We sit in a circle on bright orange Samsonite chairs in one of the classrooms in our fellowship hall. Moisés1, the Mexican counselor in my Chinese Baptist church, asks me, aged eleven, to tell my testimony. I trot out my usual spiel: when I was five, I attended Cornerstone Christian School in Poway, CA. The teacher explained what it meant to accept Christ and led us in the magic prayer—oops, except I leave the word “magic” out because that’s evil. Except this whole story is a lie, except for the Poway part, and I’m also lying when I tell you, dear reader, about magic, because I didn’t invent that part till I’d grown up. I was fake-testifying. Testi-lying. And then writing about it all in retrospect, adding in the magic, which is spin: another sort of lie.
Lying has always been my way of passing. The lessons church inculcated, such as the inevitable “reach out to someone at school,” backfired on me. What you were supposed to learn was how to exit your comfort zone and make the effort to talk to someone outside your circle of friends—the nerd, the wallflower, the unpopular one whom nobody ever talked to. You were exhorted to be kind to this unfortunate soul, and learn, presumably, compassion, humility, sacrifice, and so forth. Except I was that nerdy friendless wallflower. So what was I supposed to learn or practice? To reach out to the popular kids, who were in fact the ones I found intimidating and distasteful? Was I supposed to apply the letter or the spirit of the Sunday School lesson? And what to say when asked to report the next week?
I would make something up. Sometimes I would cast myself as the one who dutifully and kindly said hello to the most unpopular kid in my class; sometimes, it was even true. Frankly, they were way easier to approach than the “normal” kids. But I knew that the point was to reach out to someone that you felt uncomfortable talking to, so if I was nice to my fellow outcasts, did that count? I never had a clue.
But let’s say I had “reached out” to someone who for me was the equivalent of the icky, hard-to-like outcast: to wit, the popular kid, surrounded by friends, loud and laughing, blue-eyed and smooth. And let’s say I pushed myself to say hi to him or her. Let’s say I learned what I was supposed to, about courage and not judging people from the outside. How could I report this? I had no way of stating even to myself what was true to the lesson.
Growing up, I was taught incessantly that “situational ethics” were wrong: that right and wrong were clear and absolute to the mature believer, not contingent upon the situation. Yet life did afford a few rare exceptional cases, such as the perpetual example of the person who lied to the Nazis to protect the Jews they were hiding. In this case, we were told, it was up to God, not man [we most certainly were not taught with any gender-inclusive language], to determine whether the sin of lying outweighed the virtue of saving lives.
Lying for a godly purpose was thus unjustifiable, unless you were harboring endangered Jews. The same was true of “missionary dating”—dating a nonbeliever in the hope that one could convert them to the true faith. My parents lied once to me and my sister as teenagers, bringing us to church on a Saturday morning under false pretenses expressly for the purpose of having our Sunday School teacher meet us in the parking lot and listen to our parents harangue him about how disobedient we were.
Could I condemn their blatant dishonesty? But that would violate the “first commandment with promise” (Ephesians 6:2) to honor thy father and mother. God is the only one who can judge. Except that my parents weren’t nobly protecting Jews from death; they were exercising their right to be totally out of touch with reality. Louis the Sunday School teacher stood there mouth agape, trying no doubt to even imagine how we could possibly be considered disobedient. We got straight A’s, had no friends, never partied, never fought, never cursed, never went anywhere except church. We were rowdy, rebellious children like a growling hamster resembles Darth Vader.
My parents had lied before. When I was ten, they fed us all sorts of nonsensical stories about why we had to move from Santa Barbara to Orange County during Christmas vacation—stories that even at the time I recognized as poppycock intended to dissuade further questions. Decades later, I learned the real reason: my mother was close to a nervous breakdown and needed a change of scene. They knew that the move would be hardest on me, and deliberately chose my mother’s happiness over mine.
My mother lied to me again while I was in college—a lie of omission this time. She asked me to meet her at a restaurant for lunch. I drove, parked, walked in, and was confronted by the smiling face of my pastor, an unannounced guest, extending his hand to me. Doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that this was after I’d left for good, after I’d given the old church one semester of genuine, sincere, hopeful chances to prove it could function as a place of at least occasional kindness, integrity, and positive change. It had failed miserably. That day, I did an about-face and walked out of the restaurant, refusing to say a word.
Where the Baptist Lies
My first husband Aaron reasoned that Baptists make the best liars because being raised in such a fearful, paranoid, rigid environment trains you to be so careful, meticulous, and hyperconscious of curating the response of others that you learn to represent reality in a way that suits your audience. You become so adept at speaking the desired language of your audience that sometimes you’re not even sure where the border lies between truth and, uh, lies. You perfect the art of covering your tracks.
When his boss told Aaron that he was the only one receiving a raise, in a small company during a tough economic year, he didn’t want his coworkers to find out and feel resentful. So when they asked how his personal review went, Aaron sighed, “I can’t believe they’re only giving out cost-of-living increases!” They all gave him commiserating looks, concluding that he’d only gotten a COLA increase, just as they had. But his words didn’t actually say he wasn’t getting a raise, and even if you’d listened closely to what he didn’t say, even if you’d tried to pin him down, he could retort that his words stipulated, “I can’t believe.” He said nothing about what he did believe or receive. All this was painstakingly deliberate, along with intonation and body language, arising out of years of presenting reality in desired ways while virtuously avoiding the sin of actual untruth.
The Authenticity Act
Aaron was an inveterate snoop. When we were at someone’s house, if they left the room to fetch us drinks, he would dive into an end table or drawer, and he was brilliant at replacing everything at the precise angles and configurations he’d found them in. I did exactly the same: I was not as naturally nosy, but I was far more anxious to please, to be accepted, and to pass as normal. So I too would secretly rifle through others’ things, replacing them meticulously, to learn how they thought and what they valued, so I could echo them in conversation and come across as putatively “authentic.”
I suspect that being routinely disbelieved renders you a more savvy liar. Because you see that truth holds little weight with your auditors, so you craft, massage, and finesse it in ways more palatable to them. Because you see all communication as rhetoric, especially when you’re trained to witness to nonbelievers by speaking their language.
The Virtue of Tastelessness
As a teenager, I was not allowed to talk on the phone, listen to the radio, see anything but G-rated movies, watch TV, invite friends over, go to their houses, attend school events, listen to Christian rock music, wear makeup, or own name-brand clothing. (It was the 1980s: the golden age of designer jeans and the rise of “CCM”—Contemporary Christian Music.) School dances were out of the question, and even church-sponsored events were highly suspect. We were never encouraged to talk to our parents about “our friends”; instead, “our friends” were defined as the children of their friends. I was not given space to form my own preferences: on the rare occasions when we had dessert, we always had what my mother liked: Neapolitan ice cream (eww), Mrs. Smith’s frozen coconut custard pie (meh), Sara Lee pound cake (bleah), or Cantonese red bean ice milk, which I loathed more than all the rest. My mother always blithely believed that our tastes were the same as hers, and was perpetually astounded if I diffidently pointed out that I did not like red beans.
There were pleasant exceptions: at Baskin Robbins, we were allowed to choose our own flavors, and once, I chose Daiquiri Ice for its beautiful icy turquoise color, which I’m sure I was permitted because none of us had any idea what a daiquiri was. But overall, my childhood was one of no acknowledged preferences or tastes. I was complimented constantly at church for being selfless. Once, my father praised a young Chinese woman he had observed in the church van, in stark contrast to white Americans: this young woman, he informed me, squished herself into such a tiny space that she only occupied half the seat allotted to her, so that she could have made room for another person on the same seat. She stayed completely still during the hour-long drive to L.A. No need to laugh, talk, stretch, or fidget like loud crass Americans.
My parents, each in their own way, prized girls who were silent, undemanding, never presuming to pursue or insist upon their own preferences or comfort.
What does this have to do with lying? My life was so austere and prescribed that even my Chinese Southern Baptist peers seemed hugely liberated, wild, and worldly to me. They had favorite songs and radio stations, bought designer jeans, wore and even sold makeup, had best friends and things they were permitted to dislike. When they would ask me questions like: did I like to play Pac-Man? Were those cute new sandals Cherokees? Who was my favorite Christian rock band? I had no idea how to articulate the truth, which was that I had no idea how to play a video game, or what Cherokees were, or what Christian rock bands existed. I had no model or template for stating what I didn’t know.
I remember saying yes to the Cherokee question, which Marcy—a tremendously popular girl—pronounced to rhyme with “jerky,” having absolutely no idea what word she’d said even after I’d asked her to repeat it three times, and just wanting to end the interrogation that was making me self-conscious. Later, I learned that Cherokees were the expensive brand of sandal that all the girls wanted, and you could identify them by the Indian head logo on the heel. My sandals were from Payless, and thenceforth, I worried every time I wore them that someone would notice my logolessness and out me for a liar.
I would tell church counselors that I had problems with my parents and that in fact I hated them. This was the truest, most resonant thing I could possibly heave out from the depths of my soul. The adults invariably smiled indulgently, chuckled, told me of course I didn’t mean it, I loved my parents, and then encouraged me to participate in our annual Parents Appreciation Night—the biggest youth group event every July, and the biggest source of stress, anger, nightmares, and shame for me. So at some point, I started believing them: they were all so assured and unified that I began thinking these feelings of utter contempt, rage, shame, and fury that I harbored toward my parents were in fact “love.” Love became a bitterly bleak, miserable realm.
If the truest thing I could utter was categorically discounted and disbelieved, then I certainly was not going to relate even deeper truths: that I had begun praying at the age of 9 for my mother to die and for my parents to divorce (I would have accepted the granting of either petition); that I had lied my whole life about my “testimony,” because the truth was that I had simply grown up in church and had never been specifically led to pray the magical soul-saving prayer, since everyone assumed I already had; that my mother climbed into my bed several times a week, after I’d settled in, and clutched me and wept; that when she left, I would get up silently and erase every trace of her hated presence: opening wide the blinds she’d closed, untucking all the blankets she’d encased me in. Nope, if nobody would even believe a simple thing like “I hate my mother,” how could I ever imagine telling further truths?
I also knew that I needed work on “social skills.” My teachers said so, both at school and church. I was convinced that social skills meant being able to rattle off the things that other people said, to pass as normal. I observed intently, eavesdropped and made mental recordings constantly, and imitated faithfully. I started claiming that my favorite radio station was KYMS, the Christian rock station, fervidly hoping that no one would discover that I had never listened to it (or the radio at all), and had no idea how to even work a radio dial.
I’d been lying at school all my life, after all. When we learned about nutrition, and having a 4-2-4-4 day, and had to chart our daily meals, the images of sample servings (a piece of steak, a drumstick, a side of mashed potatoes …) bore no resemblance to our Chinese-style multiple shared dishes. So I made stuff up. Last night, I would assert on a worksheet, we had roast beef, broccoli, and potatoes. All neatly and discretely divided on our individual plates. And dessert.
Years later, I realized that the more I wove the disparate strands of myself into a coherent whole, the harder it was for me to lie, the more facial expressions I discovered I had, and the more legible I seemed to people around me. Healing and wholeness have an ironic price tag. I began losing my ability to integrate seamlessly into any group of people; with an increasingly solid identity, it was harder to retreat into my chameleon self. As my masks were increasingly discarded, my real face solidified—which is both wondrous and oddly disappointing. Perhaps this is what retiring actors feel, or perhaps this is how I can finally muster up some sympathy for Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, breaking his staff and destroying his books of magic.
Lying for the SAT
I have students who lie. Some are plagiarizers and cheaters. Some have all manner of trauma that they euphemize or deny. I work with inner-city, low-income, underserved populations, and sometimes their circumstances have fostered the sorts of skills in veiled truth that I, with my ultra-sheltered upbringing, can ironically empathize with. For instance, speaking of fostering, I’ve had three students adopted while enrolled in my class, thus escaping the foster care system. I’ve had homeless students, students from abusive homes, students with incarcerated family members, students who don’t know who their father is, a student who was the child of a prostitute. All of them have disguised or euphemized the raw truth about their families, and I don’t view that as “lying.” When filling out SAT documentation, some are bewildered how to “truthfully” answer a question about, for instance, how many siblings they have.
When such students lie on, or about, school assignments, do they merit special consideration? How about the one who told different things to staff at her two schools, which enabled her to sneak off multiple times to Shake Shack midday? We had to give her props for creative deviousness. I am not arguing that honesty is meaningless. I am observing, rather, that truth, meaning, and insight are sometimes vastly different from empirically verifiable factuality.
As a kid, I confessed things to God, as I was taught. Did I ever confess lying? I probably only confessed to lies that today I would not really consider lies, such as my claiming that my sandals were Cherokees. Whereas my actual lies felt like truth at the time. Is a lie really one if you think it’s true while you utter it? How is that different from those who are delusional in some way, who don’t grasp reality? And having been raised by parents who have—truly—tenuous holds on reality, how has that informed my own perceptions?
The magic prayer of salvation is only “magic” if you don’t believe in magic. “Magic” is a satanic concept—ask the evangelicals who boycotted Harry Potter. I have heretically dubbed that prayer “magical,” because the power of eternal salvation it confers is contingent, for Baptists, upon one’s speaking the precise words that a spiritual leader leads you to repeat, with all the sincerity you can muster. If that’s not how a magic spell works, I don’t know what is. So the truth is that the religion I was raised in is based on a magic spell. Yet the spell only works for true believers, and so for nonbelievers, it’s not really magic.
Here I lie, spinning a tale too tall for unvarnished truth.
1 This is a memoir. All is true to the best of my recollection, except that all names have been altered throughout.
Celest Woo is an English professor who has taught college in NY, NJ, and CO. She is now a teacher at Trevor Day School in New York City. She has published poetry, memoir, fiction, and scholarly work, and is also a modern dancer and choreographer.