The Dance of Deception Pretending and Truth Telling in Women s Lives

by Harriet Lerner

Author Harriet Lerner Isbn 9780060924638 File size 1MB Year 2003 Pages 272 Language English File format PDF Category Family and Friendship When The Dance of Deceptionwas published Lerner discovered that women were not eager to identify with the subject Well I don t do deception was a common resonse We all do deception often with the intention to protect ourselves and the relationships we depend on The Dance of Deceptionunravels the ways and whys that women show the false and hide

Publisher :

Author : Harriet Lerner

ISBN : 9780060924638

Year : 2003

Language: English

File Size : 1MB

Category : Family and Friendship

The Dance of

Harriet G. Lerner, Ph.D.

In memory of AUDRE LORDE,
who taught us that women have gained nothing
from silence.


 1    Tony and the Martians


 2    Deception and Truth-Telling


 3    To Do the Right Thing


 4    In the Name of Privacy


 5    A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Orifice


 6    We Are the Stories We Tell


 7    Our Family Legacies


 8    Honesty versus Truth


 9    Just Pretending


10    Family Secrets: A Disturbance in the Field


11    An Affair Is a Big Secret


12    The Body Seeks Truth


13    Will the Real Me Please Stand?


       Epilogue: When the Lion Learns to Write






       About the Author
       Other books by the Author

      About the Publisher

Except for the friends and family who have given permission
to appear in this book, names and identifying characteristics
of individuals mentioned have been changed in order to protect
their privacy.

Tony and the Martians


hen I was twelve, I told a lie that grew to epic proportions. I
told my friend Marla, who lived across the street from me in
Brooklyn, that I had been contacted by a man named Tony who
came from another planet. Since first grade, Marla and I had been
on-again, off-again best friends.
I told Marla that Tony told me to find a date. Since no one had
asked me out yet (and I believed that no one ever would), Marla
had to fix me up with a blind date because Tony said that something
bad might happen to me otherwise. Marla, who could accomplish
almost anything she set her mind to, went about this project with
her usual vigor and enthusiasm. The blind date came and went.
Tony did not.
A few minor characters from the same planet were added to the
drama, as the personality and presence of Tony grew and became
part of my deepening friendship with Marla. Tony emerged as a
good-hearted, playful fellow who told me funny things that I could
tell only Marla—and that she could tell no one. At a time when my
other girlfriends were dropping one best friend for another, my
special status with


Marla was secure. Tony stabilized our friendship and strengthened
our sense of camaraderie and commitment. And I was in charge—an
active director and orchestrator of the threesome: Tony and Marla
and me.
I don’t remember how often Tony visited or how long he stayed
around, but I think it was at least a year before I let him drift out of
our lives. Years later, when Marla and I were both graduate students
in Berkeley, California, I tearfully told her I had made Tony up.
Until then, we had both walled off the Tony business, not bothering
to reflect on it or even to remember. Marla protected me and our
friendship by choosing not to subject this interplanetary drama to
close scrutiny. After all, anything is possible. When we finally talked
about it, Marla was lighthearted and forgiving, as I hoped she would
be with our long history of friendship binding us together.

In the early 1970s I entered psychoanalysis during my post-doctoral
training program in clinical psychology and confessed my “Tony
story.” I half-jokingly voiced my concern that my analyst would
downgrade my diagnosis to something either very bad or very sick.
My uneasiness was hardly surprising. Although lying is commonplace in both personal and public—especially political—life, the label
of “liar” is a profound condemnation in our culture, bringing to
mind pathology and sin. I know parents who punish their children
more severely for lying to them than for any other behavior. I have
heard otherwise calm parents scream at their children, “Don’t you
ever lie to me again!” So heavy are the negative associations of intention and character that it is difficult to think lovingly, or even objectively, about the role that lying plays in the lives of children and

Tony and the Martians / 3

My analyst (coincidentally also named Tony) was, as always,
empathic and nonjudgmental. In psychoanalysis—as in the rest of
life—insight and self-understanding do not flourish in an atmosphere
of self-depreciation or blame. He and I explored Tony in the context
of my distant relationship with my father and my related desperation
about getting the “blind date” that I first used Tony for with Marla.
Many years later, after the birth of my second son in 1979, I faced
a personal crisis, a health scare, that pushed me to learn more about
my mother’s diagnosis of advanced endometrial cancer when I was
twelve. While talking to my parents at this time, I recognized that I
had brought Tony into the picture when my mother, then forty-eight,
had been given one year to live. Although I was unaware on a conscious level of her diagnosis and prognosis, I am certain that my
unconscious knew everything.
As I reconstructed that year, multiple lies emerged, beginning
with my mother’s harrowing experience with a medical system that
did not provide her with facts. After a long period of misdiagnosed
vaginal bleeding, my mother hemorrhaged and was hospitalized
for an emergency D&C. This procedure led to the unexpected diagnosis of a hitherto unknown invasive cancer. Her physician (who
may himself have been reacting to the long period of misdiagnosis
and neglect) told my father the facts—but swore him to secrecy.
After the initial procedure, my mother was packing her bags to return
home when she was told that an additional stay in the hospital was
necessary for a second surgery to “stretch her uterus.” With this
improbable, mystifying explanation, her doctor performed a complete hysterectomy without her knowledge or permission. She awoke
from the surgery, confused and disoriented, and suffering from inexplicable, intense pain.


My mother did not confront her doctor until immediately before
her discharge from the hospital, when he referred her for radiation
treatment. She demanded to know her diagnosis. He did not answer,
but instead took her hand and told her to enjoy life and to try to
have enjoyable sex in the year to come. He didn’t mention cancer
and she didn’t push it. A part of her, too, must not have wanted to
hear the word spoken out loud. With a referral for prolonged radiation treatment, however, my mother knew the name of her problem
even though the medical establishment did not voice it.
In the year that followed, the word “cancer” was never spoken in
my family. My mother’s health was not even discussed. Inexplicably,
she did not die, as predicted, and so we have had the opportunity
to talk as adults about that traumatic year after her diagnosis. Our
conversations have allowed me to appreciate more deeply how
helplessly out of control I must have felt when I brought Tony down
from another planet.
My mother, the emotional center of the family, seemed to be dying.
Susan, my only sibling, had started college at Barnard and would
soon be looking for an apartment in the city. She was getting
launched, leaving me for her own grown-up life. My mother had
quietly made plans for her brother and sister-in-law, then living in
a different part of Brooklyn, to take me in after her death because
she did not think that my father could care for me by himself. I was
on the edge of losing everyone. Into this precarious world, threatening to pull apart at the seams, I brought Tony.

During the year after my mother’s diagnosis, my most important
relationships had a lie at their center. In my fam

Tony and the Martians / 5

ily, the lie was perpetuated through silence. There was a survival
issue in my family that no one was talking about. Only once did I
give voice to reality, to truth, in an incident that I myself do not remember. My mother tells me that some time after she had finished
her radiation treatment and had recovered her energy and spirits,
she came down with a bad cold and took to bed—a singularly rare
occurrence for her. I stormed into the bedroom and screamed at her
for lying down. “Get up!” I commanded with the full force of early
adolescent rage. “You’d better not die—do you hear me?—or I’ll
never forgive you!” My mother recalls this outburst—over as suddenly as it began—as our family’s only direct expression of feeling,
our only articulation of danger.
Apart from this isolated outburst, I blanketed myself in denial,
screening out my mother’s illness and my questions about how I
would be cared for if she died. Reading back through my diary—my
one place to tell the truth—I do not find a word during that year
about my mother being sick or about my being afraid. I numbed my
consciousness, both language and feeling. But because the unconscious seeks truth, I acted out all over the place—in trouble at school
and a mess at home.
With Marla, my best friend, the lie was told in words, not in silence. I constructed, elaborated, and kept alive a narrative, immersing
myself so fully in the drama that I did not experience myself as
standing outside it. Only much later did I piece together enough
context to make sense of my behavior, to think more objectively of
its meaning.
Perhaps I wanted to be caught. One evening I found myself in my
sister Susan’s bedroom, spontaneously telling her that I had become
friends with a man from another planet. If Susan had taken this
revelation seriously, a confrontation about Tony might have pushed
us all toward


addressing the deeper issue. But for better or worse, Susan merely
listened to my story, perhaps never giving it a second thought.

Thinking about Context
If my behavior with Marla was viewed out of context, an observer
might say, “She lied because that’s how she is. She is a liar, out for
herself, that sort of child.” Or a psychological interpretation might
be based on a particular notion about human behavior: “Because
she is insecure, she needs to manipulate and control—that’s why
she lies.”
In the absence of context, we tend to view particular behaviors as
fixed “traits” or as “personality characteristics” that exist within us,
rather than as part of a dance happening between and among us.
My creation of Tony, for example, could be viewed as evidence of
my manipulative, controlling, and deceptive intentions—words that
fit with our culture’s general description of how women have wielded power. Of course, these were my intentions—to manipulate,
control, and deceive, just as my intentions were to love, to connect,
strengthen, protect, and survive.

Context allows us to put lying—or any other behavior—into perspective. By broadening our view, we are challenged to take a more
complex reality into account, to ask questions (rather than provide
answers) about where lies begin.
Did the lie begin, in my case, with a frightened adolescent girl
who desperately wanted to avoid any further threat of loss by
holding on to her best friend by whatever magic possible?

Tony and the Martians / 7

Did it begin with my parents, unable to address, even with each
other, a terrifying illness, then handed down as a death sentence?
Or did it begin with their parents, Russian Jewish immigrants who
could not begin to speak about the massive losses and separations
they had endured?
Did the lie begin under the hand of patriarchy, with the maledominated medical system withholding facts from my mother,
mystifying and falsifying her experience, denying her deepest instincts, protecting her from essential knowledge “for her own sake,”
creating for her a situation of unutterable loneliness? Did truth-telling
become less possible still when the doctor told my father to keep
my mother’s condition a secret, for which she did not easily forgive
him? And what of my mother’s unspoken plan to transfer me to a
relative’s home upon her death? Was patriarchy (its consequences
then hidden, unspoken, denied) at the heart of a mother’s felt
knowledge or belief that it might be unwise to leave an adolescent
daughter alone with an emotionally isolated father?

I was in my thirties before I connected Tony to my mother’s diagnosis of cancer, a connection which cast a new perspective on my behavior of twenty years earlier—as did the facts about my mother’s
hospital experience then, and the culturally enforced silence surrounding any diagnosis of cancer at that time. Deception is larger
than the particular individual responsible for it, larger even than a
family. We can never know for sure where a lie begins, with whom
it originates, or the many factors that sustain it. We can, however,
move toward an increasingly accurate and complex understanding
of ourselves as we widen our view of a lie, secret, or silence—or any
deceptive behavior, for that matter.


This story about Tony illustrates the importance of context, and
how empathy and understanding increase with the bigger picture
of family, culture, and the addition of more facts. Further, this story
illustrates that our most dramatic and colorful lies—the ones we can
decide either to keep secret or to confess—are not necessarily at the
center of our emotional life and not where we need to focus our
primary attention. My lie to Marla was symptomatic of the paralyzing silence in my family surrounding my mother’s illness. My family’s silence was symptomatic of a culture which placed cancer, as
well as other painful subjects, in the realm of the unspeakable. It is
the unspoken, all that we cannot name and productively address,
that gets us into trouble; lying is merely one expression of that
In truth, I did not experience myself as a “liar.” Or, more accurately, I knew I was lying to Marla about Tony but I told myself I was
pretending. We were, perhaps, all pretending—the doctors who
withheld information from my mother (for her own sake), my parents
who withheld information from us children (for our sake), and the
children, myself included, who didn’t persist in asking questions
(for the family’s sake). We were a family like any other, with
strengths and vulnerabilities, doing our best to stay afloat in the face
of massive anxiety about my mother’s—and our own—survival.

Deception and Truth-Telling


hether our motives are unconscious or intentional, pristine
or nefarious, deception is a part of everyday existence. It
wears countless faces in daily life and takes on an endless array of
forms and functions. Our language itself speaks to the multiplicity
of ways that we depart from truth-telling and engage in deceit:
We say, she fibbed, fabricated, exaggerated, minimized, withheld.
We say, she told a white lie, a partial truth, a falsehood, a tall tale.
We say, she embroidered her story, she pulled the wool over our
We say, she keeps secrets (and also, she can’t keep a secret).
We say, she covered up, covered over, concealed, misled, misinformed, twisted, distorted, falsified, misrepresented the facts.
We say, she is false, elusive, evasive, wily, indirect, tricky,


treacherous, manipulative, untrustworthy, unfaithful, sneaky,
scheming, calculating, conniving, corrupt.
We say, she is deceitful, deceptive, duplicitous, dishonest.
We say, she is a hypocrite, a cheat, a charlatan, a callous liar, a
We say, she presented a clever ruse, a bogus deal, an artifice, a
pretense, a fiction, a sham, a hoax.
We say, she is phony, artificial, affected.
We say, she is pretending, charading, posturing, faking, holding
back, being an imposter, putting up a good front, hiding behind
a facade.
We say, she did not own up, come clean, or level with me.
We say, she gaslighted me, messed with my mind, mystified my
reality, betrayed and double-crossed me.
We say, she is two-faced; she speaks out of both sides of her
We say, she speaks falsely.
We say, she cannot face reality; she cannot face the truth; she engages in self-deception.
We say, how brave she was to reveal nothing, how clever to throw
them off track.
We say, she acted with discretion.
We say, she lied out of necessity; she lied for the greater good.
We say, she lied with honor.
Our language provides us with incredibly rich possibilities for
describing our departures from truth-telling. Different words and
phrases evoke varied images of deception, connoting a range of
implications about intention and motivation, and the seriousness of
harm done. We may have learned to associate some of these words
more with women, some more with men. In either case, we have
more words to

Deception and Truth-Telling / 11

describe the nuances of how we deceive each other than to describe
how we love.

Deception is not a “woman’s problem” or even a uniquely human
phenomenon, for that matter. From viruses to large mammals—from
disease-causing microbes to baboons and chimps—deception is
continually at play: an African beetle kills a few ants and attaches
their carcasses to its body in order to enter an ant colony to feast
undetected; a chimp misdirects her group away from a food source,
covers up her own movements so that the location of the food can’t
be traced, and returns later to dine by herself. Many baboons and
chimps, when threatened, make themselves appear larger. Deception
has played a major role in the evolution of human life. It is interesting
to think about the fact that deception and “con games” are a way of
life in all species and throughout nature. Organisms that do not
improve their ability to deceive—and to detect deception—are less
apt to survive.
Do only humans engage in calculated deception? Not according
to the finest animal trainers, who attribute a capacity for moral understanding to a number of species other than our own. Trainers,
notes Vicki Hearne, distinguish horses who are trustworthy (“Relax,
there isn’t a tricky bone in that horse’s body”) from those who are
“sneaky” (“Don’t worry, he’ll come around okay, he’s no real criminal, just a juvenile delinquent”) and even “irredeemably dishonest.”
Although such anthropomorphic, morally loaded language is criticized as naive, even heretical, the scientifically minded critics are
hopelessly behind the trainers when it comes to engagement in the
real world of animal-human encounters.


The subject of deception pertains to every member of our species,
but this book speaks directly to women, and undoubtedly to some
women more than others. I invite men to read it, too, of course, not
just to learn about the women in their lives but also to find themselves in these pages. Much of what follows is “generically human”;
where it isn’t, it’s useful for the reader to define both commonalities
and differences. We can all benefit from examing how we hide the
real and show the false. Unexamined deception is now threatening
our survival far more than enhancing it.

How, specifically, do we engage in deception?
We lie outright, as I did to Marla, with the intention of convincing
the other person of what we know is not true, of what we do not
even believe ourselves. As our language illustrates, words and
phrases which connote deliberate deception tend to condemn, reflecting our feelings about being on the receiving end of deception.
When we are the active players, however, we are more likely to experience ourselves as lying to prevent harm, not create it.
We also depart from truth-telling through silence, as my family
did, by failing to speak out. We do not ask an essential question or
make a comment to clarify the facts. We withhold information from
others that would make a difference in their lives. We do not even
say, “There are some things I am not telling you.”
In contrast to how we react to stated lies, we are slower to pass
negative judgment on what is withheld. After all, no one can tell “the
whole truth” all the time. (A friend commented recently, “Can you
imagine what an impossible world it would be if we could all read
each other’s minds!”) Deception through silence or withholding may
be excused,

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