Someone asked Tobias Wolff, that superb storyteller, about all the characters in his stories who find it hard to speak the truth. His new collection, Our Story Begins, contains The Liar, a 1981 piece about a teenager who spends his time regaling strangers with elaborate fictions about his family and his upbringing. Caught in a bus that's broken down in a storm, he informs his fellow passengers that he was raised in Tibet by missionaries. He sings them songs in what he says is Tibetan, invented on the spot.
So why, Wolff was asked, do they lie so much? He answered, "The world is not enough, maybe?"
Perhaps that's the origin of the many mysterious lies that attract the horrified attention of journalists. Everywhere around us people are busily concocting what we might gently call inappropriate fictions. Follow the news for a few months and you conclude that we live in an age of mendacity,
to borrow the word Big Daddy sprays around the room in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. What's strange is that much of the mendacity appears to have no practical purpose.
Obviously that wouldn't cover lies like Bill Clinton's great gift to future editors of quotation books ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman"). He lied out of calculation, figuring he could hide yet another sexual misdemeanour. Undone by DNA, he came up smiling anyway. The most famous modern literary fraud, Clifford Irving's autobiography of Howard Hughes in 1972, was also purposeful. A failed novelist, Irving was desperate for money and collected a great pile of it before Hughes exposed him, with the help of an indiscreet Swiss bank. Irving served 16 months in prison, but he, too, kept smiling. He translated notoriety into fame and kept writing more books, among them The Hoax, about his crime, which Lasse Hallstrom made into a Richard Gere comedy last year. The idea of calculated lying also explains those memoirists who invent dramatic lives and sell them for great sums to gullible publishers.
But how can we explain why Hillary Clinton claimed that on her trip to Bosnia in 1996, her plane landed amid sniper fire and she and her party had to run for cover, "with our heads down"? Others who were present recall no sniper fire, no running for cover, no lowered heads.
A TV tape shows her walking at her usual pace across the tarmac. News producers last week enjoyed running the 1996 video with a voice-over sound tape of her 2008 version. She has since said she "misspoke" herself. That's a misuse of "misspoke." It's appropriate when you say Iraq instead of Iran, not when you cast yourself in a Hollywood action scene and make it part of your personal story.
For many years Hillary Clinton maintained that she was named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the Mount Everest climber. She finally stopped saying that in 2006 after several journalists pointed out that the dates were a little off. She was born in 1947. Sir Edmund was unknown, except in New Zealand beekeeping circles, till he reached the top of Everest in 1953.
Why would she have said that? Certainly it didn't add much to her reputation. It was as pointless as her startling declaration, when she first ran for senator from New York, that she was a lifelong Yankees fan -- though no one could be found who had ever heard her mention the team. In general, her commitment to truth (as George F. Will wrote the other day about a famous sportscaster, Bill Stern) is episodic.
Is there a vaguely medical basis for these insignificant fables? Does she suffer from mythomania, the pathological tendency to create myths, a disorder mentioned in medical literature more than a century ago? The English have another and more literary word, romancer, not much used these days but entirely to the point. It describes someone who deals in extravagant fictions disguised as fact.
Romancers lie to integrate their dreams with reality. They lie so they can live, at least a little, the dramatic, heroic lives they have always felt they deserved. Often the lie completes an otherwise broken passage in a life, giving it order and point, making it come out right. Last fall, two American romancers tumbled out of the obit pages, men whose fictions were revealed posthumously.
One was a photographer of modest accomplishments, Joe O'Donnell, who falsely claimed he had taken, among other famous pictures, the shot of the tiny John Kennedy Jr. saluting as his father's funeral procession passed. The other was a man named Bill Henry, a retired salesman in Florida, who for two decades convinced his wife, his friends and his stepchildren that he had played major-league baseball.
It began with a coincidence of names. A real ballplayer named Bill Henry played in the majors for 16 years and pitched in two World Series games in 1961. Both men were tall lefthanders and in youth shared the same handsome square-jawed good looks. Bill Henry of Florida told wonderful stories about baseball and even had some real Bill Henry baseball cards on display; the face they showed could have been the salesman in his youth. When the bogus Bill Henry died, his family passed on his lies in good faith to a reporter, the Associated Press carried the story and Bill Henry of Deer Park, Tex., the ballplayer, let it be known that he was still alive. The widow in Florida remarked, "I was married to somebody that maybe I didn't know."
Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind (2004), by David Livingston Smith, who teaches cognitive science and evolutionary psychology at the University of New England, argues that humans are so intricately hard-wired to practise deception that often we aren't sure whether what we are saying is actually true. "Self-deception lies at the core of our humanity," he says. Deceit is so necessary in human relations that we lie as easily as we breathe. We deceive ourselves as well as others, evolution having embedded mendacity deep in our unconscious. Hillary Clinton, the photographer and the bogus ballplayer have all played out extreme versions of an ordinary human impulse. So, probably, have a multitude of others, most of them in secret, their invented selves unlikely ever to be revealed.