I Am Lying

Their movements betray us. Orange flowers, bordered by a fake wooden square, now repeat across the vast space between me and the back door. Her loyalties are with the other adult. But thankfully he makes a break for it, dragging Sean through the kitchen by his ear. For instance we may lumber into incoherence, repetition, aggression and pointing fingers. ‘I am telling the truth’ will have its significant difficulties too. This white matter is what gives liars a natural advantage. There’s Watergate, the Clinton blowjob, Blair’s confused attitude to the evidence on the eve of the war in Iraq. Image   courtesy of the author. Police themselves are lied to every day. Research from the University of Southern California shows that structural brain abnormalities develop in people who habitually lie. Everyone knows. What is the first lie? Pathological liars have significantly more ‘white matter’ than ‘grey matter’ in their prefrontal lobe. ‘Who did it?’
Dad knows who did it. It is so bad my head is a white-hot hell. When we are lied to by those we trust, the truth bias accentuates the betrayal we feel. It is this fealty that silences the moist kitchen, condensation thick on every window, bubble and squeak in the pot. My loyalties must be with my elder brothers. From experience I know my little brother’s cry will make things worse. As a result the cost to the liar is often enormously high. But I must warn you, I have lied on occasion too. 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. It seems impossible, even now, to think that Dad would have gone through the pantomime of asking. Researchers call the experience of these emotions ‘cognitive load’. Paul Ekman, the psychologist who pioneered research into how emotions relate to our facial expressions, argues that this cognitive load leads to ‘leakage’. Because the steam engine has only been in the house as long as the lino. Till Ed can stand it no longer. Cognitive load is stress on the brain’s power to manage itself. 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. Leakage happens in the hands and the feet. Psychopaths are in a league of their own when it comes to lying. Adrian, my eldest brother, is a teenager and his own mother dead. 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. A lie of omission. Blond, freckled and lanky, he is as remote as stone. They demand it. 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. ‘Who did it?’
The answer is obvious. The noise Ed makes begins to fill every corner of me, the anxiety brimming up inside like sickness. 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. Individuals who are good at lying are good at catching others out. 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. Nobody speaks. Liars talk too much, as you may have noticed. It’s as good an introduction as any to each of the players of our story – my family of six. It’s not a feeling-better that will last. Like Paddington he eats marmalade neat from the spoon, his stomach white and taut as a drum. 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. This version of a life will be contested too. 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. I try to edge backwards, but am prevented by the kitchen table, where it is beached on a section of serviceable brown carpet tiles. An honest mistake. 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. ‘Who did it?’ Dad bawls. More likely he brings it with him. We all do it. Sometimes, towards six o’clock, I peer through the fugged-up windows at the fifteen car-parking spaces on the harbour front, fingers crossed. 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. Often so much is grafted to deceit in the telling, that afterwards the layers are difficult to unpick. Grey matter is thought. In one study by the Innocence Project, more than 25 per cent of wrongfully convicted people had made a false confession. The prefrontal cortex is a little like Putin’s FSB – preoccupied with conflict, error detection, risky decisions and executive control. They bury their lies in narrative. Widespread institutional deception plagues the front pages. Individually and collectively we’ve been brought to our knees by the deceit of bankers.  
This is an excerpt from Miranda Doyle’s A Book of Untruths, published by Faber & Faber. So let’s start with a straightforward lie. 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. Dad is a lecturer in Maths at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Dad strides the length of us. The amount of self-policing that goes into controlling a lie creates a situation where other areas of presentation fall out of control. The man came to put it down last week. Finally there is round-faced, red-lipped Ed, who can only be four. Scientists call this a truth bias. 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. And all I can think is that this is all Ed’s fault. Lemurs are less sneaky than chimpanzees. 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. People lie to keep themselves out of prison, but they also lie to end interrogations orientated around the presumption of dishonesty. The one shouting so loud the whole street will hear. On the whole we’re a gullible species, tending to think the best of one another. The lino pattern was her choice. The stink of cabbage and corned beef mingles with the overwhelming stench of paraffin and burn. Humans lie most. Lies beget lies. White matter is the communicative equipment between cells, or the wiring between thoughts. The scary one. He may go right ahead and beat us all. Next is me, the token girl. Dad may not wait for an answer. 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. Findings show that the bigger the brain, the more frequent the deceit. Liars also make better lie detectors. It is an inappropriate present to Ed, that Sean covets, and that we’ll never, ever see again. The burn is an accident. Politicians, of course, are amongst the worst. 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. Our rate of lie detection is extremely poor, statistically only slightly greater than chance. 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. Aged six, I have red hair, wonky teeth and an eye that drifts when it’s tired. I wanted to tell you my story as truthfully as I can. However, I have not set out to deceive you. There is a smell of smoke and paraffin, an unsightly burn tarnishing Mum’s new floor. Philosophers talk about a Liar Paradox. 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. 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. One could argue that this is less about having a better control of their deceit and more about self-belief. Though history may contest the versions of Blair’s leadership, there can be no dispute that his mendacity let us down.  
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Since this is about lying let’s start off with some facts. 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. For the majority of us it’s hard to detect a falsehood. But for those of us who are not psychopaths, cognitive load is about the anxiety that we will leak and therefore be discovered. But burnt lino is far, far worse than inadequate parking and trouble at work. 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. 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. He’s dragged himself through poverty and prejudice to get here, and the difficulties are still not behind him. A study in 2009 found that they were two and a half times more likely than their saner counterparts to be granted parole. The statement ‘I am lying’ is impossible to unravel and is an area of logic which, after 2,300 years, still remains unresolved. 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. However, for once Sean has not destroyed something on purpose. The face we control with more vigilance. That’s why he hesitates. 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. A quiet, internal panic that drums through me till I can think of nothing else.