Billy Liar, created in the 1950s, is a fantasy; a tall storyteller who lives much of his time in the fantasy world of Ambrosia.
He is engaged to two daughters and dreams of a third. He is desperate to get out of the dead-end town of Stradhoughton where he lives with his working-class family and where he has hidden under his bed 211 “luxury” calendars he should have posted nine months ago, on behalf of his employers, Shadrack & Duxbury, “funeral suppliers”.
Instead, he lied about sending them safely and kept the postage money. His ambition is to become an author of comedies in the capital, four hours by train from there. “Are you really going to London,” asks one of her three girlfriends, “or are you pretending?”
The late Keith Waterhouse was the author of Billy Liar, a very funny book published in 1959, which retraces a day in the life of the eponymous hero. At the time, “pretend,” even on an industrial scale, was considered a distinguished amateur’s game.
Now, several decades later and for the first time, two American psychologists, Drew A Curtis and Christian L Hart, have proposed in a new book that “pathological lying” should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMMM) that helps clinicians and researchers define and classify mental illness. How will this work?
Society today, unlike Britain in the 1950s, is fueled by manufacturing. Politicians who “speak badly”, for example; spin-doctoral students who massage the facts; professionals ‘modifying’ their CVs (builder Jon Andrewes, who was 63 in 2017 when he claimed to be a doctor, faked a doctorate, became chairman of two NHS Trusts and a hospice, won £1million sterling and was only asked to repay £100,000…not a bad return); writers plagiarizing the work of colleagues; influencers concealing the products they “like”; and individuals claiming that “my truth is the only truth that matters”, even if it is fiction. This all takes place in the bear pit of social media where it’s so easy to be discovered that you can’t or shouldn’t make it up.
So where do we draw the line? When does a “little white lie” as a way of life become a treatable diagnosis? And, would we be lying if we said it might be too late to care?
Christopher Massimine, 36, a former theater director in Salt Lake City, is on a regimen of cognitive behavioral therapy to help him stop compulsively lying about what matters and what really doesn’t matter. He was recently featured in the New York Times and, like Billy Liar, Massimine’s saga is never short of humor. However, unlike the fictional young dreamer, Massimine’s concealment has a dark underbelly that has hurt others and brought him prestige, power, and dollars. So, is he smart, sick or both?
Massimine told reporters he was born in Italy (truth, New Jersey). He told friends his birthday was in September (May). He told his wife, Maggie, that he was having an affair with Kim Kardashian (probably fake) and he invented awards to add to his resume. A friend described his behavior as catching “a minnow and then it turned into a swordfish”.
Maggie went through all of her husband’s Facebook posts and email accounts and discovered impersonated voices, fake email accounts, elaborately tampered with matches, fake photos (Massimine was said to have been at base camp in Everest with a Sherpa when he was actually in Cambodia). “Who is this person?” she is marked as thinking. “Who did I marry? Her husband has now been diagnosed with a personality disorder. Dr Jordan W Merrill, a psychiatrist who treated Massimine last year, says his former patient is a “benign” liar as “a shield for his internal frailty.” It’s not about trying to take something from you, it’s just about trying to cope.
Massimine resigned from the acquired position with bogus qualifications and negotiated a $175,000 settlement in which neither he nor his former employer admitted wrongdoing.
How unusual is Massimine’s allergy to the truth? Dr. Curtis and Dr. Hart used research from 2010 to calculate how many Americans habitually lie. It showed that 60% said they had told no lies in the past 24 hours. On average, people told 1.65 lies (half-truths?) in the last 24 hours, except for 5.3% of the population who just couldn’t stop. They told an average of 15 lies a day. From this group, the two doctors drew up a psychological profile, a pathology that they wish to include in the DSMMM.
Psychologists say these liars are needy, hungry for social approval, and usually have no legal issues or criminal history. Many were wracked with guilt and remorse and they deserve better research, better treatment and a chance to address their “toxic” compulsion.
Maggie Massimine says she’s less angry now that her husband’s addiction to fiction is recognized as a disease. Massimine himself seems ambivalent in recovery now that his Pinocchio days are said to be over. “There was this wonderful character in me and he did things that no one else could do,” he says. “In a way, I’m sad to see him go.”
Experts tell us that in an age of rampant lies, narcissism, and a chronic lack of self-awareness, “benign” pathological liars are a tiny minority. And who are we not to believe?
Yvonne Roberts is a freelance journalist, writer and broadcaster
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