How to Leave the Bathroom: An Interview with Clancy Martin, Author of 'Love and Lies'

Successful communication requires a bit of dishonesty.

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Feb 17 2015, 5:30pm

Photograph by Greg Martin

In Clancy Martin's new book Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love, he writes, "The dogmatic insistence that one has never told a lie in his or her life is obviously false," and someone who thinks she's never lied is probably "deeply entrenched in a self-deceptive self-image." Well, I'm telling the truth when I say this book blew my mind. Drawing from psychology, philosophy, literature, cognitive neuroscience, and Martin's beautifully and hauntingly rendered personal narrative, Love and Lies explores the complexity of what it means to be a loving being that is (at just about any given moment) capable of deception. Martin's book makes us aware of how such a dangerous and potentially self-destructive capacity also helps create the possibility for us to be actively truthful, to love and grow close to others.

I corresponded with the author and occasional VICE contributor over email one weekend, just before the release of Love and Lies, which is now available in stores and by order.

VICE: Before you were a philosophy professor, you were a jewelry salesman. You "used deception to take the easy way out of selling." It made you miserable, led to a cocaine addiction and extended time in the executive bathroom where you'd stand in front of the mirror with a gun barrel in your mouth. You write: "Though I don't believe in the existence of a soul, exactly, I came to understand what people mean when they say you are losing your soul." Well, what do they mean?
Clancy Martin: I think when we talk about "losing our soul" what we might mean is something like losing self-respect, losing our sense of what matters, losing our hope that we can become better people—maybe even becoming cynical about the whole enterprise of human life. When I was at my lowest, I thought life was no more than struggling to get from one day to the next without killing yourself. If I could have crawled into a cocoon that would have put me to sleep forever I would have done so—or would have wished to do so—and then felt sorry for myself that I didn't. This, for me, was "losing my soul." Forgetting that anyone other than me and my little circle of immediate concerns mattered.

Excessive lying, in my opinion, will do this to a person. Why? I think because, as Adrienne Rich says, "the liar leads a life of unutterable loneliness": Somehow communication with others, when we feel like we are actually talking to one another and not just pretending to talk, restores our belief in the idea that we can become better people. And why is that the case? Because then we remember that other people matter—and that we, as individuals, might matter to them, too. Yes, successful communication requires some dishonesty. But too much dishonesty completely isolates you from other people, and that takes you to a place of complete despair. Someone who has become a habitual liar—as I was when I was in the jewelry business, for example—is a lot like a person coming down off cocaine (something that also happened to me a lot back in those jewelry days). You feel so utterly alone, you feel helpless, abandoned, meaningless. Unloved. To feel and express love means at least to believe in the possibility of sharing your experiences with others, and that means trying to be truthful, and believing in the possibility of truthfulness, of genuine communication.

Why is getting down to the truth so compelling? Related to that—what do you think of the expression getting "down" to the truth? As if it's under other things. It seems we're always "seeking" or "discovering" or "uncovering" it. Sometimes it feels like truth itself is something we have a relationship with, which can be enjoyable and amusing or maddening.
This is a profound and difficult question. Many Buddhists believe that at the start of the spiritual path, a mountain is just a mountain and a river is just a river. Then, a bit further down the path—nearer to the truth, if you will—the mountain is no longer a mountain and the river is no longer a river: The students see the truth of their illusory nature. But then still further along the way to understanding, at a certain point the student understands: The mountain is just a mountain, the river is just a river. Nietzsche put it another way, but I think he had a very similar idea. "Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live," he wrote. "What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, to believe in forms, tones, words, the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial— out of profundity."

To put it in the terms of love and lies, I think because we don't see into each other's minds, and yet we want to know what other people are thinking and feeling, we feel like we are always on the search for the truth of what's going on behind those eyes. And then often it's also the case that when people are angry they feel as though they are suddenly "speaking the truth"—stripping off the mask—just because of the burst of adrenaline that goes with anger. So the sweet dopey feeling of falling in love was a big lie and the cruel, speedy feeling of shouting "I hate you!" is the real truth. But what's actually going on is much more subtle: When we're thinking of other people's minds, I think, we should spend a bit more time reflecting on our own. Chances are people are about as sincere as we are, about as manipulative, about as frightened, about as needy, etc. We are all always trying out truths on each other, uncertain until we get a response what is true and what is false, what is real and what is unreal. You know how you often learn so much more from a novel than from a "true" psychological case study? The great novelist is just playing with human psychology; she doesn't "know" whether she's getting it right or wrong. There's no "truth" about whether or not Hamlet was crazy (though I think he wasn't).

We do have a love affair with the truth, and we think it is one of our highest goods. And of course having true beliefs matters! But having some false ones—such as that my wife will love me, no matter what—matters too. This is why I love your question: I think we should recognize that "the truth" is as complex as people are, and that's why, when we think about "telling the truth" or "telling a lie" it's often much more complicated than we like to pretend. Human beliefs, emotions and attitudes are not like on/off switches, true/false, right/wrong. But we do have this very old idea—maybe we can blame Plato, like Nietzsche does—that if we just peel back this black layer of falsehood the truth will be revealed blazing underneath, like gold under the lead or the dawn after a long, lonely night. It's a persistent part of our mythology, and it might have to do with how disoriented, perplexed, and confused we felt as little kids: like adults knew the truth about everything, if only we could grow up! But now that we're grown ups, are we really any less confused?

You write about how we tell our children lying is wrong, when with our actions we show them how we lie quite regularly. For example, we tell people what they want to hear so as not to alienate them, or ourselves from them. But then, ironically, it's lying that also distances us from the people we love because it's a "reminder that you know the contents of your own mind and the other person doesn't." So then we're constantly walking a sort of balance beam, in regards to what degree of truth we think we need to tell or conceal so as to keep our relationships with people.
This seems to me to be exactly right. When it comes to truthfulness and deception, we learn from the time we are very small children how to walk this balance beam: how much to tell, when and why; how much we can share, but also how much loneliness we must be willing to accept, or even to seek out. We also learn that having friends and loved ones means being willing to lie to them: to tell them what they want to hear, sometimes, rather than what you believe to be "the truth" about themselves, you, or someone else. First we learn this with our parents and then on the schoolyard—and anyone who was unpopular as a kid, like me, will remember how frustrating it seemed that so much of the conversation was a kind of deceptive social discourse I just didn't get, a verbal game I couldn't figure out how to play.

Among adults, of course, social deception and manipulated discourse are essential to authority, esteem, and popularity—but a known liar will always be excluded, unpopular. In fact, to be a recognized liar is in most cases merely a sign that the person in question isn't very good at lying—or that this person lets down the veils at the wrong moments, fails to understand how the game is being played. When we think of the most "sophisticated" social discourse—in 19th-century French salons, for example, or in the dinner parties Proust shows us—we see the most refined forms of dexterity in deception, in guise and manipulation, in navigating the waters of popularity and prestige through the deftness of one's ability to control what is being said, quite independently of its truthfulness.

Of course this tradition is very old: In Confucianism it is thought of as the virtue of preserving social harmony through words; in Homer, it is the famous cleverness, the virtue of Odysseus when it comes to lying—especially, in social situations. So yes, the earlier we learn how to balance on this beam, the better. And I think it does come with a recognition that, at the end of the day, we are alone. Though we get happy moments of intimacy with the ones we love most that are moments of truthfulness, of sharing secrets, etc. it is the play between deception and truthfulness that we should acknowledge, rather than the privileging of one over the other.

When you were three, you wanted your mother to look at a Lite-Brite picture you'd made that you were very excited about. She said she'd look at it in the morning. But in the morning she was gone and a babysitter was there, wearing (for reasons that remain mysterious) your mother's robe. She and your father had left for a two-week vacation in Hawaii! You seem pretty traumatized by the incident. My father used to wake my brother and I up and tell us it was snowing. We'd happily run to the window, then find out there was no snow. Your mother thought she was telling you what you needed to hear. My father was being playful. Should they have behaved differently? Had they not committed these deceptions on our young selves, would we have become just as screwed up in some other way?
Well, I think my mom and your dad were both being naughty, even if it was an understandable kind of naughtiness (and they are two different kinds of naughtiness). My mom told her lie for the most familiar reason of them all: out of (understandable) cowardice. We all lie because of cowardice. To tell the truth almost always requires courage; though sometimes having recourse to the truth—"Well, yes, I said it, but only because it's true! He is ugly!"—is its own form of cowardice. For me, the two greatest virtues good lovers can cultivate are care and courage.

Now your dad's lie—which seems to fall squarely into the category of what I, as a dad, call "dad jokes"—jokes that are dumb and aren't funny to anyone but the dad, if him—might be seen as a kind of playful fictionalizing or storytelling, which just happened to be a bit misguided. How play, imagination, and fiction move into the realm of teasing, trickery and fraud is an endlessly fascinating subject. Here I think our first appeal should probably be to the intention of the deceiver: Did he mean just to entertain you guys? (Even if he was misguided?) Or was it just naughty teasing, which all dads have to unlearn, I think—it starts with the love of tickling your kids, and then becomes a kind of verbal tickling that big brothers and dads are notorious for. I remember being terrified of closing my eyes in the shower for years because my big brother told me that murderers always wait until you close your eyes in the shower before sneaking into the bathroom. That's not a very nice kind of teasing, though it can be fun—schoolyard bullying is a related behavior. We see it is bad because the intention is straightforwardly bad.

Here again Buddhist philosophy is helpful. Although Buddhists generally discourage any kind of untruthful speech, they also generally recognize that at times a well-intentioned lie may serve a morally praiseworthy purpose. This seems to me to be right. At least one criterion for any kind of speech, truthful or not, ought to be: Is it kindly intended? If it is not kindly intended, you should avoid it, false or true.

Let's say someone reading this is at a crossroads; he is having one of those moments like you did in the executive bathroom stall, feeling he is at the brink of losing something some people might call his "soul." He's reading this on his phone, door locked to the rest of the world, but he's supposed to be somewhere else. He doesn't want to leave the bathroom because he doesn't know how to go on anymore with his life like this. What would help? What do you suggest?
He's a kid, and he doesn't want to leave the bathroom and lie to his mother about the fact that he hasn't been able to poop. He's 30 years old, owns a chain of jewelry stores, and he's standing looking at himself in the mirror with a gun in his mouth; he doesn't want to leave the bathroom. He's 45, out to dinner with friends in New York, going through his second divorce, and he doesn't want to leave the bathroom and face that craziness of social interaction that seems so much more impossible, so insane, when you're deep in suffering and other people seem to be capable, gifted, happy, having fun. Or even he's merely experiencing one of those many moments all of us experience when we "don't want to leave the bathroom": Like, here's the one safe place, here's the one place where no one can get me, where I can be safe and alone.

What do we say to this person?

Once, when I was first thrown out of high school—for having weed in my locker, one of the worst sins you could commit in my very puritanical home—I was in my bedroom trying not to cry: We'd just come back from the principal's office, and my mom and my stepdad hadn't spoken a word to me on the way home. Finally I just started bawling. And my mom came into my room and put her hand on my back and said something to me I'll never forget: "It's the hardest time in your life, this time. It's going to get easier, I promise. I wouldn't go back to being a teenager again for anything."

I don't know whether or not she knew she was lying: It most certainly wasn't the hardest time in my life, and she—I later learned—had been through times as an adult that I can barely imagine even now (she was very seriously abused by my father, and then remarried a violent, angry man and had to raise his seven very messed-up kids—plus the three she had of her own, all in a 1500-square-foot, three-bedroom rented house). But it was a lie I desperately needed to hear, and the fact that she was willing to console me—truth or lie, it didn't matter—the fact that she cared enough to try to console me, made me feel so much better. I've never felt as loved by my mother as I did at that moment.

So I think I'd like to send someone who loves that person into the bathroom to say: "Hey, this is the hardest time in your life; it's going to get easier." Because it does get easier, even if it also gets harder. And the real point is that someone cares enough about you to say it. That's why A. A. works (when it does): because of the power of caring. To me, caring is the highest virtue—it includes virtues like forgiveness and also repentance. When I have failed to care for the people I love and caused them harm—whether through telling lies, telling the truth, or the many other ways—that's when I've really fucked up, as a person. And I am very grateful for those many times in my life when someone has shown me care despite the fact that at that moment I probably didn't deserve it. Learning to care properly for people is of course a lifetime's task. But that really seems to me to be an effort worth making. And sometimes you might have to tell a little caring lie to help someone get out of the bathroom, you know? To help someone get back to their writing desk. To help someone get the kids to school in the morning or to go back to sleep at night, or to believe that the next guy they go out on a date with isn't going to be as big an ass as the last guy. Leaving the bathroom is risky but, after all, they are kind of lonely, stinky places.

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