I met my first pathological liar when she and I were in our twenties. Back then, I believed just about anything that was told to me. Gretchen was tall, skinny, and had lustrous black hair. She told tales of showing her art in galleries, art that consisted of her flinging her menstrual blood at the canvas and letting it dry. This sounded fascinating, so I asked to see some of her work. She told me that all her work was being shown at galleries far from New York, in Italy and France, and that she was already selling her work for very large sums of money.
We didn’t have the Internet back then, so I couldn’t just google to find out if this was indeed true. Still believing her (mostly), I asked if I could see her work-in-progress. “Sorry,” she said, sounding sincere, “I’m taking time off from visual art. I think I might become a poet instead.”
This seemed unlikely, and I felt some discomfort and suspicion, but I thought, sure, she might have lied about her art, from insecurity, but I liked her: she was lively, smart, and funny, and I didn’t think she would tell such a whopper again.
A few months later, she told me she was seriously romantically involved with someone I knew very slightly. He was handsome, intelligent, and already successful in his business career. Not long after, I went to a party where both of them were. I couldn’t help but notice they weren’t spending any time together, although she hadn’t told me they’d broken up. Instead of talking to her about it, I went directly to him. We made some party chit-chat, and then I boldly said, “So you and Gretchen,” I nodded in her direction, “are no longer an item?”
He looked baffled. “That Gretchen?” He stared at her but she was talking to someone and didn’t notice. “We’ve never been an item. I don’t even know her very well. Who told you that?”
I hesitated, debating whether to tell him the truth. Finally, I shrugged. “Sorry, I don’t remember.”
I saw Gretchen only a few times after that. Each time, she told me at least one thing that sounded far-fetched and untrue, like that she was now studying to be a therapist and was already being written about and touted internationally for her innovative ideas about treatment. I stopped trusting her and didn’t return her phone calls. I felt sorry for her, and betrayed by her, but I saw no point in confronting her. Lying defined so much of who she was. There was no there there, and I couldn’t connect to her. Eventually, she stopped calling me.
I met my second pathological liar when she and I were in our early thirties. Melanie was bold and brassy, married to a man barely out of his teens. She had a tough affect, spoke in a deep, masculine voice, and had an insanely loud laugh. She and I spent hours together the first day we met, and I loved her inspiring stories of growing up dirt poor in the South, then coming to New York and changing her life.
Over time, though, Melanie’s stories seemed odder and odder. She said she hadn’t known what silverware was until she was 16; until then, she and her family ate with their hands. Her mother, who was divorced from her father, was homeless, and lived in a tent for many years behind the house in which Gretchen grew up with her father and siblings. She’d lost her virginity in a public park, with fifty strangers gathering to watch, all of whom applauded when the deed was done. She used to be an industrial spy, and her family came from a long line of roving gypsies.
One day, I told her about two things that had happened to me. One was that, when I was a teenager, the younger sister of a friend of mine had sprinkled ground glass into her parents’ food, intending to kill them. If my friend hadn’t found out and stopped her, their parents might have died. I also told Melanie about the time I’d been lying on a blanket on the beach, and a woman approached me with a sketchpad, asking if she could do a series of drawings of my feet. I’d declined, finding her and her sketchpad creepy.
A week after I’d told Melanie those anecdotes, she and I were hanging out with a bunch of mutual friends in someone’s living room. “I want to tell you all a couple of things that happened to me.” She proceeded to tell my stories about the ground glass and my feet as if they’d happened to her. As she spoke, she glanced at me a few times, with no seeming awareness that she’d co-opted my stories, and in a way, my life. I didn’t address her theft that day. While I felt betrayed, I decided that I’d had enough and would just let her fade from my life.
A few months later, I ran into a mutual friend, who brought up what a pathological liar Melanie was. “You know?” I asked. “So why are you still her friend?”
“Oh, we all find her so amusing and entertaining,” he said.
Wow, I thought, he and I have such different definitions of friendship. I want a friend who values me and wants me to know the real her, who’s honest, and who will bare her soul to me (and me to her) as our friendship grows. I want a friend who really exists.
I’ve not become friends with a pathological liar since then. At least not that I’m aware of, and I’d like to believe that my antennae are sharp enough now, that I’d detect one much more quickly. Of course, I’ve certainly been lied to since then. After all, who among us hasn’t occasionally told a lie – sometimes just a “white lie,” but a lie, nevertheless? I can handle a lie now and then. It won’t make me drop someone from my life. But should I meet a truly pathological liar, I’ll flee as fast as I can.