Pathological Lying and Pathological Truth by Dr. Sanford Drob
Volume 2 , Issue 3 (Feb, 1989 | Adar I, 5749)
Several years ago, a close friend who is an
attorney fell victim to a ?big lie?. A Californian who called herself Berthaniel Hammond, arranged to purchase two pieces of
My friend was the victim of a case of what psychiatrists call pseudologica fantastica, in plain English, pathological lying. Pathological liars tell lies, weave tales and concoct mythical schemes, which serve no other purpose than to intrigue and ultimately humiliate the listener, and presumably boost the ego of the liar him or herself. Many pathological liars seem to obtain what amounts to be a perverse pleasure, a kind of rush each time they put forward their deceit.
Penchant for Truth
More recently, in my psychotherapy practice, I became acquainted with a man whose penchant for the truth was equal to that of Ms. Hammond's penchant for deceit. It seemed that nothing that entered his mind was ever censored from his lips; there was no falsehood that he would let go uncorrected, and no injustice or deceit that he failed to report to the proper authorities. In the process, he had truthfully told his wife that he was more attracted to other women; he had informed an ill friend that his doctors were lulling him into the false hope that he might be cured; and had started a series of court actions after having been fired from his job for constantly reporting upon (and hence alienating) his supervisor and fellow employees. This man was driven by an unswerving passion for the truth but had, in the process, made himself and those around him miserable. In certain respects his pathological fixation on the truth seemed even more psychologically dangerous than the acts of the pathological liar.
While most of us will never carry either lies or the truth to the extremes of these pathological cases, we may find that in understanding the nature of pathological lying and truth we will be better able to grasp the effects of everyday lying and honesty on the psychology of the soul. In order to obtain such understanding, Ibelieve it will be useful to first examine the attitude towards lies and truth in our Jewish tradition. We will see that the Jewish view of honesty points directly toward the sickness of the soul which both habitual lying and uncompromising truth can engender.
Jewish law and tradition maintains a complex attitude towards honesty and deceit. While the Torah seems to forbid the intentional relating of falsehoods under all circumstances, the passages which imply this (Exodus, 20:13: ?You shall not bear false witness,? Exodus, 23:7: ?Keep far from a false matter? and Leviticus, 19:11: ?Neither shall you deal falsely nor lie to one another?) were understood by the rabbis to refer to the relatively discreet circumstance of rendering testimony in a court of law. In everyday life, the halakha actually permits of a number of exceptions to the rule of complete honesty, exceptions which themselves underlie the basic purpose of the rule itself.
The Talmud (Kettubot, 16a-17b)records a dispute between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai concerning how one ought to speak the praises of a bride. According to Bet Shammai one should ?describe the bride as she is,? while Bet Hillel takes the view that one praises her as beautiful and graceful even if she were blind or lame, just as one would praise a bad, but irrevocable, purchase which a friend had made in the market place. While there was much debate as to whether Bet Hillel actually advocated dishonesty in such a case (or was simply requiring us to praise the ugly bride's soul) the intent is clear. One refrains from stating the whole stark truth in those instances when nothing worthwhile will result and the feelings of others will be hurt.
In tractate Baba Metziah (23b-24a) we learn that according to R. Yehudah, a scholar may deviate from the truth in matters of ?a tractate, a bed, and hospitality.? The meaning of this cryptic phrase is spelled out as follows: a scholar may show humility in stating that he is not familiar with a particular tractate when indeed he is; he may show modesty in deviating from the truth in response to questions asked about his ?bed,? i.e., his marital relations; and he may exercise discretion by refusing to speak of his host's ?hospitality,? lest that host subsequently be taken advantage of by others.
Lie for Peace?
Finally, and most importantly, we learn that one is permitted to deviate from the strict requirements of truth in the interests of shalom or peace. R.Ilai cites (in the name of R. Eleazar b. R. Shimon) three biblical events in which truth is modified to obtain peace. In the first (Genesis, 18:12-13) G-d himself spares Abraham's feelings when he provides an incomplete report of Sarah's reaction to the news that she would bear a son. Sarah had said ?My husband is old,? whereas G-d only reports to Abraham that Sarah had said, ?Shall I, who am old, bear a child.? The second occurs in Genesis, 50:61 where Joseph's brothers say to Joseph ?Your father (Jacob) commanded us before he died saying: 'So shall you say unto Joseph: Forgive, I pray you, the transgression of your brothers ...?' when Jacob had made no such command. The third occursin Samuel I, 16:2when Samuel fears that Saul willkill him if he goes to anoint David king. G-d tells him ?Take a bullock with you and say: 'I am come to sacrifice to the Lord'.?
While G-d is referred to as the ?G-d of truth? (Jeremiah, 10:10, Psalms, 31:6) and the Talmud speaks of truth as the ?seal of G-d? (Shabbat, 35a) we learn from the Midrash that in a dispute between Truth and Peace, it is truth which G-d casts to the ground (Bereshit Rabbah, 8:5).There is a tradition to the effect that Moses's brother Aaron would make peace between two disputants by first telling the one and then the other thathis opponent was pained with sorrow and wished only to apologize (Avot R. Nathan, ch.12).
From this brief accountwe can see that according to Jewish taw and tradition, truth is to be faithfully adhered to except in those instances where another important value (whether it be sensitivity to the feelings of others, modesty, humility or, most importantly, peace) will be too greatly compromised in the process. Truth is an important value, indeed a fundamental value, but itis not the only value and it occasionally must be balanced against other considerations.
However, according to the Torah, a falsehood is justified only in clear deference to other significant values and never in deference to considerations of personal gain. The prophets were relentless in condemning those who would perpetuate a deceit for profit. Amos (8:4-7), for example. puts these words in the mouths of the wicked:
If only the new moon were over, so that we could sell grain; And the Sabbath so that we could offer wheat for sale, using an ephah that is too small and a shekel that is too big, And falsifying the balances of deceit .
The fact that truth is never to becompromised except in deference to other significant values suggests that one who speaks the truth himself brings something of value into the world. By way of contrast, according to Samson Raphael Hirsch, a liar ?turns into a curse the supreme blessing of the creator.? It is for this reason that Saadiah Gaon can say that a lie ?will be regarded by the soul as something grotesque? (Emunot Ve Daat, ch.2).
Lies Devalue the Person
It is precisely this attitude of man's soul which conditions the effects of lying on individual psychology. As reflection on any unjustified lie will reveal, a lie devalues the person one has lied to, the subject matter of one's lie and, above all, the liar him or herself. It has been my clinical experience that when the pathological liar is exposed in his own eyes, that a severe depression inevitably ensues. What remains is a valueless shell of a human being, an individual who frequently has the impulse to commit suicide because he has indeed devalued himself, others, and the world, with the result that his life has become devoid of all meaning. This is why pathological liars, like Berthaniel Hammond, disappear as soon as there is a hint that they may be exposed.
Still, the pathological liar, as infuriating as he or she may be, is capable of acknowledging the value of truth, and his/her potential for depression, is indeed a hopeful sign. The individual suffering from pseudologica fantastica is genuinely concerned with his or her image to himself and others. It is because he has such a poor image of himself that such an individual weaves a tapestry of lies which builds up his sense of self-esteem. By way of contrast, another chronic liar, whom psychologists refer to as the psychopath, tells lies simply in an effort to manipulate others and to achieve personal gain. When confronted by his deceits, he shrugs them off or moves to create a second deceit to cover up the first. It is almost as if the light of value has gone out in his soul. The truth means nothing to him and he fails to perceive the impact of his lies on others and himself'. From a Torah point of view, he is almost beyond the ability to perform teshuvah (repentance).
The typical (unjustified) lie of the average individual may contain elements of both pathologic and psychopathic deceit. At times we lie to build up our egos, to save face or to avoid a sense of personal failing. At other times, like the psychopath, we lie for some personal advantage or gain. However, unlike the psychopath, we presumably retain elements of a superego or conscience, and for this reason our lies to others invariably involve a deceit practiced upon ourselves. ?We haven't really lied, we have simply been misinterpreted,?or if we have lied we tell ourselves, even in those instances when it is clearly not the case, that our lie was justified.
Emphasis on Self-Honesty
It is because our typical lies to others invariably involve a measure of self-deceit, that the Jewish tradition has placed an emphasis on honesty and congruency within one's self. We learn, for example, in Psalm XV, that he ?who speaks the truth in his heart? shall abide in the Lord's tabernacle, a sentiment which is translated into moral law by the rabbis of the Talmud, where Abbaye concludes ?a person must always speak the same thing with the mouth and with the heart? (Baba Metziah, 49a).
Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1789- I 859), the famed Polish hasidic leader, carried the quest for self-honesty to such an extreme that he shunned all shams, pretense, and social niceties on the grounds that a person engaging in them is living a lie in a delusional world. While ?the Kotzker.? as he was spoken of by his contemporaries, is still revered in many circles for this uncompromising point of view, his own life illustrates the psychological dangers inherent in his philosophy. As Aryeh Kaplan has put it in his biographical sketch of Rabbi Menachem Mendel:
The years in Koisk were tumultuous. and the two goals of truth and faith were pursued with unbridled passion. The demands that Rabbi Mendel made on both himself and his fol?lowers were close to impossible, but the ideal held - at least for ten years. Then something happened that shook the entire Hasidic world. Many Hasidim simply refer to it as ?that Friday night.? Some claim he cast the Kiddush cup to the ground, others that he blew out the Sabbath candles, and still others, that he proclaimed? there is neither justice nor judge?. Among the Hasidim of Belz there was a tradition that he was seen through his hotel window, bareheaded and smoking his pipe on the Sabbath.
Whatever actually occurred that night, we do know that after this incident, the Kotzker spent the last nineteen years of his life secluded in his home, having food passed to him through a slit in his door and coming out only on the eve of Passover for the required bedikat chametz (search for leaven). The world, it seems, was not made for his intense level of emet (truth) and the Kotzker apparently chose to abandon the world rather than surrender his vision.
However lofty his goals and ideals, the Kotzker's emet, it seems was, like that of the patient I described earlier, an example of pathological truth. It is a truth which runs rampant over other values, the values of privacy, modesty, humility, discretion, and above all, the value of shalom or peace, and, as such, it is destructive of others and ultimately of the self. The individual who sacrifices all other values on the alter of truth as he sees it, ultimately must suffer from megalomania and will constantly be in conflict with those around him. (It is said, that when Menachem Mendel first settled in Kotzk, the Jewish residents there greeted him with stones). Interestingly, Menachem Mendel recognized this very idea himself in his comment in Emet Ve Emunah that ?strife exists only because each faction claims that truth is on its side. When truth is cast to the ground, the automatic result is peace?. If only he himself could have heeded his own wisdom.
Each of us, of course, must carefully walk the middle road between the pathologies of lies and uncompromised truth. One thing, however, is clear: as in so many other instances, the Torah's ethic, in this case, of reverence for the truth while balancing truth against other values such as peace, is a prescription not only for morality, but for psychological health as well.