The truth behind telling lies

"The first lie he could remember telling was to a classmate. When Philip was 11 or 12, he’d insisted that he’d been recruited by MI5 to train as an agent"


For the past 25 years, I’ve worked as a psychoanalyst. What follows is an episode drawn from day-to-day practice. While I’ve altered some details in the interest of confidentiality, I’ve stayed close to the facts: this story is true.


Philip came to see me for an interview one April, some years ago now. His doctor had decided to refer him after bumping into Philip’s wife at a local bookstore. She’d taken his hand, holding back tears. Would it be a good idea, she’d wondered, for them to discuss the remaining treatment options for Philip’s lung cancer?

During his first meeting with me, Philip (who was perfectly healthy, as his GP had told me) listed some of the lies he’d recently told. At a school fund-raiser, he’d told his daughter’s music teacher that he was the son of a famous composer – a man who was widely known to be unmarried and gay. Just before that, he’d told his father-in- law, a sports journalist, that he’d once been selected as a reserve for the UK men’s archery team.

The first lie he could remember telling was to a classmate. When Philip was 11 or 12, he’d insisted that he’d been recruited by MI5 to train as an agent. He described his headmaster’s admonishment: “For goodness’ sake – if you’re going to lie, at least do a better job of it.”

The headmaster was right, Philip was a dreadful liar. While each lie seemed tailored to wow the listener, they were also pointlessly excessive – wildly risky. “You don’t seem to worry about people thinking you’re a liar,” I told him. He shrugged.

He told me that his listeners rarely challenged him. His wife did not confront him about his miraculous recovery, just as she seemed to accept the news of his cancer. Others, like his father-in-law, were almost certainly more sceptical, but also remained silent. When I asked him about the effect his lying had on his career – he worked as a television producer – he told me that everyone in the industry lied: “It’s part of the skill set.”

Throughout the consultation I was struck by Philip’s frankness. But I knew that if he was to be himself with me – if he was to bring all of himself into our work – he would, at some point, lie to me. It happened soon enough. A month into treatment, he stopped paying his bill. He told me that he’d misplaced his chequebook, but that he would settle his account as soon as he found it. The next month he told me that he had donated his month’s salary to the Freud Museum.

After five months of tall tales, I had to inform him that we would stop at the end of that month unless he settled his debt. Just as he was about to leave what was to have been our final session, he took a cheque from his pocket and handed it to me. I was relieved to be paid but uncertain about what had happened between us. Philip had told increasingly blatant lies and I’d become increasingly withdrawn – more guarded when I spoke. He was, I now realised, expert in tying his listener up in the social convention that we meet lies with polite silence. But why – what possible psychological purpose could his behaviour serve?

We wrestled with this question for the next year of his treatment. We explored the idea that his lying was a way of controlling others, or compensating for a sense of inferiority. We talked about his parents – his father was a surgeon and his mother had been a schoolteacher until her death, just before Philip’s 12th birthday.

And then, one day, Philip described a memory from childhood, which had seemed too trivial to mention until then. From the age of three, he used to share a bedroom with his twin brothers, who slept in cots nearby. He sometimes woke in the middle of the night to the sounds of people shouting as they left the pub across the road. He was often aware of a need to pee, and knew that he should get up and walk down the hall, but he would stay in bed, motionless.

“I used to wet my bed as a child,” Philip told me. He described crumpling up his damp pyjamas and pushing them deep into the covers, only to find them at bedtime under his pillow, washed and neatly folded. He never discussed it with his mother and, to the best of his knowledge, she never told anyone, including his father, about his bedwetting. “He’d have been furious with me,” Philip said. “I guess she thought I’d outgrow it. And I did, when she died.”

Philip could not remember being alone with his mother. For most of his childhood she had been busy taking care of the twins. He had no memory of ever talking with her on his own; one of his brothers or his father – someone – was always there. His bedwetting and her silence gradually developed into a private conversation – something only they shared. When his mother died, this conversation abruptly came to an end.

And so Philip began to improvise another version of their exchange. He told lies that would make a mess, and then hoped, irrationally, that his listener would say nothing, becoming, like his mother, a partner in a secret world. Philip’s lying was not an attack upon intimacy – though it sometimes had that effect. It was his way of keeping the closeness he had known, his way of holding on to his mother.


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