We have come a long way from the time when it was said that everything a child said about abuse and abusers was to be believed. While a child’s well-being and interests are paramount, and everything a child says is listened to and taken seriously, things are more complex than that. But it is well to recall that this used to be a mantra of professionals and specialists in the emerging field of child protection and safeguarding. Perhaps it would have been wiser to have listened to the poets and writers. No one who has read Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche de Temps Perdu, or Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, for example, is likely to be remotely inclined to accept memories of childhood as non-problematical or clear cut. There is simply too much filtering going on conscious and unconscious, and there is too much at stake. To retrace one’s life story requires imagination and self-awareness, not merely a recall and collation of the hard or indisputable facts.
For much of my life at Mill Grove, time and again, I have been forced to try to fathom how and why it is that some of the children and young people in our care have resorted to lying: against all the odds and all the evidence. Intuitively I have sensed that it is more than a matter of choice, or an instinct for survival. And it seems to go beyond issues of ethics and truth. It is as if fabrication and lying are part of a child’s being, their (primal?) character. When they are in lying mode, to challenge them with incontrovertible evidence makes not a whiff of difference. They can do none other than deny what stares them, and you, in the face. So it is that I have tried to understand the nature and possible origins of this character trait.
In the process, it is often writers, using both their remarkable observation, coupled with imaginative insight, who have helped light the way. Recently, it was Julian Barnes in his novel, The Only Story, who provided a spark of insight. The book is a life story focussing on the anatomy of love between a late teenager, and an older married woman. As their relationship deteriorates the woman turns to drink, and a routine increasingly peppered with excuses and lies. But their life-stories are, of course, inextricably intertwined. So over time, her lies lead to his lies. He reacts by condoning her lies and becoming a “liar by proxy”. But it is not long before he finds himself lying, out of weariness, a desire for peace, and also, surprisingly and controversially, out of love. The genesis of lying is set out like this…
First you tell lies to protect the one you love, and your love. Then you begin lying to her. This is where the crucial insight occurs). Barnes puts it like this:
“Why? Something to do with the need to create some internal space which you could keep intact – and where you could yourself remain intact.” (Page 137)
This is where the light came on for me. Yes, lying in some cases, perhaps in more life-stories than we care to imagine, has its origins, its genesis, in the need to create some internal space that you can keep intact. An imaginary world where it is hoped that safe space can be found, set in the context of a real world which is unpredictable, hostile, confusing, oppressive, overwhelming, and sometimes abusive. If such a fantasy world has been under construction from very early childhood, then no wonder that it should be part of the warp and woof of the person’s personality and way of living: crucial to their way of coping.
This made sense of those puzzling times when the truth was so solid, so simple, so transparent, so mutually shared, as to be undeniable…but when the other person still denied it insistently to my face while the evidence was in front of both our eyes. For a moment I had glimpsed what had been and was going on in the other person’s inner world. It was not just a survival technique to get out of a difficult situation, but the surfacing or eruption of the way their life was lived, experienced, organised and processed at the deepest of levels.
There was a time when I might have pursued or contested things to the bitter end in the interests of establishing a foundation of shared truth, but over the years it has become apparent that this course of action, however laudable, risks serious collateral damage. One psychoanalyst responded in this way, when I declared my determination to get to the bottom of things: “And have you thought through what damage might be caused in the process; whether there will be anything left after this forthright quest for what you see as healing and truth?”
The present encounter or incident is just the tip of an iceberg, who knows how vast, and it is not only memories that might unravel, but also the inner world of the person whom you are trying to help. The current example is a warning about the fragility of the truth denier’s personality.
But it goes deeper than this. For to construct things in this way is to assume that the other person is a liar, while you always consistently see and tell the truth. And the writers have already questioned how is it possible for any person to know, let alone tell, their life-story with complete accuracy and truth? So, what might be the process by which each of our inner worlds has been constructed?
This leads me to the work of those who like Freud, Jung, Klein, Erikson, Winnicott, among many others, have sought to conceive and reconstruct the development of personality, of a person’s self, identity, ego. Professor James Loder, whose work I have mentioned before, sums up a critical, and what he suggests is a universal moment or stage in ego development, when a young child discovers that the reliable presence, smiling face, and succour of the mother or significant other, is absent, and that no amount of crying can bring her back. She is outside the child’s control. And here the primal fear of “the Void”, that is the total absence of security, safe space, is exposed most cruelly and frighteningly. The reaction is to begin to create your own inner world, by setting up an alternative scenario in which you deny help when it is eventually offered (creating “no-win” situations), by pre-empting the “No” of the other, with your own “No”: here, he argues, can be seen the very first inklings of an independent, untouchable inner world in its most rudimentary form.
All through life this false ego, a survival strategy, is resorted to whenever in the real world, things threaten to overwhelm the self. Where there is no secure attachment or bonding with another person, this imaginary ego assumes huge, possibly pre-eminent, significance. And over time a person will do almost anything to keep the inner world intact however far it deviates from the truth. The stakes are simply too high. To let go of this lifelong “friend” is to risk losing everything.
So, assuming that Julian Barnes is right, it is not hard to see that whenever we find ourselves confronted by another person who reveals their sense of horror and fear that confrontation with the truth might annihilate them as a being, we do well to bear in mind that within each of us there lies buried a false ego, and that though it is largely unconscious, its needs to be fed and nurtured have been met in any number of alternative ways to barefaced lying. Achievements, success, acclaim, status, possessions can all disguise the underlying primal fact that each of us is frightened of the Void.
In fact, one of the ways in which child development theories tend to deny this truth is by presenting growth in developmental stages from birth to maturity, rather than as the palpably more accurate bell curve that acknowledges the ultimate stage or destiny of all human beings is death.
Whatever the truth, when we ponder life-stories and lying, the stakes are high: for all of us.