The proximate cause of this post: BI did a little color on Brian Williams:
It is based on a Vanity Fair piece.
"“He couldn’t say the words ‘I lied,’ ” recalls one NBC insider. “We could not force his mouth to form the words ‘I lied.’ He couldn’t explain what had happened. [He said,] ‘Did something happen to [my] head? Maybe I had a brain tumor, or something in my head?’ He just didn’t know. We just didn’t know. We had no clear sense what had happened. We got the best [apology] we could get.”"
Having recently read Jon Ronson's excellent _So You've Been Publicly Shamed_, I am unconvinced that a better worded apology would have made much if any difference. The mob doesn't really parse things that carefully (individual members do, obvs, but collectively, once The Party is rolling, I don't think anything you do or don't do has any effect at all). So the analysis at VF, well, shrug.
But I was _really struck_ by the looking for some other explanation, any explanation, a total unwillingness to say, "I lied", because that is exactly what happened with the Jonah Lehrer apology speech at the Knight luncheon, that provided such a beautiful context for Ronson's confirmation bias joke.
I recognize that talking about this will activate some resentment. I do lie. I think almost everyone does lie and I don't much care for people who absolutely never lie at all for any reason. They annoy the fuck out of me (and not because they are better than me -- because I don't really _want_ your honest opinion about any number of things I might ask you about, especially things like, "Do you think anyone will notice this stain?" in the middle of an important social event when there is no recourse to fix it. I want you to say, "Absolutely not -- no one will ever see that. It's completely invisible" and I expect you to sell that lie as if the future of the world depended on it. Thank you, you are a good friend.). But for all that I am in favor of innumerable small, pro-social lies, ("Great haircut! I love short haircuts!" "You look like you've lost weight!"), I dislike lies that are designed to benefit only the liar, and I downright disapprove of lies that benefit the liar at some cost to other, for these purposes innocent, parties. I grew up with a family member who lied relentlessly in ways that were profoundly damaging to me. The characteristic lie was essentially a truthful description of an unpleasant interaction between me and the other person, only the identities were swapped, so that I became her and she became me. I lost track of the number of times people who were once friends of the family member but had a falling out over an incident like this that involved them playing the starring role as bad guy; they'd come up to me, make a point of being nice to me for a while, and then say (it's like it was a script), "You're nothing like what I expected you to be like. Listen to what so-and-so did to me."
When I got to college, I ran across another young woman who shared any number of characteristics with this family member (hair color, eating disorders, lying, falling out with friends). By this point in my life, I was very, very reactive on the topic. Radioactive, even. People noticed that there was a lot of hostility between the two of us, almost from the moment of first, virtual encounter, but over time as everyone else got familiar with her ways, my hostility got lost in the background radiation of anger and betrayal.
I've had a lot of theories over the last few years about what might have been going on with these (and others I have known) people. Were they schizophrenic -- could these have been delusions rather than lies? We used to make a joke about the family member when we were all fairly young (most of us pre-pubescent) -- she remembered things that didn't happen. There is a history of psychotic breaks in the family: an institutionalized aunt, a great aunt who put on a wedding that the "groom" (he existed as a person with that name in the community, but there was no relationship) had no idea was going to happen and that was in theory going to involve him. That's on one side of the family. On the other side of the family there is a long history of dissociative episodes, of large, total absences of memory, some of them years long (that is, as an adult, the person cannot remember anything at all from several years of their childhood), some briefer and most recent (a complete absence of recollection for a day or two the previous week).
I'm not happy with any of the theories. The pattern of relentless and often pointless (there's a point to the lies: to make the person more sympathetic or even look "good" -- it's just that they are so likely to get caught that there is no effective, lasting benefit) lying is real. But a lot of the rest of what is going on doesn't seem to match what I read in descriptions of mental illnesses.
I don't like to think about this. It is distressing. Bad information pisses me off. Bad sources make me angry. People who stay in a life that requires them to lie relentlessly in order to be "safe" frustrate me (I get it -- I've read enough about attachment disorders to actually get it. But I still don't like it). However, link fu.
Turns out I'm not the only confused person out there.
Let's start with the wikipedia entry:
No DSM entry -- and there may never be one. Psychopathy (another excellent Jon Ronson book on this topic and the test for detecting it) is a creation of people working in criminal justice trying to identify the people likely to re-offend in a really egregious and dangerous way, so we can hang onto them and turn the other idiots loose. Pathological lying does show up in Factor 1 of the Psychopathy Check list, "Interpersonal".
But go read the Ronson book because it is awesome.
One of the reasons pathological lying or pseudologia fantasia is unlikely to ever appear in DSM is because most diagnoses in DSM are made through a structured interview process. It doesn't last that long (I'm sure it feels interminable at the time, but it's nothing like the weeks or years it can take to really get to know the pattern of lying that I'm talking about here), and there isn't a lot of external checking. The only lies a diagnostician is likely to catch are lies about symptoms (factitious disorder, which IS in DSM) of the liar or someone else in the liar's care.
People who write about pathological (or compulsive) lying seem to recognize there isn't a lot of information about there, yet nevertheless make distinctions among people who lie a lot:
There is a persistent belief that the person doing all this lying is otherwise basically competent:
Look, I get that wikihow is no kind of source to be resorting to, but this one actually has a really complete list of chronic lying and how to detect it (altho it relies heavily on changing-story tactics, rather than reality testing).
All three of these sources, however, share a common theme: an inability on the part of the author(s) to settle on whether the liar is some brilliant, manipulative, planning genius who just happens to get caught all the fucking time or a reactive, impulse driven liar-tron with no agency at all.
What I decided long ago was that the lies of my family member and the lies I encountered in by a similar person in college were all driven by short-term interpersonal interaction needs and desires. That is, the lie was told to one or more persons at a particular time in a particular place to serve a particular purpose, with absolutely NO REGARD for the fact that most of the people who heard the lie were gonna remember it the next day and over time might notice discrepancies between what they were told and external reality. The family member (oh, let's be honest here: it was more than one) over time figured out that their life worked best if they were around a small number of people who knew what they were up to and made excuses for them to other people. And that's why they have stable adult lives, which is different from less fortunate people who share a similar set of problems.
It's sad, tho, because it seems pretty clear that whenever someone with this set of issues sits down to write or gets up on a public stage somewhere, their career is necessarily limited. Once they move out of their sympathetic and understanding (or bizarrely gullible) niche audience, the mob is gonna go after them. And they are so unrewarding and confusing to study that we may or may not ever figure out what the hell is going on well enough to help them.