I Am Lying

That’s why he hesitates. In one study by the Innocence Project, more than 25 per cent of wrongfully convicted people had made a false confession. Image   courtesy of the author. In memory it is not clear whether that day Mum has already lost the plot over the burnt lino and Dad arrives into this panic. Women are more likely to lie to make the person they are talking to feel good, while men most often lie to make themselves look better. He may go right ahead and beat us all. The noise Ed makes begins to fill every corner of me, the anxiety brimming up inside like sickness. Cognitive load is stress on the brain’s power to manage itself. Humans lie most. Often so much is grafted to deceit in the telling, that afterwards the layers are difficult to unpick. It’s the end of the day, and four children stand on the brand new textured linoleum of a seventies kitchen, hands clasped tight over their bums. A study in 2009 found that they were two and a half times more likely than their saner counterparts to be granted parole. I know about the density of traffic on Lothian Road, the vagaries of the head of department, and the difficulties of parking on the High Street outside. Pathological liars have significantly more ‘white matter’ than ‘grey matter’ in their prefrontal lobe. Yet he asks it again:
‘Who did it?’
My mother, in early memory, is like a mum in a cartoon: with her back to me, shackled to the white goods. For instance we may lumber into incoherence, repetition, aggression and pointing fingers. He does not wait to get him up the stairs to his schoolmaster’s belt, but thrashes him right there in the hall, with the one that was buckled round his own trousers. Findings show that the bigger the brain, the more frequent the deceit. The lino pattern was her choice. Dad is a lecturer in Maths at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. We may think that Tony Blair has got away with murder, and a small fortune besides, but when Boris Johnson, of all people, feels comfortable calling him an ‘epic, patronising tosser’, the short-term gains of Blair’s refusal to differentiate between self-belief and certitude must be a position he regrets. It is so bad my head is a white-hot hell. Sometimes, towards six o’clock, I peer through the fugged-up windows at the fifteen car-parking spaces on the harbour front, fingers crossed. Scientists call this a truth bias. Research from the University of Southern California shows that structural brain abnormalities develop in people who habitually lie. But I must warn you, I have lied on occasion too. ‘Who did it?’
The answer is obvious. The face we control with more vigilance. Whether we’re a ten-a-day fibber or tell a monstrous two hundred, fMRI scans show that, when we do it, the prefrontal cortex is active. Philosophers talk about a Liar Paradox. It is this fealty that silences the moist kitchen, condensation thick on every window, bubble and squeak in the pot. A father of four, he has lost one wife to septicaemia and gained a second, completing his PhD in the evenings, between bouts of Open University marking and the kind of parenting we find him in the midst of here. Police themselves are lied to every day. One could argue that this is less about having a better control of their deceit and more about self-belief. Dad strides the length of us. Researchers call the experience of these emotions ‘cognitive load’. Finally there is round-faced, red-lipped Ed, who can only be four. Because the steam engine has only been in the house as long as the lino. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame asked 110 people to take a lie-detector test every week for ten weeks, reporting how many lies they had told. The reason the prefrontal cortex is the site of deceitfulness, rather than the more ancient, routine areas of the brain, is that telling a lie requires twice as much effort as being honest. This white matter is what gives liars a natural advantage. There’s the shameful behaviour of the Catholic Church as it tried to protect its reputation, and the scramble by the police to save themselves after the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 1989. White matter is the communicative equipment between cells, or the wiring between thoughts. Our rate of lie detection is extremely poor, statistically only slightly greater than chance. Her loyalties are with the other adult. Like Paddington he eats marmalade neat from the spoon, his stomach white and taut as a drum. Psychopaths are in a league of their own when it comes to lying. It’s not a feeling-better that will last. Lies beget lies. Politicians, of course, are amongst the worst. For the majority of us it’s hard to detect a falsehood. Liars also make better lie detectors. By the end of the study, all the subjects lied less, and all reported improvements in their relationships and sleep patterns; they had fewer headaches and fewer sore throats. Everyone knows. Grey matter is thought. Dad may not wait for an answer. It is an inappropriate present to Ed, that Sean covets, and that we’ll never, ever see again. Adrian, my eldest brother, is a teenager and his own mother dead. My loyalties must be with my elder brothers. Next is me, the token girl. From experience I know my little brother’s cry will make things worse. But thankfully he makes a break for it, dragging Sean through the kitchen by his ear. Those who are interested in lie detection estimate that the average person will lie three times within a few minutes of meeting a stranger, and between ten and two hundred times a day. Nobody speaks. Paul Ekman, the psychologist who pioneered research into how emotions relate to our facial expressions, argues that this cognitive load leads to ‘leakage’. It is this table we are hostage to twice each day, stuck in close proximity to a father whose unhappiness re- minds me of the kind of fury the barking dog at the brewery shows, dragging its chain. Individuals who are good at lying are good at catching others out. However, for once Sean has not destroyed something on purpose. The stink of cabbage and corned beef mingles with the overwhelming stench of paraffin and burn. Orange flowers, bordered by a fake wooden square, now repeat across the vast space between me and the back door.  
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Since this is about lying let’s start off with some facts. On the whole we’re a gullible species, tending to think the best of one another. There is a smell of smoke and paraffin, an unsightly burn tarnishing Mum’s new floor. The prefrontal cortex is a little like Putin’s FSB – preoccupied with conflict, error detection, risky decisions and executive control. This version of a life will be contested too. Widespread institutional deception plagues the front pages. They demand it. A quiet, internal panic that drums through me till I can think of nothing else. The one shouting so loud the whole street will hear. Chamberlain was to say when Hitler promised not to invade Czechoslovakia: ‘I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.’ It would be another few decades before we learned that psychopaths don’t leak. But burnt lino is far, far worse than inadequate parking and trouble at work. Though history may contest the versions of Blair’s leadership, there can be no dispute that his mendacity let us down. Individually and collectively we’ve been brought to our knees by the deceit of bankers. He’s dragged himself through poverty and prejudice to get here, and the difficulties are still not behind him. What is the first lie? When we are lied to by those we trust, the truth bias accentuates the betrayal we feel. Sean, adopted, is dark-haired, dark-eyed, and at twelve is the kind of child dubbed ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘energetic’ by his teachers, and ‘completely out of hand’ by every other mother we know. The burn is an accident. More likely he brings it with him. There’s Watergate, the Clinton blowjob, Blair’s confused attitude to the evidence on the eve of the war in Iraq. It also has a capacity, like the FSB’s director of records and archives, to retrieve those remote memories that we may wish were long forgot. Blond, freckled and lanky, he is as remote as stone. But for those of us who are not psychopaths, cognitive load is about the anxiety that we will leak and therefore be discovered. So let’s start with a straightforward lie. It’s as good an introduction as any to each of the players of our story – my family of six. Liars talk too much, as you may have noticed. Lemurs are less sneaky than chimpanzees.  
This is an excerpt from Miranda Doyle’s A Book of Untruths, published by Faber & Faber. I wanted to tell you my story as truthfully as I can. Habitually telling lies is an effort, an effort that thought – grey matter, or the worry, guilt and regret that we experience when we fib – inhibits. A lie of omission. The scary one. Leakage happens in the hands and the feet. I try to edge backwards, but am prevented by the kitchen table, where it is beached on a section of serviceable brown carpet tiles. Sometimes they use the third person, slipping from I into s/he, which enables them to disown their deceit, and they swear more than most. However, I have not set out to deceive you. ‘Who did it?’
Dad knows who did it. An honest mistake. The amount of self-policing that goes into controlling a lie creates a situation where other areas of presentation fall out of control. Their movements betray us. Most evenings I’m alert to the way the front door opens, and how long the silence lasts once our father is in the hall. Aged six, I have red hair, wonky teeth and an eye that drifts when it’s tired. People lie to keep themselves out of prison, but they also lie to end interrogations orientated around the presumption of dishonesty. As a result the cost to the liar is often enormously high. ‘I am telling the truth’ will have its significant difficulties too. Till Ed can stand it no longer. We all do it. His weakness is terrible and empowering: as soon as one of us has given in to terror, the rest of us can feel better that we didn’t. We must weigh what we want to hide, build a deceitful version behind which to hide it, give a convincing performance, and finally remember that lie for the rest of our lives. ‘Who did it?’ Dad bawls. The statement ‘I am lying’ is impossible to unravel and is an area of logic which, after 2,300 years, still remains unresolved. They bury their lies in narrative. The man came to put it down last week. And all I can think is that this is all Ed’s fault. It seems impossible, even now, to think that Dad would have gone through the pantomime of asking.