Part 79: The Deception Lab
In 1976, someone gave me an old Brownie camera. I'd just turned eleven, and obsessed with staging and costumes for my photographs. Whenever we had film, I’d use it all on these strange ideas, like the photograph of my friend Mandy, who was visiting us from Hollywood (below). The background is the huge back yard that came with the house on Pleasant Valley Road.
I look at this photograph now and cringe––if an adult had taken it, it’d be down right creepy. I'm pretty sure I made her wear tan panty hose, I told her how to stand, where to hold her hands, where to look. I was in my own little world, maybe trying to recreate some shampoo commercial, who knows. I wasted a lot of film, but that was fine at our house, which was like living in an art cult where everything creative was cool, allowing me to be in my own little world. I think Mandy got pretty sick of being my model. As I recall, I was super bossy and obnoxious. Later, Jan painted one of my photographs of Mandy in the old shed in the back yard (posted at the end).
Riley was the ultimate supporter and cheerleader of whatever creative thing I worked on. He encouraged me to draw, write, paint, take pictures, and keep a journal. I looked up to him, even though there were some confusing moments, like the fact that when he got a job cooking in a diner, he’d sometimes tell people that he was the owner. I knew this wasn’t true, but kept quiet, wondering if I just didn’t understand the situation completely. The more confused I became, the more I put things out of my mind. He'd bring home pots and pans, big packages of meat, butter, flour, and all kinds of things from his restaurant jobs. Once, he came home with a bunch of chairs. He said he was given the items, Jan thinks he swiped them.
During this, and all through my childhood, Jan was running around warning people not to loan Riley money.
“You can learn a lot about the music business from him, but don’t give him any money, you’ll never see it again,” she’d say. But they rarely listened. Something about Riley made people get swept up in whatever project he was promoting, usually the encyclopedia of folk music. Looking back on it, I see why Riley’s other relationships with women (whether they’d had children with him or not) crumbled. There were few people who’d go along with Riley’s crazy bullshit for long, (once they'd figured it out) but my mother stayed. She knew he was a liar and a grifter, but she loved him in her way, and he loved her.
This whole blog is dedicated to unravelling my father’s lies and secrets. I’ve met pathological liars as an adult, and it's always just as confusing. I wonder if that is all there is to it, they suffer from a pathology, they lie and can't stop. You’d think I’d be good at spotting liars after all of this bullshit I've experienced, but it always takes a while (at least for me, anyway) to figure it out.
It’s just so confusing. Why? Why make some of these things up? I can see claiming to be the owner of a restaurant rather than the cook, it elevates status, and that feels good I suppose. Maybe there's a fear of being seen as a failure, or the ego gets all twisted in in some idea of success. But there were other things Riley lied about, covered up, or twisted around that make no sense to me. Theories about this pathology vary. Do pathological liars believe their own lies? After reading Riley’s journal, it doesn’t seem to be the case with him.
Have you ever known a compulsive liar? How long did it take you to figure it out? Did you confront them, or just walk away?
There's an actual deception lab, something I discovered while reading online research on pathological liars. The lab is located at a women's college in Texas, led by Professor Christian Hart. I'm so curious about what goes on there! I'd been working on an essay about pathological liars, trying to write out my thoughts on how Riley's lies impacted my brain, memories, and my understanding of the past, when I came across some of Hart's published research. I needed some quotes from an expert to make the piece work, so I reached out. I'm so thankful he got back to me.
I've sent the finished essay out for possible publication, but if no one picks it up, I'll post it in this blog later on. For now, I wanted to share the fascinating email from Christian Hart, who answered my questions in the email, below. I wonder what some of your questions are?
Here's my email to him:
From: Stacya Silverman
Sent: Tuesday, July 6, 2021 3:30 PM To: Hart, Christian Subject: Questions Regarding PL Research
Hi Professor Hart, I'm a writer in Seattle working on an essay about my deceased father, who was wonderful in many ways, but was a compulsive liar. We remained close until his death in 2009, and I had a sense that he couldn't control this behavior. I've since found a long and detailed journal he kept, where he wrote down all the facts of his life, admitted to deception, admitting regrets he had. I would love to have some quotes from you, or if not you, perhaps one of your students focusing on deception research? Here are my questions, if you can only answer one, that's fantastic, or if you'd like to pass this request along to someone else in your group, or have suggestions for me, that would be helpful. 1. A few articles online suggest that there's a clinical difference between compulsive liars and pathological liars, is this true? 2. Why is there so little research in this specific type of psychology, and does the research on white matter increase in liar's brain help with advancing the research? 3. Why do some in your field reject the idea that PL should be a distinct disorder, instead of a symptom of NPD or other personality disorders? 4. Is childhood trauma linked to pathological lying as suggested in some articles I've read? Thank you for your time. I'm not a psychologist at all, so anything more you can tell me, even what your latest finding are would help me with the writing, and understanding this baffling issue. Best Regards, Stacya Silverman
From: Christian Hart:
My condolences about your father. Your writing project sounds fascinating. I'd love to hear more about it. Finding a journal would really be a treasure trove for people interested in the topic. I would be happy to try to answer some of your questions.
One of the problems in the literature on pathological lying is that people have historically defined it many different ways. My sense is that the majority of people who study pathological lying view compulsive lying as a synonym. Many expressly endorse that position. The few articles I have seen that aim to distinguish pathological lying from compulsive lying have been written by people with no clear expertise on the topic and without providing any data to support their contention. Most researchers who study the topic use the term pathological lying. Certainly, many see compulsion to lie as a feature of pathological lying though. One extensive study examined 32 different definitions of pathological lying (or its synonyms) that had been published in research articles over the decades. That study found that compulsive lying was mentioned in about 25% of the definitions of pathological lying that were published.
I am not sure why pathological lying is studied so little. For a topic that has been widely recognized for over a century, I am perplexed by the scant attention it has received. To be fair, lying in generally received little attention by researchers until about 25 years ago. I suspect that part of the issue is that people rarely seek mental health treatment primarily because of pathological lying. Also, most pathological liars don't impose a huge drain on society, as they tend not to be especially successful swindlers. Lastly, lying is heavily stigmatized, so finding people who admit to being pathological liars is a challenge.
I suspect some reject pathological lying as a disorder because they view lying as a behavioral symptom rather than a pathological condition itself. Similarly, suicidality is viewed a the manifestation of a disorder (depression) rather than a disorder itself. Also, lying does seem to be a symptom of a few other disorders, so it is convenient to link them together. My view is different. In a paper I published with Drew Curtis last year, we argued that pathological lying has enough distinct features to warrant classification as a unique disorder. As it relates to narcissistic personality disorder, there are certainly some people who lie pathologically and seem to meet the criteria for NPD. However, many more people who lie pathologically seem to exhibit no evidence of clinically significant narcissism.
It may be that trauma is significant in the etiology of pathological lying. In the study I mentioned previously that examined 32 definitions of pathological lying, well over half mentioned cases involving people who had experienced trauma such as death of a loved one, abuse, substance abuse, extreme poverty, etc. For what it's worth, researchers have found that trauma is a significant predictor of other disorders such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. My point is that trauma may be a causal factor in all psychopathology rather than anything specific to pathological lying.
I hope these responses got at some of what you were looking for. If not, feel free to send follow-up ones. Good luck with the essay.
Christian L. Hart, Ph.D. Department of Psychology & Philosophy Texas Woman's University
Thinking about pathological liars makes my head spin, so here's more of those photographs I took back in 1976, plus a snapshot of the painting Jan created using my photograph, with her studio in the background. The one below turned out slightly out of focus, but there's something I like about it.
Next blog: The shit hits the fan.