down or stop, but I broke them all. I discovered during this period that lying about my drinking came as naturally as breathing.
I went on the wagon when my son was born, and I managed to stay sober for the next eight months by white-knuckling it. When I relapsed, I kept it a secret, and for nine years I hid my alcoholism.
Eventually I slipped up and came home too drunk to hide it. Seeing the sense of betrayal on my wife’s face is the worst agony I have ever felt. It is also one of my strongest incentives not to drink.
Portola Valley, California
Anytime I’m late, I think of ingenious excuses; I invent circumstances to explain a forgotten promise to a friend; I lie without hesitation to an organization whose deadline I’m going to miss.
This propensity for lying is a legacy of my childhood. Telling the truth was not a family value in my home. When my father and I stopped for ice-cream cones on the way back from running an errand, he’d tell me not to tell Mommy, so she wouldn’t feel left out. Once he lied to a grocery-store clerk to get me some circus-themed playing cards that he insisted had been left out of our bag.
One day in my junior-high math class, I hadn’t done my homework, and I told my teacher I’d left it in my father’s car. I assured her that if she called my father, he’d verify my story. I knew he would cover for me, because we had an unspoken agreement: he would confirm any of my small lies in exchange for my hiding one big truth — that my father had claimed my body for his sexual gratification.
I was seventeen and facing the terrifying prospect of telling my best friend, Lena, the truth. We were sitting on the shag-carpeted floor of my bedroom, a bottle of cheap red wine between us. My hands shook as I tried to light a cigarette with a silver lighter Lena had given me. I’d recently returned home after running away and traveling with some hippie friends for a month. I’d come back with one purpose in mind: to tell Lena that I was in love with her.
The word bisexual was a whole lot easier to say than lesbian, but I choked on it anyway.
“Bisexual?” Lena asked, her brown eyes kind and patient as she tucked my long hair behind my ears.
“Yeah,” I said, looking down.
“Does this have anything to do with me?” she asked.
I couldn’t answer. I just stared at the glowing end of my cigarette. She put her hand over mine and said, “Did you ever think I might feel the same way about you?”
My father, a career military-intelligence officer, taught me to lie. I learned to tell lies that were simple, easy to remember, and impossible to disprove. But he never intended for me to lie to him.
After high school I chose a college that was as far from my father as I could get. I became interested in the spiritual aspects of psychedelics and started experimenting with marijuana, mescaline, and LSD. I was tripping on acid when I came to understand that truth was light and lies were darkness, so truth became my path to enlightenment.
The next time I visited my parents, I felt a strong need to tell them about my life. With my lover there for moral support, I proudly told my father and mother that I was not a virgin, and that I believed smoking marijuana was a rewarding experience. I quit before I got to the part about LSD. My mother cried, and my father got me to promise that I would never smoke marijuana again. Afterward everyone retreated to their rooms.
Alone and trembling in the guest room, I realized that, out of habit, I had told another lie. So I went to my parents’ room and told them I was no longer going to lie to them, that I would certainly be smoking marijuana again, and that there was nothing they could do to change that.
My father ordered me to leave the house. As long as I insisted on doing drugs, I was not welcome there. My mother held my face in her hands and cried, “I could have died giving birth to you!” My lover and I left. I didn’t return to my parents’ house for many years.
My parents and I eventually reconciled, and I learned that telling the truth can be a spiritual path, but it must be undertaken with compassion. Some truths are cruel, and hard to bear, and must be carried alone.
Santa Rosa, California
Tommy and I met in 1952 while playing in the same creek. We became instant friends but knew not to tell anyone about our friendship, because Tommy was black and I was white.
He and I went to different elementary schools, even though we lived less than half a mile apart. One afternoon I brought my schoolbooks to the creek to do my homework. When Tommy saw me, he came to a sudden halt. “Girl, I can’t believe what you’ve done!” he yelled. “Are you crazy?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “These are just my schoolbooks. I was doing my homework.”
Tommy stared at me. “Your schoolbooks? I thought you had stolen them from school,” he said. “In our school, only the teachers have books.”
Tommy was a fast reader and wanted to be a doctor; he especially loved my science book, so I started bringing it home every day. We’d been told never to check out a school library book for another person, but I began bringing library books to Tommy, too, and he devoured them.
When our school librarian praised me to my teacher for being such an avid reader, I blushed in shame. I knew I was supposed to tell the truth, but I remained silent. As I stared at my shoes, I wondered for the first time whether telling the truth and living the truth were always the same thing. Living the truth suddenly seemed bigger.
Roberta Parker Martin
Black Mountain, North Carolina
I first had sex when I was twenty-one, with a man to whom I wasn’t attracted. I found myself painfully self-conscious and somewhat disembodied during the act. I didn’t have an orgasm.
In the years that followed, I continued not having orgasms during sex. It didn’t even occur to me to fake one; I was so anxious and insecure that my own arousal didn’t factor into the equation. The men apparently felt the same way, because none of them acknowledged my pleasure — or lack of it. As time went on, though, my inability to have an orgasm made me feel defective and ashamed, so I started faking it.
The first time I had sex with the man who would later become my husband, I faked an extraordinary climax. I had become a pretty good actress over the years. Afterward he told me how much it had meant to him to be able to give me such pleasure. When I heard this, I felt a bit disappointed by how gullible he was, but mostly I felt sad and alone.
Months of dating this man increased my self-esteem and my comfort with my sexuality, and I gradually began to inhabit my body during lovemaking. Finally the day came when I had my first authentic orgasm. It was less dramatic on the outside, but on the inside it felt great — honest and satisfying.
Yet I was still alone in this new experience. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, or face my own guilt, by revealing my past dishonesty, so I lied again — this time by omission. But this new deception began to weigh on me. Finally I decided to end the charade. “You know, you’re the first person I ever had an orgasm with,” I whispered to him in bed one evening. There was a pause. “Really?” he said. He asked when the first time had been. I told him. A longer pause. “But what about the other times?”
He was confused and insulted, thinking I had faked it to protect his ego. In tears, I explained that I hadn’t wanted him to find out that I was an uptight, neurotic girl pretending to be a woman. I had never felt so vulnerable. I had also never felt so relieved. Having told the truth, I could finally be my real self.
My little brother Beany was only two when Dad died of cancer. Mom packed the family into a white Ford station wagon and moved us from southern Ohio to the coast of New Hampshire, where we knew no one. Under my bed, in an old tin box, I kept the family photographs. Late at night I would take them out and organize them as a way to reassure myself that Dad had, in fact, existed.
One afternoon I found four-year-old Beany and his best friend, Peter, staring up at our imposing portrait of John Brown, the abolitionist who attempted to start a slave rebellion in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Peter pointed to the painting of the man in a tattered uniform and asked who he was. Beany said, “That’s my dad. He was killed in the war. Shot between the eyes.” Peter’s eyes opened wide, and he said, “Wow!”
To correct this misinformation, I went upstairs and got a picture of Dad to show Beany and Peter. When I returned, the boys were out in the yard, playing soldiers and gleefully reenacting Dad’s death scene. I stopped and watched. The boys looked up at me.
“Hi, Mandy,” Beany said. “We’re playing war. What’s that?”
“Oh, nothing. Just an old photo,” I said. I tucked the picture into my pocket and walked back inside. Who was I to take away his truth and replace it with my own?
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
In the early seventies, when I was twelve years old, recreational drug use was rampant. Fascinated by my older siblings’ stories about the parties they went to, I thought it would be cool to be a “druggie.”
I’d heard the term “reds,” but I knew nothing about them except that they were pills. I started to boast to the kids at school that I was doing reds. One day the Therault sisters showed me two pills they said were reds. I looked at the red ovals and said, “Oh, yeah, can I have them?” They could have been rat poison for all I knew, but I swallowed them anyway. About ten minutes later I started to pretend I was getting high by running around, screaming, and mimicking what I thought a “bad trip” might look like.
After I’d calmed down, the Therault sisters flatly told me that the pills were Geritol. I tried to cover for myself by saying I’d taken some reds earlier, but they’d gotten me good. I never wanted to get caught in a lie like that again.
I didn’t. I grew up to be an addict.
East Hartford, Connecticut
I know I wasn’t to blame for being sexually abused as a child. Still, sometimes my memories start to take on a life of their own. I’ll remember myself as older than I was and my stepbrother as younger than he was. I’ll remember giving in without a fight. I’ll remember being able to confide in someone.
But then I’ll run across my diary from back then, and it will reveal the truth: that I was ten when the abuse started, not twelve; that my stepbrother was four years older than I was, not two; that I didn’t tell my father because I was terrified of him; and, most importantly, that I was just a kid.
I spent so many years working up the courage to tell people what had happened to me. I never guessed that convincing myself would take much longer.
San Francisco, California
After ten years of raising children and doing my best to live out my dream of being an actress, I found myself playing the mother in a stage production of Cheaper by the Dozen. The man who played my husband was handsome, distinguished, warm, and attentive, the polar opposite of my real husband, an alcoholic who started drinking at 7 A.M. and wandered the house in his boxer shorts.
I was so enamored of my costar that I begged the director to pepper the stage directions with kisses and caresses. Every rehearsal we raised our stage children and had a loving stage relationship. I had a better life for two hours at a time — no matter that it was the same two hours over and over.
In the moment when my character found out her husband was dead, I cried, facing the audience alone. A reviewer who came to the opening said the scene was the most moving he had ever seen on our stage. I think that moment was so moving because it was true. Every night I lost my onstage husband, and I knew that one night I would not get him back.
One summer night when I was fifteen years old, I was baby-sitting and found sixty dollars in a kitchen drawer. Reasoning that anyone who was so casual with money must be pretty well-off, I took it.
I spent the next few weeks taking my best friend out for bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches and milkshakes at lunch. It was a treat for me, too, because my large family rarely got to eat out.
A few days into this routine, the man who’d hired me to baby-sit called my mother and asked her if I had taken the money. When she confronted me, I denied it, and she believed me.
Fifteen years later I was in AA, where I was encouraged to make amends for past wrongs. I had fantasies of sending the man several hundred dollars and an apology for any hardship I may have put his family through. The only problem was that I didn’t know the man’s name. I would have had to ask my mother, which would have meant admitting to her that I had actually stolen the money. I wasn’t willing to take that risk. Making amends remained a fantasy.
More than forty years have passed since the incident, and I am still afraid to tell my mother the truth.
I go to several AA meetings a week. I have a sponsor, I’ve made amends with people I stole from when I was a drunk, and I pray to a higher power. Because of what I’ve learned from AA, I’m a better parent.
I also smoke pot regularly — daily if I can. Almost no one knows this about me, including people in AA. I’ve told my therapist, but I lie about how much and how often I smoke. My boyfriend and I smoke together, but he doesn’t know that I also do it alone.
I recently got my three-year AA coin to commemorate my sobriety.
When I was nineteen, my thirty-nine-year-old stepmother seduced me while my father was out of town on a business trip. We got drunk and had sex off and on for two or three days. I never told anyone about what had happened. My stepmother went into rehab and is still married to my father.
Sometime before I got married, I contracted genital herpes. I infected my wife with the virus. We divorced fourteen years later, and in all that time I never admitted I was the one who had infected her.
I had convinced myself those two secrets were going with me to my grave, but then I went into group therapy. Last year I was finally able to admit what I’d done. At one point, my throat swelled shut as if refusing to release the truth, and I began to choke. But the truth emerged at last, and it released me from years of emotional imprisonment.
In the summer of 1980, my pregnant wife, our three-year-old daughter, and I moved from Florida to Montana. We arrived with less than $250 to our name. Perhaps my wife and I should have been scared, but we were young and in love. We rented an old trailer for $140 a month.
After filling out several job applications, I learned that prospects around town were bleak, especially for a newcomer. Then someone told me about an opening on the maintenance crew for the annual Northwest Montana State Fair, a weeklong extravaganza. I hurried down to the fairgrounds and marched into the maintenance shop.
Two older men sat in the narrow, dusty, cluttered office, both wearing Western shirts, faded bluejeans, and cowboy boots. “I’m looking for a job,” I said.
Neither man said a word. With my shaggy hair, full beard, deep tan, and Florida attire, I must have looked like a ghost from the hippie past.
“I’m not afraid of hard work,” I added. I didn’t know what else to say.
Something in those few words must have rung true, because the men’s gaze began to soften. We chatted for a few minutes, and I got the job: ten nights of work on the maintenance crew.
Thanks to two strangers who knew the truth when they heard it, my family and I were able to stay in Montana. I worked for the fair for ten more years.
A year and a half ago, I fell in love with a man who is very different from me. I crave touch and affection; he likes his space. I become attached to people, places, and things; he believes that detachment will spare him the pain of loss. I accept my emotions; he runs from his.
On New Year’s Eve my boyfriend gave me an unusual gift: a handful of Ecstasy tablets. We took some and stayed up late into the night, sitting face to face, naked both physically and emotionally, and telling each other the truth. All I could say over and over was how much I loved him. He made his own declarations of love and told me that I was one of the greatest women he’d ever known. We shared secrets from our past, accepting each other’s mistakes without judgment. We made love.
The afterglow lasted several weeks, but my boyfriend’s protective walls gradually went back up. I now regret that New Year’s experience, because every subsequent interaction between us pales in comparison. Trying to maintain intimacy with a man who fears it has worn me down.
Now I’m struggling to reveal what I’ve been denying for months. How do I tell my beloved that it’s lonely loving him? How do I tell the man I love that I’ve given up?
One of my mother’s favorite stories, told with melancholic flair, is about the day she went to the airport to say goodbye to my younger brother and me as we boarded a cross-country flight to return home to our dad.
We hadn’t lived with our mother for several years. Since the divorce, she’d become a party girl, and children were not in her budget.
“It was one of the worst days of my entire life,” she would say, shaking her head slowly. “I got to that airport and could barely stand it, watching your little bodies walk down that hallway. The worst, just the worst.” She would take a long drag off her Pall Mall and stare misty-eyed into the distance.
She’s told this story countless times: over games of Scrabble or cribbage, over wine in the backyard, in front of an episode of The Golden Girls or Matlock. The story depicts a moment when our mother, instead of being submerged in drugs, alcohol, and self-interest, truly cared about us. It led me to have a little sympathy for her: she couldn’t help it if she wasn’t the mothering type.
One evening when I was visiting an aunt I hadn’t seen in many years, we started telling tales about my childhood, and I told her the airport story.
My aunt said, “Oh, is she still telling you that? She never went to the airport that day. Aunt Rebecca and I were there to see you guys off. I’m sorry, but your mother never showed up.”
I never believed another thing my mother told me.
There was always some mystery surrounding my birth. My parents divorced before I was born, and I bore no resemblance to my father and little resemblance to my brother. In coming across some old pictures, I saw that I did look a lot like a man my mother had dated for a long time when I was little.
Dad suffered from mental illness and alcoholism, and as I got older I wondered whether the same afflictions would eventually get hold of me. I started a family of my own, and when my first son was about a year old, Dad came to visit. It was a terrible experience; he was off his medication and drinking heavily. I dropped him off at his hotel and left him ranting in the parking lot as I drove away.
When I got home, I called my mother and pressed her for the truth about whether there was a genetic reason for me to be concerned about my mental health. She paused for a minute as her thirty-three-year-old lie unraveled. Then she said, “You have nothing to worry about.”
“Am I going to die?” my sister asked me as she awaited her radiation treatment.
I told her yes, she was terminally ill. Despite surgery to remove the melanoma; despite a lymphectomy to excise thirteen cancerous growths; despite macrobiotic food, shark cartilage, and positive thinking; despite nineteen years of fighting cancer, she was going to die.
“How long?” she asked.
“Months, or weeks.”
After the radiation treatment, the ambulance brought us back to my sister’s house, where we’d set up a hospital bed in her living room by the bay window. In the days to come, we planned her memorial, wrote her obituary, and sorted out the gifts she wanted to leave to friends.
Nine weeks later, she was gone.
There are many things I regret: being too busy to call or visit my sister before she got sick that last time; not telling her more often that I loved her. But I’ve never regretted telling her the truth.
When I was a teenager, my older sister asked me, “If we weren’t sisters, would we be friends?”
I knew what she wanted to hear, but I decided to be honest. “No,” I said. Of course, my sister was shocked and hurt. I felt sorry for having hurt her, yet strangely clean in my heart.
Recently she told me that what I’d said still caused her pain. She asked if my feelings had changed these fifty years later. I had to tell her that my feelings were the same now as before, and I suggested that if she wasn’t prepared to hear the truth, she shouldn’t ask the question.
She didn’t appreciate that truth either.
Mountain View, California
I’m at a speak-out in New York City’s Union Square Park, where women and men are telling their stories of sexual abuse and assault. Jane is at the mike; she tells how her grandfather raped her when she was five. She could hear the loud ticking of a clock on the night table next to them. Next comes Pete; he recalls how, when he was eleven, a minister lured him into a basement after a soccer game and made him strip down to his shoes. Then it’s Lucinda’s turn; she shows us the bruises on her arms where her boyfriend beat her with his fists.
A woman I spoke to at registration is standing next to me. “Why don’t you take the mike?” she says. “The truth is in the details.”
I consider her suggestion. Should I tell the crowd about having been a nine-year-old girl pinned under a fat man? I could describe the dirty white walls and the rattle of the air conditioner. I could explain how I taught myself to love my captor, who was also my stepfather. I could recount the tender moments between us in my teen years — how I kissed his eyelids as he lay dying in a blue nightshirt.
I keep silent. Telling a crowd of people the truth about my early life might be every bit as humiliating as having lived it.
As a boy, I was taught that a man lies only to protect his family. But I was also taught that a man “carries his own water in this life,” meaning that you don’t burden others with talk about your problems. So when my life wasn’t going well, I lied to my teachers and parents; to my wives and bosses and children; and, most easily of all, to myself. And when I began to drink too much, I lied about that, too.
I was driving home drunk one night when I saw the flashing lights of a police car behind me. I pulled over. As the officer approached my car, I was filled not with fear but with an incredible sense of relief. I made a commitment to myself: from the moment I climbed out of that truck, I would lie no more.
I told the officer the truth. Then I told the truth to a magistrate, to my family, and to a judge. And for once in my life, I accepted my punishment rather than rail against it.
I no longer carry my own water; I share the burden with friends and loved ones, just as I help them carry theirs. It’s the only way to live a life that doesn’t require lies.
As I’m cleaning my windshield at a gas station, a woman approaches me. “Excuse me,” she says. She’s older, with a hardened face and white hair loosely drawn into a bun. “I’m so sorry. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve been to see my nephew at the hospital, and I need to get home. Could you spare me some money for gas? I could repay you after I get home.”
My gaze wanders down to the safety pin on her coat where a button should be; to her dirty fingernails, jagged and split.
“Of course,” I say. As I reach for my wallet, I remember I have two twenties and four ones. How much to give? I pull out a twenty. She thanks me and again offers to repay me. “That’s really not necessary,” I say with a smile. She turns and walks to a beat-up station wagon. I replace my gas cap and add air to a low tire. Meanwhile she has pulled up to a pump but is still sitting behind the wheel, dabbing at her face with a paper towel.
I consider waiting to see if she buys gas, or going over and pumping her gas for her. But that would break a trust between us. She chose to tell me her story, and I chose to believe it. As I turn to leave, I say to her through her half-open window, “You take care now.” And I mean it.
When my daughter Sylvie was sixteen, she told me she wanted to take male hormones and live as a man. In her transition from Sylvie to Stephan, her shoulders began to broaden, her hips started to narrow, and a beard sprouted on her face. Considering I was still living in the town where I’d raised my two girls, I had some explaining to do.
One day at the produce market, I ran into an old neighbor. “How are the girls?” she asked. By this time I had learned the advantage of delivering my “Stephan speech” with clinical detachment. The former neighbor, a family therapist, was sympathetic and said how lucky Stephan was to have my husband and me as parents.
When I went to check out, I noticed the director of the girls’ old nursery school in line in front of me. She, too, asked about the girls. I took a breath. One Stephan speech a day was my limit.
“Everyone is doing well,” I replied.
“I’ll never forget Sylvie,” she said. “I can’t even imagine what she looks like now.”
No, I thought, you really can’t.