While I studying at Ryerson, one of the things I had to read was Joe Gould’s Secret by Joseph Mitchell. In it, Mitchell, a
reporter, tells of his encounters
with Joe Gould, a homeless man and local celebrity. While Gould possesses a
great many eccentricities, what interests Mitchell most is the “oral history”
Gould is supposedly in the process of writing, a massive collection of all the
city’s little stories, legends, and anecdotes, which he claims will soon be
longer than the Bible. Just about everything Gould has ever seen or heard has
found its way into the oral history, and he is keen to bring it up in almost
every conversation. Despite all this, he’s never actually shown it to anyone,
nor has he told anyone where he keeps it (he is homeless remember). It sounds
all very fishy to Mitchell until one day he clues in: New York
There is no oral history. It doesn’t exist.
When confronted, Gould is speechless, and goes into something of a trance. Mitchell backs off, and Gould goes straight back to telling his stories, not even acknowledging the conversation. He had become so invested in his stories that he came to believe them, and could no longer face the reality, or lack thereof.
Have you ever met someone like that? Someone so obviously full of shit, but utterly convinced of it? I don’t mean the occasional fibber, or embellisher – we all do that now and then. I mean. . .
People who always have some crazy story to tell, but can almost never provide direct evidence of it happening. . .
People who never seem to have any witnesses, can never produce anyone to corroborate their stories, never have any shared experiences with common acquaintances. . .
People who’s experiences never seem to have any logical consequences – no long, or even medium term affects. Nothing ever comes back to haunt them, and they never follow-up on things they mentioned before. . .
Who didn’t take pictures, or save their receipts. Who don’t ever have any souvenirs from their adventures. . .
People who who’s stories are always more interesting than yours, who’s triumphs are greater than yours, whose sufferings are greater than yours, who’s coincidences are stranger than yours, who’s celebrity encounters are greater than yours, who’s dealings with bureaucracy are more frustrating than yours. . .
Who remember things in just bit too much detail; who’s experiences sound just a bit too scripted. . .
Who seem to be trying just a bit too hard. . .
You see what I mean? Not to mention body language and tone of voice. Do they look you in the eye? Do their voices ever waver? Police investigators are experts at detecting all the little ticks of the liar, but on an instinctive level, most of us can just tell. Really good liars know this, and learn how to control themselves, but most. . .don’t.
I saw a good movie once (forgive me, I forget the title) in which an East German Ustache instructor lectures an auditorium full of bright-eyed-bushy-tailed would-be interrogators “An honest person will make mistakes, forget things and contradict themselves. A liar will stick to a script they’ve memorized beforehand.” Possibly contradictory, but it makes sense on some level: most of us don’t memorize the details of our lives. We simply take them for granted. Often as not, we can’t remember where we were at two o’clock last weekend, how many times we’ve been out in the past week, what we were doing at such-and-such a place when we ran into such-and-such a person. Where we put our car keys and television remote controls. As Sky Masterson tells Nathan Detroit: “I’ll bet you can’t remember the colour of your tie.”
Yet the liar of this magnitude will remember their experiences in excruciating detail, and recall conversations with scrip-like accuracy.
Now, who knows: possibly some people can do that. Some people do have very good memories and some people do lead very interesting lives. But sometimes. . .you can just tell.
Here’s the other thing: most people, when caught telling tall-tales, will own up. They confess, equivocate or rationalize (maybe apologize), and probably cling to that little kernel of truth around which they built their tale. But some, like Joe Gould, will not.
What to make of such people? Is reality so intolerable that they need to construct fictions in which to live? In which case it’s for their benefit rather than ours. Despite their colossal untruths, liar doesn’t quite seem to fit. I often think they genuinely believe what they’re saying. Delusional? Maybe.
Every now and then I run into a guy at the bar. He’s friendly and gregarious, and just plain full of it. I don’t believe any of his fish stories, for all the reasons listed above. But because he’s friendly and gregarious, and because I’d rather be greeted by friendly people than unfriendly people, like Mitchell, I let it go. No difference to me.
But supposing it was skin off the nose? What happens in those situations where the stories are not harmless; when they lure you into their lives with their tall tales and convince you to make important, possibly life changing decisions based on them? Do they really not see what they’re doing? Do they need their fictions so much that they’re willing to drag you into them?
I’ve met people like that too. But that’s another story. . .