“My mom is at home with my baby brother,” Ryan told me, with beguiling sincerity. “He’s really young, so she still has to feed him. He’s only 2 years old!” The conversation went on for several minutes in this way, and I found out all about Ryan’s younger brother. “He has brown hair!” “He likes yogurt!” “He likes to play with my toy cars!”
“Earlier you were telling me about your older sister,” I mentioned casually, not trying to trap him. I was mostly curious to see how he responded–I was a cat pawing at a half-interesting ball of string.
“Oh.” A pause, a blink. “She’s 20, so she doesn’t live with us. She lives in America.” Ryan nodded to himself, as though checking his mental atlas, scrolling through the tiny, well-thumbed pages of his young brain. “So we only see her sometimes.”
Ryan doesn’t have any siblings at all.
I know that, and Ryan knows that, and Ryan probably knows that I know that. I didn’t mention it, because calling a six year-old out for being a liar is a little harsh, and really I’m just happy to see the oral language development.
Working with small children, you grow accustomed to these flights of fancy and regular dalliances with abject falsehood. Children test the world around them to see if their words can capture truth, if they can capture untruth, if they can shape the way others think by using the real and the unreal. Words are just so much noise and it barely ever occurs to them the weight they might carry, the value of some kinds of words in one assembly versus those shaped in some other configuration. Lying is just another way of breath passing through your lungs, so why not give it a try and talk about the time your family lived in Nicaragua, or how often your parents let you eat chocolate for dinner?
Still, there are times when spending the day surrounded by a group of people completely untrustworthy in most of what they say can leave you a little delirious. My sense of reality is regularly challenged, and I must keep a careful mind of the actual facts I know about the little people around me. It often feels like I am having an extended acid trip, that very little of what around me is real, or made of actual matter, or is properly in three dimensions. I often need a few minutes to process, to verify internally the things that I know. A private investigator has set up office in the dusky back rooms of my brain, has placed a desk and a heavy metal file cabinet, a trench coat and a cup of bourbon, a femme fatale and a rolodex of sources. With every sentence that bursts from the excitable gobs of my young charges, I must do a quick mental fact-check, a rundown of substance.
“She’s lying to you, chief,” the detective says when Laurel describes the various instruments she plays. Detective Sycamore always calls me chief, it’s an endearing affectation. “Don’t believe a word she says.”
Just like with adult liars, it can be hard to differentiate between those who know that they are fabricators from those who absolutely believe what they say. Some people lie so often and so well, or at least convincingly enough to overcome their own defences, or in such small increments that the variances from each previous fabricated instalment become undetectable. They lie because they believe grow to believe it.
I knew one man in Korea, a slightly taller, ganglier and more side-burned version of one of my first graders. Periodically he would appear at a gathering, unkempt or wounded or well-dressed and dapper, with a story to tell. Every syllable that fell from his lips was obvious and utter bullshit, verbiage so soaked in falsehood and ludicrousness that they might have rode into the room perched atop the back of a golden unicorn which shat clones of Tina Turner. Everyone would just stare at him incredulously as he spun this or that tale, enraptured yet obviously unbelieving, but smiling benignly all the same. He was like a three year-old playing hide-and-seek, putting just his face behind a cupboard door, his entire body visible, but confident that no one could see his form.
Why was he limping? Well, because he was stabbed by a British gangster on the Seoul subway at 4 a.m., and he managed to chase the fellow down, bleeding all the while, and wrestle him to the ground until the police came. Look at this blurry cell phone photo, in which he is caked in blood and lying in bed, for it is absolute proof of his claim.
Why was he so foppish and well-groomed, against his usual attire? Well, because the last time he was out on the town, he met two Russian supermodels, and they asked him out for a date which he would be going to later. There was some winking promise of a menage-a-trois, a salacious lick of the lips perhaps, a casual reference to the kind of freaky stuff that Russian women are totes into. He was dressed to impress, but he would like if none of us told his then-girlfriend of the torrid three-way love affair about to unfold.
And much like my students, I could never be bothered to call him out, to expose his obvious and hilariously poor lies for the lies they were. Sorting the truth from the mound of lies could take some doing, but doing so aloud would accomplish little, other than embarrassment and scrambling to other, shakier lies. With my students and with most chronic adult liars, it also feels unsportsmanlike–cruel, unnecessary, enormous fish in a tiny barrel.
Sometimes, you want to see where the lies go, which rabbit hole they might suddenly slip down. To crush it would be to cut down the beginning of an interesting journey, to stop reading a book on the third page. Like stomping on a blown bubble hovering centimetres above the ground, crystalline and translucent and oily, and desperately fragile. The bubble floats just barely, barely above the ground, and even if it is meagre and pathetic, you can’t help but root for it a little bit, to hope that it struggles vaguely onward back into the sky, on some flight of fancy or the another.