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Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love

Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love

by Clancy Martin

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A provocative and unsettling look at the nature of love and deception

Is it possible to love well without lying? At least since Socrates's discourse on love in Plato's Symposium, philosophers have argued that love can lead us to the truth—about ourselves and the ones we love. But in the practical experience of erotic love—and perhaps especially in marriage—we find that love and lies often work hand in hand, and that it may be difficult to sustain long-term romantic love without deception, both of oneself and of others.
Drawing on contemporary philosophy, psychoanalysis and cognitive neuroscience, his own personal experience, and such famed and diverse writers on love as Shakespeare, Stendhal, Proust, Adrienne Rich, and Raymond Carver, Clancy Martin—himself divorced twice and married three times—explores how love, truthfulness, and deception work together in contemporary life and society. He concludes that learning how to love and loving well inevitably requires lying, but also argues that the best love relationships draw us slowly and with difficulty toward honesty and trust.
Love and Lies is a relentlessly honest book about the difficulty of love, which is certain to both provoke and entertain.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429945943
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/03/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 403 KB

About the Author

Clancy Martin is the author of the novel How to Sell (FSG, 2009) as well as many books on philosophy, and has translated works by Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, and other philosophers. A Guggenheim Fellow, he is a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine and also writes for The New York Times, London Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, The Atlantic, and many other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where he lives with his wife, the writer Amie Barrodale, and three daughters.

Clancy Martin worked for many years in the fine jewelry business. He is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri. He has translated works by Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard and is the author of How to Sell.

Read an Excerpt

Love and Lies

An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love

By Clancy Martin

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Clancy Martin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4594-3


A Brief Introduction to the Morality of Deception

These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren. —Proverbs 6:16–19

Everything is deception: the question is whether to seek the least amount of deception, or the mean, or to seek out the highest. —Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms


The younger a child is when she starts to lie, the more likely she is to succeed and the more intelligent she is likely to be. In studies in which children have been observed in social interactions, four-year-olds lied at least once every two hours, while six-year-olds lied at least once every ninety minutes. Children who lie frequently are generally more intelligent than their peers, and the capacity to lie convincingly is a reliable predictor of social and financial success among adults. More intelligent adults lie more often and more skillfully. Conservative estimates show that people lie at least once a day. Other recent psychological studies have shown that Ivy League university students (perhaps not the most truthful sample of the population) lie as many as forty times per day, and the most successful college students lie about their GPAs more often than their less successful peers—despite the fact that the liars consistently have higher GPAs than the truth tellers. When confronted with their deception, the high GPA liars reported that they did not consider themselves to be lying so much as "reporting a future truth." (When asked about their current GPAs, apparently they tended to reply with the GPA they expected themselves to have in the not-too-distant future.) In yet another study, two strangers were asked to have a conversation for ten minutes; on average, each person in the conversation told three lies in that much time. To make things messier still, other recent research has shown that most times we are telling a lie we don't realize that we are doing so, probably because it is to our evolutionary advantage if we think we are telling the truth when lying (think how much more successful you are at bluffing if you don't know that you're bluffing).

Nevertheless, most of us have been taught since we were children that it is always wrong to lie. We mistakenly think that "Lying is always wrong" is written in the Ten Commandments. Honesty is in fact addressed in the ninth commandment, but it only recommends the much more modest and reasonable claim that we "do not bear false witness against our neighbors." If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that we all tell lies—probably more often than we'd like to admit—and that, more interestingly, often we do so for good reasons.

First we should notice that there is a difference between what we actually do and what we ought to do. Suppose that most of us do eat oysters. It doesn't follow from that fact that we ought to eat oysters. This is the difference, often insisted upon in moral philosophy (but also as often attacked) between facts and values. In Aristotle's time, nearly all Athenian citizens owned slaves; again, it does not follow from that fact that they ought to have owned slaves.

So even if we agree that it is true that most of us do lie quite frequently, it doesn't follow from that fact that we ought to lie as often as we do. Contemporary psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology have collectively destroyed the old Judeo-Christian cultural conviction that most of us don't lie most of the time. But whether or not deception is morally wrong remains a compelling question.

It's interesting that we lie so often and easily, because as a rule other moral prohibitions are not so commonly, comfortably, and recognizably flouted. We all agree that it's usually wrong to steal, and most of us follow this moral rule; stealing is an exceptional event in the average human life. We all agree that it's wrong to take another human life, except, perhaps, under extraordinary conditions like war or self-defense, and most of us happily never have and never will kill another human being.

So one question is: Given the general consensus that lying is wrong, why is it so commonly practiced? Another question is: Are there circumstances in which it is appropriate to lie? Because if there are, then we might be operating under a kind of collective hypocrisy about deception in everyday life, and collective hypocrisies are at least worth examining more closely. Indeed, as a rule, we think that collective hypocrisies are morally dangerous and should be vigorously exposed.

It is with this cognitive dissonance in mind—the conflict between how commonly we lie and the fact that we generally profess that it is wrong to do so—that I often ask my students: "Is there anyone in here who has never told a lie?" With younger students, there are usually several hands, and I let the other students do the work of showing the ways in which their fellow students must have lied—to such questions as, for example, How are you today? Or, Do you like my new haircut? Or, Did you make it to all your classes today? Or, Why was your paper late? But I was particularly fascinated when on one occasion I asked mid- career business professionals in an MBA class the same question. Usually my adult students won't take the bait. In this instance a fifty-something man raised his hand and said: "In all my life I've never told a single lie." Another student about the same age immediately replied: "Well, congratulations, you just told one." Nevertheless, the first student, who was an accountant, insisted that he had never told a lie, even for the sake of politeness, not even as a child to his parents. He was happy to admit that everyone else lied quite often. He just happened to be the exception to the rule.

For all I or anyone else in the classroom knew, he was telling the truth. But I think we all suspected the same thing: that this was a man who was particularly deeply entrenched in a self- deceptive self-image that, for whatever complex psychological reasons, simply couldn't accept the possibility that he had ever told a lie. The reason I mention this case is that it struck me, as it clearly struck many other people in the room, as disturbing. The dogmatic insistence that one has never told a lie in his or her life is obviously false. As Mark Twain remarked, "A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself as a liar." But the fact that this particular statement, "I've never told a lie," is blatantly false, indeed, self- contradictory—so much so that we suspect it might even be a sign of a kind of mental or psychological imbalance in the person who protests it—shows that we are more realistic about ourselves as liars than we pretend to be. This fact about us as liars—that we know we lie, but we don't like to admit it—will be important for our thinking in the pages ahead.

We should also remember the importance of truthfulness. In the movie Liar, Liar, the character played by Jim Carrey, an incorrigible liar, who lies for a living, finds himself suddenly incapable of lying, and we all quickly realize that it is impossible to engage in everyday life without lying, at least now and then. At the same time, over the course of the movie, the hero realizes that there are certain goods, like trust and intimacy, that are available only if we try to be honest most of the time.

In the ethics of our everyday lives, most absolute moral prohibitions—such as "Never kill a human being"—don't come up, because we don't find ourselves in those kinds of situations. But an absolute moral prohibition such as "Never tell a lie," whether it's offered by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the insect philosopher Jiminy Cricket, or the young George Washington after he (fictionally) chopped down the cherry tree is the sort of claim we need to examine more closely, because we want to do the right thing, for the right reasons, as often as we can.

So I want to take a closer look at the popular notion that lying is wrong. In this chapter, before we get to the tough subject of lying and love, I'll first discuss several philosophers who argue that it is okay to lie at least some of the time. Then I will turn to several philosophers who argue that it is always wrong, or almost always wrong, ever to lie. Finally, I will discuss a few philosophers who argue that when and why it is right or wrong to lie depends upon a variety of considerations and careful thinking about the kinds of situations we find ourselves in.


Plato was the first philosopher in the Western tradition who argued that sometimes we must tell lies, and for good reasons. He argues in his book on the ideal society Republic that the leader must tell "a noble lie" (gennaion pseudos in the Greek; sometimes loosely translated as "noble and generous fiction") to the populace so that citizens will be content with their roles in life. Plato's idea that sometimes the government must lie to the populace for its own well-being has since become a relatively standard view in political theory, even in democracies where transparency and truthfulness in government are prized. It is obvious that the government cannot always tell the citizenry "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" when at war (because strategy would be compromised—"Loose lips sink ships") or during terrorist threats (because then it could be very difficult to observe and catch terrorists). We can easily think of many similar examples.

Plato's "noble lie" is justified on the philosophical principle known as paternalism, from the Latin word pater, "father." The familiar idea is that just as in the case of seat belt laws, sometimes a government, ruler, or parent may know what is better for us than we ourselves know. Sometimes if we knew the truth, this line goes, we would be made miserable by it, frightened by it, discouraged by it or would act in ways destructive to ourselves or others or both.

In the example given by Plato, citizens of his imaginary ideal state will be told that they were originally made of different metals—bronze, silver, gold—which suit them for different roles within the society. Tradesmen will be happy as tradesmen because they will believe the lie that they were naturally made for that role; similarly, warriors will believe that they were made to be warriors. A caste system that benefits the entire society can be harmoniously established on the basis of a simple lie that puts the minds of the citizenry at ease.

Plato's ideal state sounds a bit too much like Aldous Huxley's dystopian brave new world for our contemporary, democratic, class-conscious ears. But paternalistic defenses of lying are nonetheless vigorous and familiar. One of the most common and plausible justifications of a paternalist defense for lying comes from the lies we tell to children. We lie about Santa Claus in order to make Christmas a happier time for children and to teach them about the spirit of giving (also, perhaps, to control their behavior; how many times have I lied: "Santa's watching! Now get to bed!"); think about how many billions of dollars are spent every year in supporting this lie. Many people, both inside and outside the medical community, think that a lie to a dying child—such as "No, honey, we don't know for certain that you are going to die"—is generally justified (the medical profession is all over the map on this question, I should add; there is good evidence both for telling the truth to dying children and for lying to them). Many doctors argue that the right to lie to their patients is necessary to the best practice of the profession. And most of us who are parents have lied to our own children many, many times in order to preserve their peace of mind, either about family matters or about the way things are in the world. If a five-year-old asks a penetrating question about a matter she is not yet ready to understand, such as rape or murder or war or whether a plane is more likely to crash during heavy turbulence, most parents will not tell the unvarnished truth. We may not always out and out lie, but we will certainly say something that is not entirely honest and accurate.

Deceiving, prevaricating, exaggerating, storytelling, lying by omission: there are many different ways to lie, but all of them involve the desire to convince the person who is listening to the liar that she, the listener, believes something different from what the liar believes to be true. This is why Montaigne, who was generally opposed to lying, said: "The truth has only one face, but a lie has a hundred thousand." The liar can invent so many things that are different from the truth he knows, especially when speaking to a child, or someone with less knowledge than the liar.

Here's an interesting philosophical puzzle: For something to be a lie, must it be false? Normally we assume that a lie is not true. But consider this case: a man who always lies stands at a crossroads. You approach him and ask him for directions. He tells you to take the road to the left, lying to you about which road to take, as he always does. But it turns out that this man who always lies is also very bad at directions, and so, while lying, he sends you down the right road. Has he lied to you or not?

One solution to this puzzle is to argue that all that is required to lie is the intention to deceive. This is an appealing view because it frees the liar from the large epistemological burden she would otherwise bear to know the truth before lying. If I must know the truth before lying to you because to lie to you, I must tell you something that is false, then I may often be required to do an awful lot of work to discover what the truth actually is. Often we think we know the truth when we do not. Take the example of an ancient Greek astronomer who sincerely believed that the sun revolves around the earth. If we required that the astronomer know the truth about solar and planetary motion before having the capacity to lie about it, we see that he would find himself incapable of lying. But surely he has the capacity—within his particular context—both to report the truth as best he understands it and, consequently, to mislead.

But just to illustrate how vexing this puzzle actually is, if all that is required to deceive is the intention to deceive, then in some sense one can never fail to deceive, because we are completely in control of our intentions. To fail to deceive would, on this account, simply mean that the liar was not believed. However, if you approached the liar at the crossroads, and he intended to deceive you but, because he is bad at directions, pointed you down the right road, and yet you did not believe him, you would find yourself going down the wrong road ... and perversely, the intention of the liar at the crossroads to mislead you would be successful. These philosophical tangles of what exactly constitutes a lie are not trivial for our purposes because part of the reason we deceive so commonly and with such a clean conscience about it is precisely the fact that deception, as Montaigne points out, is so complex and difficult to understand, even for the practiced liar. As we proceed, we shall also find—I gestured at this with my discussion of truth and subjectivity in the prologue—that contra Montaigne, truthful communication is also much more complex than it initially appears to be.


Excerpted from Love and Lies by Clancy Martin. Copyright © 2015 Clancy Martin. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Prologue: Why I Wrote This Book,
1. A Brief Introduction to the Morality of Deception,
2. Childhood,
3. First Loves,
4. Erotic Love,
5. Marriage,
Also by Clancy Martin,
A Note About the Author,


Everyone Is So Untrue: Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Clancy Martin

Show of hands: Who here has lied to someone today? Which of you has lied to yourself? Which of you to someone you love — your mother, your lover, your daughter or son, husband or wife?

Clancy Martin thinks we should all have our hands up. In his bracingly candid (from all appearances) and, frankly, brave new book, Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love, which blends scholarship and memoir, Martin, a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, translator, novelist, Guggenheim fellow and contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, to rattle off just a few of his many accomplishments, argues that we all lie, all the time, and most often to those we love most — and if we don't admit it, we're either lying about it or lying to ourselves.

"Why that might be the case is fascinating," Martin writes. "Because for thousands of years, at least since Plato taught in the Symposium that love is a ladder that leads us to the truth, our culture has supposed that intimacy and truthfulness go hand in hand. Of course in many instances they do. And yet while we are holding the beloved by one truthful hand, we're using the other hand, fingers crossed, to hold on with deception."

Martin — thrice married, twice divorced, repeatedly unfaithful (though trying hard to remain committed now), and a former jewelry salesman (a "professional liar," as he terms it) and recovering alcoholic — admits to telling a few whoppers himself in his day, as well as the usual continuing string of fibs and deceptions. Here, though, he makes a case for both for the value ? the essentialness — of lying in love and also delivers an impassioned call for honesty: He'd like us to be truthful with ourselves about our penchant for lying to those we love.

It is, Martin contends, "the popular, thoughtless idea that genuine love depends upon absolute truthfulness (with either the beloved or oneself)" that is "the greatest threat to a mature and enduring conception of erotic love," the culprit behind so many failed marriages and calamitous love affairs. And although Martin sometimes writes as if he were a man trying desperately to convince himself that he has finally found the key to making love and marriage last, he does manage to convince even a skeptical or resistant reader that, when it comes to love, honesty may not always be the best policy, but honesty about lying is.

On the day the book was released, Martin generously agreed to answer — truthfully, from all indications — our questions via email. —Amy Reiter

The Barnes & Noble Review: We don't all necessarily consider love and lies closely related topics. What compelled you to write a book about them?

Clancy Martin: First, funny though this is, I felt that a lot of us were playing a kind of "Emperor's New Clothes" game when it came to the question of love and lies: We all know we lie and indeed have to do it, especially in loving contexts, and we all pretend we don't. So I wanted to say: Hey, let's be honest about this. Let's be brave and admit what we all already know, rather than playing a kind of dangerously hypocritical game that often results in real harm and even cruelty. Second, I wanted to challenge myself to be more honest and caring, and the way I exorcise my own demons, in part, is to write about them.

BNR: I would imagine this book, which you describe as "part memoir, part self-psychoanalytic analysis, part philosophical argument, and . . . part literary criticism" with a little science thrown in, was challenging to write, on many levels. What hurdles did you struggle to get over?

CM: The hardest parts were trying to honestly confront the many ways I've personally harmed other people through deception, and to do that without doing more damage to them! I made lists of lies I had told and thought about why I told them, what harm they did and what motivated them — that was hard work. I tried to be honest with myself, which is a lifetime's project. It was also difficult to try to discover where the lines should be drawn, in the context of different kinds of love, between truth telling, lying and "story-telling." I think we have to lie sometimes and we have to tell the truth sometimes, and both are required for intimacy and trust — but how do you sort that out? It's a tough nut to crack.

BNR: Do you feel like you achieved, personally, what you set out to? Was it ultimately cathartic? Uplifting? Disappointing? Terrifying?

CM: Cathartic and terrifying. Right now, as it's appearing, mostly terrifying. I don't like being called a liar any more than anyone else does!

BNR: You note that some thinkers believe it is always wrong to lie, but you think lying can be beneficial. Why? And in what sort of situations is it OK or even desirable to lie?

CM: Think how often in order to care for someone you have to mislead, deceive or out-and-out lie to that person, whether it's a child, parent, sibling, friend or lover. I think trying to be honest is very important, but I think caring for people is still more important. "What are you thinking about?" Often, you'd better lie. "Do you still love me?" Sometimes, you'd better lie. "Dad, do you think I'm good at. . . . " (fill in the blank): Often, we just need to lie.

These are simple examples, but if we start to recognize how elusive, nuanced and fluid the truth is — of our feelings, our beliefs, many of our values — we will see that we have to lie or fictionalize so much more often than we like to admit. Everybody lies every day. (This is statistically noncontroversial — in fact we all lie several times during the day, if we're talking very much.) Why do we do it? Sometimes out of cowardice, sometimes out of malice — not often, I think — but very often because we care, both about what others think of us and about what they think about themselves. It takes most of us ten false beliefs just to get out of bed in the morning.

BNR: Why is it especially important to lie to those we love?

CM: Because they trust us enough to think very carefully about what it is good for them to know and what it is bad for them to know. Because they know they don't want "the cold, hard truth" from us — and because we know we don't want it from them. Because love matters more than the truth, and when they are at odds, sometimes choosing love over the truth is simply the right thing to do. Not always — we have to apply a lot of thought and care to this question.

BNR: What about self-deception? Why do you think it plays such a big role in love?

CM: I think love, especially erotic love, is impossible without self-deception. Chris Rock jokes that "when you first meet someone, you're not meeting him, you're meeting his agent." That doesn't mean we are all insincere: It means we are all performers, and self-deception is crucial to our successful performances. People believe us when we believe in ourselves. Similarly, when I'm falling in love with someone else, I'm probably telling myself a bunch of half-truths or out-and-out lies about that person — lies that help me to fall in love. Stendhal called this "crystallization": When we fall in love, we ornament the other person. That's a self-deceptive process, but in a good way.

BNR: But if some lies are OK and others are not, how are people to know which are which? When do lies become damaging or dangerous?

CM: I think we should always ask ourselves: Is what I am about to do or say a caring thing to do or say? Am I being careful? To be careful, you should know your subject, the person you love, as well as you can. Maybe we can't know each other as well as we'd like — it takes years — but we can always try to know each other better, to understand each other better.

BNR: You argue that we're sending our children some pretty mixed messages about lying — telling them it's wrong, on the one hand, and then, through our behavior, sending them the message that it's OK to lie when necessary, but that you should "lie about the fact that you lie." What, exactly, should we be teaching our kids about lying?

CM: We should teach them that everybody lies. That's the first step. The second step is to teach them that when people lie, they are often doing it out of kindness: to be polite, to avoid hurting someone's feelings, because of socially awkward questions, or because someone has asked a very inappropriate or unkind question that can be answered in a better way. The third thing to teach them is that they won't be punished for telling you the truth about something — this is the hardest one for parents. You have to teach them that telling the truth — even when they've done something really naughty, and confessed it — results in praise. You will have to find other, cleverer ways to deal with the naughty behavior they have confessed. (This is tricky, and takes practice, but so does all parenting, and all loving.)

Another thing to teach them is that it's usually easier to tell the truth — that a lot of the time people want and need to hear the truth, and that if we get into the habit of lying, people won't trust what we say. We should also teach them that it takes courage to tell the truth — that often we lie when we're afraid — and that we should be proud of ourselves when we bravely tell the truth, so long as telling the truth isn't going to really cause harm to someone else. (Most of us discourage being a tattletale, for example, or a gossip — even about true things.) So I think we should teach them that your intentions matter — are they kind intentions or hurtful intentions? — and that those matter not just in what we do and how we treat other people, but also in what we say and how we speak to other people.

"Tell the truth when you can, so long as you aren't harming others by doing so": That's a good, simple lesson, that I believe is a pretty good one for most of us. So why do I insist on the importance of lying? Because so very often we tell each other this silly lie, that we are all always telling the truth, because the truth is so darned important and lies and liars are so darned bad. And that's just nonsense. It's pernicious crazy-talk. And it can destroy good relationships, because one exposed lie — told to someone who thinks that trust is based entirely and always on truthfulness — can lead a person to conclude that she or he is in a relationship with someone who always lies and for bad reasons. "How can I believe you now? You're a liar!" That self- righteous, indignant, misguided statement is the source of a lot of unnecessary misery in love.

BNR: Can you explain the notion of the "living truth," as opposed to the literal truth, and why that's an important distinction?

CM: This comes from the philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer (and his greatest influence, Søren Kierkegaard), and the simple idea is that we often aren't in a position to understand the literal truth but we can understand "the living truth," which is often metaphorical or straightforwardly fictional. Billions of dollars are spent every year in the service (in part) of a gigantic lie we tell our children, the lie of Santa Claus. But there is a "living truth" about generosity, kindness and the goodness of human nature that is captured by this whopper of a lie, and it is a truth that a four-year-old can understand (and she wouldn't understand it if we tried to just teach it to her).

When I say "I will love you forever" I'm lying (I'll be dead) and also being wildly optimistic (who knows if I'll love you ten years from now) and making an irresponsible promise (experience teaches us that love is unpredictable). But it expresses a living truth: "I want to love you forever; I can't imagine life without you; I hope I'll always feel about you the way I do now." We can think of many similar examples from different areas of our love lives.

BNR: You don't believe people who say they cannot lie or never lie. Why? Do you think a completely truthful life is possible, if not desirable?

CM: I once had a fifty-something student in an executive MBA ethics class tell me he'd never told a lie. Not one, in his life. A student raised his hand and said: "Well, you just did."

A completely truthful human life? We start deceiving as babies before we can even speak. Deception is part of erotic success throughout the animal kingdom. Even if you were alone on a desert island, I think you'd tell yourself lies in order to make living possible. And truth and lies occur on a spectrum. They are not like an on/off switch; most of human communication — and human belief — is not so crude. We are very nuanced thinkers and believers; we are large, to paraphrase another great American poet, and we contradict ourselves, we contain multitudes. So no, I don't think a completely truthful human life — whatever that would look like — is either possible or desirable. Trying to be more truthful in a caring way as an ongoing, lifelong project? I think that's both possible and desirable.

BNR: You disclose a lot of pretty raw stuff in this book — an early sexual incident with your stepsister, whom you call your first love, a regrettable response to an ex- girlfriend who made herself vulnerable to you, not to mention infidelities and suicide attempts and a career as a "professional liar." What prompted you to share these things?

CM: I know it sounds funny coming from me, but I was trying to be completely honest about some tough things. It's part of a project of mine, to try to grow into a more caring and honest person. Again, I want to insist that I'm not championing lying — I'm asking us to be more honest about the important role it plays in our lives. I'm trying to persuade people that some other goods — like care, commitment and love — might be more important than transparency and truthfulness.

BNR: In fact, because you so often describe yourself as a liar, occasionally, I confess, as a reader, I found myself doubting your honesty. On other occasions, I may have wished you had been a bit less honest. Were you worried at all about how your reader would see you — not to mention how you might be affecting your professional/professorial image?

CM: I am very afraid of this — but in a way, that fear is a good thing. I always tell my students: When you wind up believing what you knew you already wanted to believe, watch out for self-deception. When you find yourself saying what was the easiest thing to say, make sure you inspect what you've said to see why you've said it, and what it is exactly that you've said. Rainer Maria Rilke famously wrote to a young friend that if he wanted a rough guide to doing the right thing, he should simply do what was hardest. Now, that's not always going to work. But if what I'm saying is scaring me a little, then I think I might be taking some brave steps in the right direction. Because I think so many of the lies I've told in my life I've told out of cowardice.

BNR: You suggest that people shouldn't feel bad about the lies we may tell to seduce each other in part because in other species — like cross-dressing cuttlefish and deceptive orchids — also do so. In fact, you suggest that such deception may correspond to intelligence and sophistication and be evolutionarily desirable. Do you think it is not only morally acceptable or even superior to lie, but also intellectually so? Are you saying liars are smarter than those who tell the truth?

CM: Well, "studies show" . . . That's a joke, because it's a cliché. But in fact there is good empirical evidence that suggests that smarter people lie more often and are more adept at it, and that very bright children lie earlier and with greater skill earlier in life, and that the more intelligent a species is, the more it engages in deception. I think lying can be morally praiseworthy when it serves a kind intention to a beneficial end, and it can be morally blameworthy when it serves a bad intention to a harmful end.

BNR: At one point in the book, you wonder — as your reader also may have ? whether you're so interested in lying because you yourself are a pathological liar or a sociopath. Does it matter — should it matter —to your reader whether or not you are a truthful person, an entirely reliable narrator?

CM: I think it's a fair question. If I were a pathological liar, I'd be incredibly stupid to write this book — the one way of guaranteeing that a lie won't work is by saying, "Now I'm going to lie to you." Saying, "Hey, I've told a lot of lies, and now I'm going to try to explain why" is a bit different. But yes, I expect my reader to keep one eyebrow raised, I suppose, though I wish that weren't the case sometimes.

BNR: You have been married three times — your first and second marriages broke up because of your own infidelity, and now you are doing your best to be faithful to your third wife, whom, you say, you love very much. Has your vision of the truth and love changed from marriage to marriage?

CM: Profoundly. My first marriage very much followed the model of first love, I think. My second marriage was a whole lot of fun, until I stopped drinking, and then it wasn't, for either one of us. In my third marriage I'm following my mother's advice: "Clancy, here's how you make a marriage last. You refuse to get divorced. It's that simple." She was married twice, and she said that when, on occasion, my stepdad asked for a divorce, she'd just laugh and leave the room. Care and commitment, those are the two words that mean the most to me now, as a partner and as a parent.

BNR: Sometimes it seems as if you are writing the book to convince yourself — or even to exonerate yourself. If that is the case, what is the reader to take away from the book?

CM: Take this away: Everybody lies. You're not the only one. If you think you really don't lie or almost never lie, watch your speech very carefully for a week or two, and see if you revise your opinion. Remember, it's not always wrong to lie — just as lying all the time is clearly a bad idea. Use your judgment when you speak. Try to recognize that words are as important as actions. Be truthful when you can, but don't use the truth as a weapon, don't think that anger or other negative emotions somehow carry the mark of truthfulness. Admit that sometimes you extort lies out of people — and when you do, take responsibility for the lie; don't blame them. Be as forgiving of falsehood in others as you are forgiving of it in yourself. And don't forget that it takes all of us ten self-deceptions to get out of bed in the morning. Life is hard. A little bit of fiction can make it easier and a lot more fun.

February 10, 2015

Customer Reviews