Lyin’ Eyes by
100
(137 Stories)

Prompted By Honesty

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The first time I lied about my age, I was five years old. It was my parents’ idea. Our family was visiting the United Nations in New York – perhaps one of my older sisters was studying it in school – and to get in to the General Assembly gallery at that time you had to be at least six. No problem, my parents would simply say I was six. They coached me on what to say if anyone asked me a question, like what year I was born or what grade I was in.

After I skipped a grade, I routinely started lying about my age, saying I was a year older so that I would seem to be the same age as my classmates. It didn’t seem like a big deal.

Only once did age-related lying cause a problem. At National Music Camp, which I have written about before, they placed campers in cabins very strictly by birthdate. My first year there I was in one of the youngest cabins, cabin 3, with 9 other girls who I really liked, all of whom had birthdays between April and September of 1951. The following summer. there were three times as many campers our age, so those from the previous summer were spread out among three different cabins. The April and May birthdays were in cabin 8, the June and July birthdays were in cabin 7, and the August and September birthdays (including me), were in lowly cabin 6. I was miserable. I didn’t like the girls in my cabin, and spent as much time as I could with cabin 8 where my friends were. (All my besties had April or May birthdays.) That was a no-no, you were supposed to have cabin loyalty and not go running around with another cabin. When I got my report card at the end of the summer (yes, this crazy camp issued report cards), I got “improvement needed” in citizenship, and they said I wouldn’t be invited back unless I promised to behave better.

So I made the promise and got invited back. When we were filling out the application for the next summer (yes, they made you apply every year), my parents got the bright idea of putting down 1950 for my birth year instead of 1951, so that I would be in a cabin with girls who were in my grade. Nobody at the camp noticed the inconsistency, and I found myself in a much higher cabin, which was great. But at some point someone figured it out, and when my parents came to visit, they got summoned to the Director’s Office and yelled at for lying on the application. I wasn’t kicked out, or forced to move to a younger cabin, and the rest of the summer went fine. But I was NOT invited to come back after that.

That didn’t teach me that lying was wrong, only that it was time to move on to another camp that didn’t base everything on your age. In fact, I continued lying about my age pretty consistently until I turned 30, when I decided it was time to stop making myself older. Of course, after about 39 I started lying to make myself younger, on the rare occasions that anyone asked my age.

And age isn’t the only thing I learned it was okay to lie about. My mother lied about the tooth fairy, and I did the same with my kids. It’s such a charming custom, when your tooth falls out, put it under your pillow and the tooth fairy will take it away and leave you money. I got twenty-five cents per tooth, but when my oldest daughter received that amount for her first tooth, she complained that all her friends were getting more. I said, “oh, they must have a different tooth fairy who pays better.” But after that, our family’s tooth fairy started paying more as well. If they lost or swallowed a tooth when it fell out (baby teeth are so tiny!), they carefully wrote a note of explanation to the tooth fairy so she would still leave them money. Here is one of Sabrina’s notes:.

And here is one of Ben’s from about the same time, thoughtfully illustrated in case the tooth fairy didn’t know what ice was or what snow cones were:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parents lie to their children about Santa Claus too. Mine didn’t, because we didn’t celebrate Christmas, but most did and still do. When my children were young, I had to caution them not to tell their friends that there really wasn’t any Santa Claus. That honesty would not have been appreciated by either the children or their parents.

One of my favorite family stories is about the benefits of a lie. My father was applying to medical school in the Thirties, when you had to write your religion on your application, and there was a quota on Jews. He applied for nine consecutive years and was turned down everywhere every year. The tenth year someone advised him to write “Lutheran” on his application. That year he was accepted to Hahnemann Medical School in Philadelphia. He went on to have a wonderful career as a doctor, which he probably would never have been able to do if he hadn’t lied on his application.

Another time when honesty was clearly not the best policy occurred when I was a senior in high school. My oldest sister, already out of college and married, was visiting, and she and my mother and I were sitting around talking. For some reason, my sister asked me if I had ever tried marijuana. I said yes. My two sisters had been pathbreakers for me on many issues, but they had never used drugs, so this was a first for my mother. She wanted me to promise that I wouldn’t do it any more. I said “no, I can’t make that promise, because I know that I will.” We had this conversation on and off for weeks, and I kept thinking I needed to be honest with her. Finally I realized that the only way she was going to be happy was if I lied to her. So I made the promise. Of course I broke that promise within a week or two. But she was happy.

I’ve lied about many other things too. When someone asks “how do I look?” or “do you like my new haircut?” I always give the nice answer instead of the truthful answer. On the other hand, once, after I had sex with a guy, he asked me how he compared to the other guys I had slept with. I actually told the truth – you were better than A or B, but not as good as C. Afterwards I thought that I should not have been so honest.

It’s difficult to come up with a rule about when honesty is necessary and when it isn’t. It reminds me of the Potter Stewart definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Certainly honesty was always paramount in my legal career, because it was important for my clients and my opponents to be able to rely on my word. In my marriages I have tried to be honest as well. In other situations, it can be efficacious to bend the truth a little.

It would be nice to think that political leaders were honest, but I’m not sure that has ever been true, probably since George Washington. (I was crushed when I found out the cherry tree story was a myth.) In 2003, Al Franken wrote a book called Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, about the George W. Bush administration and Fox News, and their lack of honesty. Needless to say, the current occupant of the White House has taken lying to a whole new level, where he lies about everything, whether it is important or not, and even if there is proof that what he is saying is untrue. Honesty is something he is simply not capable of. The horror that I feel whenever I hear him tell his lies makes me realize how valuable honesty is, in a way that perhaps I never did before.

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Characterizations: been there, well written

Comments

  1. John Zussman says:

    I’m struck by the ease (and youth) at which you were inducted into lying—by your parents, no less. I wonder how you (and they) sorted out the inconsistency between what I assume they told you (and what your religion taught) about the importance of honesty, and the convenience, practicality, and even kindness of lying. Of course, I wrestle with that in my own story as well.

    But the scene-stealer of your story is Sabrina and Ben’s letters and drawings to the tooth fairy! I’m so glad you kept and posted them here.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for your comment, John. Yes, my parents certainly taught us to be honest with them (which I was, until the marijuana incident), but showed by example that there were times when it was appropriate to lie to achieve a desired result.

      I had fun looking through my bag of tooth fairy notes – I have many more, plus all of their teeth. I could never bear to throw any of it away.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    What a terrific, comprehensive story about honesty, Suzy! And, of course, its opposite: lying. On a personal level, I am particularly amused by all your tales about lying about your age to make you seem older since, as far as I can remember, you always made it clear in college that you were a year younger than most of your classmates. (Indeed, I think you kidded a few of us about how much older we were than you.)

    On one other personal note, I particularly resonated to your story about your father “lying” about his religion to get into medical school. My father said that he had considered the same thing, but decided not to, not based on any moral grounds, but because he felt he could never get away with it with a last name like his.

    Which, of course, brings up the larger point that you explore so well: what is “honesty” — and, conversely, what is “lying” — is a very slippery slope indeed. I think most everyone is fine with tooth fairy stuff and most rational humans are not fine with what Trump does, but there is a world of variables in between. And I think you hit it just right by citing Potter’s Stewart’s famous pornography line.

    • Suzy says:

      I don’t remember ever “making it clear” that I was younger in college, or kidding you about being older, but I guess if you remember it, it must be true – unless – possibly – you were too stoned to remember anything. 🙂 I was always trying to seem older, in my recollection. Until I actually was older (like now) when I started trying to seem younger.

      • John Shutkin says:

        Probably just too stoned, but at least this is what my flashbacks say.

        And I meant to mention before just how incredibly cool it is that you have your kids’ tooth fairy notes. What an amazing mom!!

  3. Marian says:

    Suzy, loved this very comprehensive story. It’s interesting how often age becomes a factor in a lie. During my 40s, when I was divorced, I found out my mother was lying about my age because being younger would give me more “prospects,” and it would make her seem younger!

    • Suzy says:

      Marian, my mother was the same way about age. When there were articles in the paper about my sister which mentioned her age, my mother would blot the number out before showing the clipping to her friends, because she was afraid having a daughter that old would make HER seem older – and this was even when she was in her 90s!

  4. You really explored the truth lie spectrum here, Suzy. I appreciated how you laid out a learning process via your parents, observing their varying approaches to truth and survival, or at least peace of mind. They seemed quite straightforward about the need to alter ‘the facts’ in a worldly manner. I do understand that the drug issue was beyond your mother’s ability to absorb and you made the right decision, obviously. There are some battles worth fighting and some not. And I can imagine you analytically testifying on the varying prowess of various lovers, probably in a most clinical manner! Ha ha!

    You also reminded me of a time of great clarity that I can recall, much like your early memories. I was sitting at the top of the stairs, couldn’t have been much more than four, knees spread, elbows on my knees (yes, I still remember the image) with my father sitting on the stairs facing me and me saying “okay, pop. Just tell me… there really isn’t a Santa Claus, is there.” He laughed, very warm and said “no, Charlie. You’re right. There really isn’t a Santa Claus.” Anyway, thanks for your great honesty chronicles.

    • Suzy says:

      That’s a sweet story about 4-year-old you catching on to the Santa Claus deception. But tell me, did you believe in the tooth fairy? And if not, did you put your teeth under your pillow anyway?

  5. A tour de force, Suzy. Loved the tooth fairy story. One of my sisters was a year older, the other two years older. Barbara, the older of the two, managed only just barely to restrain herself from spilling the beans about Santa prematurely. When she finally did, my sister Suzie and I just kinda shrugged. Didn’t really make a difference now, did it, and it was more fun to continue to sorta believe.
    As to the story about your father: for generations, perhaps, many people have assumed, based on our surname, that we are Jewish. We are not. Original ancestors were Dutch Reform protestants. My dad got into Cornell Medical School in the 30’s and before matriculation the dean pulled him aside to suggest that he change his name to “prevent further issues in his career”. Ironic given the fact that his mother was a Cornell.

  6. I didn’t buy the tooth fairy thing for long Suzy, but made a deal with my parents: we would continue the charade and I’d still cash in. Whatever works.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Age does seem to play a factor in truth-telling for a lot of people, Suzy. My mother’s older sisters both knocked off a year from their ages (the oldest was born in Russia, so didn’t have that pesky birth certificate for proof). So my mother started to, also, just to be part of the gang. So she appeared to be slightly younger than my father, even though she was slightly older. This charade went on until they had to get passports in 1971 to visit my brother in Israel. Then the cat was out of the bag, not that it mattered. It seemed sort of silly to me.

    You’ve covered the subject nicely here. I hadn’t thought about the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, but we do delude our children with those stories on a regular basis. Nicely done.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks Betsy. Age is a very complicated part of self-image for many people. It certainly was for my mother as well as for me, and sounds like it was for your mother and her sisters as well.

  8. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, lying about one’s age was popular back in the day. My husband had enough AP credits to skip his freshman year of college but implied that he was my age. Imagine my shock when he was carded when I turned 21 and he couldn’t order a drink. He should have had fake ID like my younger daughter, who had no qualms about this lie. My sister-in-law didn’t know her real birthday until adulthood. Her parents actually obtained a forged birth certificate so she could start school early. I love the tooth fairy note. My parents used to give us a silver dollar and then take it back for safe keeping. Yes, they reused it each time. And your marijuana story reminded me of my mother being upset after finding cigarette rolling paper under a couch cushion and wondering why my younger brother didn’t just buy Lucky Strikes and why he decided to take up smoking. Of course, we all lied and he promised not to smoke. Thanks for a great story that evoked so many memories of dishonesty — so innocent compared with what’s happening today.

    • Suzy says:

      Love the silver dollar story. You must have been doubly disappointed when you found out the truth – no tooth fairy and no cache of silver dollars. Did you have a tooth fairy for your kids, or did you decline to pass that tradition on?

      • Laurie Levy says:

        My kids had a proper tooth fairy that left them actual money they could keep. I think the going rate back then was $1/tooth. My grandkids get more and the little ones still believe. Our 5-year-old grandson got 100 pennies for his first tooth and was quite impressed. Guess when he learns math in kindergarten, he may suspect the tooth fairy wasn’t that generous.

  9. Thanks for the story and the memories. Tooth fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa Claus were all things I believed in growing up, and passed on to my kids — though they didn’t buy into the Santa Claus myth.

  10. Risa Nye says:

    The Tooth Fairy! I still have the notes to her from my youngest (the older kids have none of those kinds of little kid things since the fire in 1991 destroyed everything. The youngest was only 5 1/2), who, now that I read them again, probably had a pretty good idea about the truth. His notes read a little tongue in cheek. I dodged the Santa thing and handed that off to my goyishe husband! Thanks for your honesty in this piece!

    • Suzy says:

      Amazingly, my kids believed for a long time. There was no irony in their notes. And Sabrina was 10 years old (as she informs the tooth fairy) when she wrote this one.

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