We were on the way to the home of my father’s new boss. I was 11 or 12.
“David, if he asks you about your foot, here’s what you need to know,” my father said as he drove. “You accidentally got it cut by the blade of a lawn mower. You went to the emergency room, but it wasn’t very bad. If he wants to see what it looks like, tell him it hurts if you take your shoe off, so you can’t.”
I acknowledged my assignment and added a couple of details for effect. My father approved my additions. I was ready to play my role backing up an excuse he had used when he needed to leave work one day.
I didn’t know the full story. I never knew the full story when it came to his lies. I just knew how to lie. I was very, very good at lying.
I lied for him all the time — in big ways and small ways. I thought it was normal.
When we used to receive phone calls at home, he frequently had one of his children answer — so we could lie for him. Sometimes he would tell us ahead of time what the lie needed to be for various people who might call. Other times, the phone would ring and he would suddenly say, “Answer that. If it’s Mr. Cobb, tell him I’ve gone to Birmingham.” It never crossed my mind back then to question the morality of what I was doing for him.
My father was a moralist. He preached doing the right thing. Everything was black or white to him. Oddly, I perceived that he was perfectly moral. He simply warped my ideas of what was right and what was wrong.
If I lied to him, I was wrong and would be punished harshly. If I lied for him, it was perfectly normal and moral. As strange as it sounds to say now, I didn’t question that contradictory system until I was about 20 or 21. Lying to others was just as natural as pleasantly saying, “Good morning,” to strangers on the street.
Sometime when I was in college, it finally made it through my thick skull — and narcissistic training — that what I was doing was wrong. I was very serious about my Christian faith and I realized how confused my values had become about honesty. I suddenly comprehended the horrible contradiction of my life. I hadn’t been able to see it because of the cognitive dissonance.
With my sudden understanding of what I’d been doing, I changed my ways. If you’re good at lying — and you’ve been doing it all your life — it’s hard to stop lying. But I made an effort to completely change my ways. I can’t say it was easy. I can’t say I didn’t slip into old habits at times when I was in difficult circumstances, but I did change. Even now, though, it can be a struggle.
I still have to consciously stifle my desire to use the lying skills I learned from my father as a child. It’s so convenient to lie. And when you’re good at it, it can be difficult to do the right thing. Except in rare cases, though, I’m successful. And I now have the most harsh inner critic who attacks me if I dare to tell a lie.
My father never changed his ways and I never confronted him about it. Even as an adult, it terrified me to confront him, especially about anything he did wrong. He just assumed I knew he was going to lie when it was convenient — and I’m sure he assumed I didn’t see anything wrong with it.
When my father went into the hospital a bit more than a month ago, I met the couple in whose home he had been renting a room for roughly the last couple of years. They had had no idea that my father’s children lived nearby, because he had lied to them.
They were told that my sisters live in Hawaii and were constantly trying to get him to move out there with them. They were told that I live in Houston — and that we talk on the phone every day — when they first met him. Then he told them that I had fallen in love with a woman from London and had moved to England to be with her.
I’ve discovered many lies he told people. A woman contacted me about five years ago — after doing online research to find me — to ask what had happened to my father. He had met her online and they had met for some dates, but then he disappeared — with him sending some convoluted explanation about having been in a terrible car accident and telling her that his son — that would be me — was typing the email for him. So he was going to have to end their budding romance since he didn’t know how long he would be recovering from his terrible injuries.
Over and over, I came across his lies. He would mix fact and fiction, but he could never just tell the painful truths about himself. Since the financial crash starting in about 2008, he started telling women that he had had a lot of money — he had owned a coal company, he sometimes said — but he lost everything in the crash.
If you had met him, you would have never believed he could be a liar. You would have found him charming and intelligent. He seemed kind and open. He seemed to be everything you wanted him to be.
But he was a liar — because he was a malignant narcissist.
As I told you recently, I was terrified of becoming more like him when I first discovered narcissistic personality disorder. I saw all the ways in which he had passed along to me many of the skills and even emotional deficits that drive so many narcissists in their desperate cravings.
I realize now how easily I could have turned out like him. I’m thankful that something clicked in me to push me in a saner and more moral direction. Even now, I’m painfully aware of how careful I have to monitor my thoughts and behavior. I don’t want to ever be like him.
There seems to have been a dysfunctional strain that ran through a good bit of my extended family. It manifested itself in different ways in different people. I’m seeing that more and more.
I’m not perfect — and I’ll never be perfect — but the family dysfunction ends with me. I refuse to allow it to replicate in another generation of children.
I will teach my children empathy.
I will teach my children honesty.
I will teach my children the value of being vulnerable.
I will teach my children how to love and honor others in healthy ways.
I don’t believe in family curses. I believe in the power of love and psychology and self-improvement. I was taught to be a liar. I still know how to lie.
But I am not going to live the lie which he lived until his dying days.