How Ordinary People Become Extraordinary Liars

How Ordinary People Become Extraordinary Liars

The Trip Down Liars Lane

There was a time when I thought I was going to write a book called How Ordinary People Become Extraordinary Liars. It never happened. I did, though, write what was going to be the introductory chapter. With the recent revelation that Jonah Lehrer had put words into the mouth of Bob Dylan and published them in his fantastically successful book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, I thought it might be the time to share how I frame the issue. (Obviously, this post is off the topic of Living Single.)

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard, 1979) is a social psychologist and the author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After(link is external) (St. Martin’s Press) and How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century(link is external) (Atria), and other books(link is external). Atlantic magazine described Dr. DePaulo as “America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience.”

Editor: Muhammad Talha


“That’s my son!” she screamed. She paused a moment, perhaps to catch her breath, or to wonder whether this really could be happening. Then she stood up, cradled her face in her hands, and screamed again.

Out of context, it would have been hard to tell—was her son some big lout who had been exposed on national TV, or had he just won a dazzlingly unexpected and renowned prize?

Turns out, the answer was both. She was Lynne Frey, mother of James Frey, who was the author of the wildly popular memoir of addiction and redemption, A Million Little Pieces. The reason she was at the Oprah Winfrey shows that autumn day, she thought, was because James knew she loved Oprah and had always dreamed of sitting right there in the audience, so he arranged it. But then the time came for the announcement of the new book club selection. Oprah got no farther than the word Million when Lynne Frey began to shout.

Here was the mother of a man who, as Oprah put it, “at 23, has no money, no job, no home and is wanted in three states.” And now she was the mother of an author whose memoir was so riveting that it kept Oprah Winfrey up into the wee hours of the night reading it. What a story! I was hooked.

I hadn’t been paying much attention to James Frey up to that point. I wasn’t even watching the Oprah pronouncement in real-time. Instead, I caught the clip on Larry King Live. I had heard murmurings that the supposed memoirist had instead been peddling fiction, and was just curious enough to turn on the TV while I answered some e-mail.

The accusations were leveled by the website, The Smoking Gun. From watching Larry King review the charges and question James Frey about them, I gathered that there were several points of dispute. Did James drive his car up on a curb or hit a policeman with it? Was there a bag of crack in his car at the time, or just a half-consumed bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer? Was he jailed for three months or just held for a few hours, unshackled, until a friend appeared to post a few hundred dollars in bail?

James Frey countered that the disputed section was just eighteen pages of a 432-page book. He had, he said, told the “essential truth”, the “emotional truth” about his life, and he stood by it.

His publisher, Doubleday, stood by the book, too. So did his editor, Nan A. Talese; A Million Little Pieces was part of her prestigious imprint.

James Frey was trying to calm the tempest, but if his editor and publisher were still issuing claims of support, and his accuser was making the rounds of the television shows, and Larry King was devoting the entire hour to the matter—well, clearly, Frey had not yet succeeded. Larry King was the first to raise the question that everyone seemed to want to be answered: What did Oprah think? James said he didn’t know. Later, a caller got through and asked the question again. Then, Larry King welcomed Lynne Frey to the show and asked her if she expected to hear from Oprah. She didn’t know, either.

The show wound down to the last minute, and Larry King asked James for his parting message to his readers. But then the call came in that would extend the broadcast into the next time slot. It was, of course, from Oprah.

It was also everything James and Lynne Frey could have hoped for—a full embrace of James and his message. “Whether or not the car’s wheels rolled up on the sidewalk or whether he hit the police officer or didn’t hit the police officer is irrelevant to me, ” Oprah proclaimed. Lynne Frey clapped her hands, child-like, and patted James’s hand. Maybe that would be the end of it.

It wasn’t.

The wheels of the car and the beer and the policeman and the stint in jail were just the beginning of the liberties that James Frey had taken with his life story. There were fights that never happened, more jail terms that were never imposed, a drug bust that drew the attention of the FBI (only it didn’t), and a tragic accident that really did kill two high school girls—but without the role in it that Frey fabricated for himself.

Now I was disgusted. And appalled. And stunned at James Frey’s utter stupidity. Did he really think he could make up one outrageous story after another, in a book that millions of readers already had in their hands, and wriggle free of scandal by claiming that, oh, it was just a few pages out of hundreds, and anyway it was the “emotional truth”? What an idiot! I considered myself jaded and moved on.

By the springtime, I was newly smitten. Stretching across the front page of the books section of my local newspaper was a giant picture of a casually beautiful nineteen-year-old, posed against the gate to Harvard Yard. Little, Brown had signed her to a two-book deal of eye-popping proportions—and that was back when she was seventeen, and still in high school. In the meantime, she signed with DreamWorks for the movie deal, and—oh, yeah—while writing the first book, she had also kept up with her first two years of Harvard coursework.

I remember when I was an undergraduate. I took the minimum number of courses, was not writing a novel, and never seemed to have enough time to sleep—and that was without ever pausing to lean on the gates to the campus. I loved Kaavya Viswanathan’s story.

There was another author, Megan McCafferty, who had written two books in the same genre, and her fans were not nearly so impressed with Viswanathan as I was. They noticed a number of passages in Viswanathan’s just-published book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, that seemed remarkably similar to sections of McCafferty’s books. The Harvard Crimson (student newspaper) published the story first, together with thirteen examples of parallel passages.

Within hours, Viswanathan released a statement through her publisher, apologizing to McCafferty and explaining that she had read McCafferty’s books a number of times and that any similarities in wordings “were completely unintentional and unconscious.” Little, Brown promised that future printings of the Opal novel would be revised to eliminate the similarities. Michael Pietsch, senior vice president of the publishing house, added his strong support: “Kaavya Viswanathan is a decent, serious, and incredibly hard-working writer and student, and I am confident that we will learn that any similarities in phrasings were unintentional.”

I was confident, too. It seemed wholly plausible to me that you could read something you liked, reread it a few times, then use the same wording yourself somewhere down the line, without realizing that it was not originally your own. In academic psychology, there is even a term for the phenomenon—“source confusion.” I kept my soft spot for Kaavya and her spectacular success story.

Soon a few more parallel passages were uncovered, and a few more after that. At one point, the number was up to forty-five. In short order, Opal was pulled from the shelves, the contract for the second book was rescinded, and so were the movie rights.

Viswanathan was finished, and I was left shaking my head still again. Frey and Viswanathan were obviously people with talent, people who could have succeeded without lying, cheating, or plagiarizing. Why did they take the low road when they had other options? And in view of their considerable abilities, how did they let their misrepresentations and misappropriations get so out of hand? Looking back, some of their claims were preposterous, yet smart people swallowed them. Did Oprah really believe that James Frey had a root canal without any anesthetic?

I wanted to know the answers. How do ordinary people become extraordinary liars? I started reading. I researched fraudulent journalists and authors, historians, and scientists. I read about grifters and perpetrators of infamous hoaxes. I tracked down books about daring adventurers who only claimed to have accomplished their magnificent feats. I researched medical malingerers, wannabe warriors, and more. I looked for stories from unknown people who wrote about their extraordinary lies, such as the affairs that they pursued for decades. I also read voraciously about big-time deceptions orchestrated by packs of liars, such as the Enron gang and the Watergate guys.

Some of the stories were rollicking tales that were great fun to read. But that’s all they were. On the other end of the continuum were riveting reads that included psychological depths and complexities and conflicts in addition to the suspense over whether the deception would succeed.

The latter liars, whose lives read like the stuff of great novels, started out as ordinary people. By that, I mean morally ordinary. They engage in bad behaviors and tell serious lies, but they do so with compunction. The first serious lie in a sequence of lies, or the first transgression that tempts the subsequent lies, is unnerving to them. Ideally, they would prefer to be good, decent, and honest people. They worry about the implications of their actions for the well-being of other people (or at least pretend to). They often care a great deal—may be too much—about what other people think of them. In the beginning of their ill-fated tales, when they take that first step that ultimately leads to a very low and very dark place, they know not where they are headed. What happens to them in the end—what they bring about with their own actions—is not anything that they anticipated or planned.

The other liars are different. To them, their big deceptive adventure is a challenge and a lark. Often, they merrily plan the whole thing in advance. If in the process, they hurt other people (even people who stood by them all along the way), or if they blemish their profession and create clouds of doubt around those who are practicing their trade with integrity—well, either they just don’t think about those things or they don’t really care. I think of these people as morally small liars. An example is Clifford Irving, who landed a huge advance to write an “authorized” autobiography of Howard Hughes, a man he never met and knew he never would meet. Irving explained how he felt immediately after he confessed:  “I almost wanted to cry out: ‘Sure, I did it. And I’m glad I did it. You want me to grovel? I can’t. Do you want me to feel guilty? I don’t. Because I enjoyed every goddamn minute of it.” No conscience, no remorse.

Extraordinary liars are the stars of their own shows, but none of them, no matter how determined, could pull off their infamous deceits without a strong supporting cast. An unending line of adulterers have had assists from the spouse who didn’t see what she (or he) was looking at, and the lovers and colleagues who never revealed what they knew. Ben Bradlee and a newsroom full of wise editors at the Washington Post signed off on Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer-prize winning story of Jimmy, the eight-year-old heroin addict. It was, of course, fraudulent.

Later, many who were fooled would look back on their experiences with chagrin. Stephen Glass, a reporter who fabricated a whole parade of stories before he was undone, was the topic of a 60 Minutes piece. During the segment, a litany of Glass’s ridiculous lies was recited. Charles Lane, who was executive editor of The New Republic during much of the time when Glass was faking his stories, listened, then said, “They were real howlers, weren’t they?”

One after another, the editors, colleagues, and friends of Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, and all the others would try to explain, to themselves and to the world, how it was that they got conned. There is a sense of “I still cannot believe this happened” to their accounts. Sometimes, too, there is an unspoken acknowledgment that, despite the countless conversations they’ve had and the endless hours they have spent ruminating on the matter, they still don’t totally understand how the person they thought they knew could have been such a fraud.

The befuddlement is warranted. In the domain of extraordinary lies, the right things work in the wrong ways, and the liars, their lies, and their supporters all get trapped in a tangle of ironies. Consider just a few:

  • Intelligence, sensitivity, and the ability to see what lies deep in the hearts of other people can be magnificent talents. But the ordinary people who become extraordinary liars often have just those sorts of skills, and use them to give their lies legs.
  • When ordinary people are accused of lying, the people in their lives who care about them and believe in them step forward to vouch for them. That’s how friends and mentors should act. Ordinarily. But when the accused are actually guilty, those very acts of loyalty can give serious lies a longer life and a safer cover. The liars who may have been mustering the courage to come clean now face another formidable deterrent: Their confession will disappoint and publicly embarrass just those people who tried to stand by them in a time of need.
  • When the descent into deceit is in its earliest stages, and just one transgression has been committed or just one lie has been told, is when it is most possible, psychologically and logistically, to step away from the lie. But that is also precisely the time when liars are least inclined to do so.
  • Most humans are in the habit of believing. Assuming the truthfulness of others is our default position. Our trusting nature, though, gives an edge to those who would exploit it. And yet, who would chose to reset the human starting point to chronic suspiciousness?

For more of my writing on deception, check out this page. For more of what you came to this blog for, writings about the single life, check out the latest at my other blog. For the writings of other singles bloggers, Single with Attitude is always at your service.