How to Beat a Lie Detector Test
A story of illegal drugs, youthful mistakes, Texas prison, polygraph machines, a Jewish mother, and one road trip gone extremely awry.
Illustrations by Brandon Celi
I have a story: of illegal drugs, Texas prison, polygraph machines, and a Jewish mother. Don't we all? It begins one clear blue morning in May 1994, at a highway rest stop in the desert outside Las Cruces, New Mexico. I was driving home from college in Los Angeles, on my way to my mother's home in Gulfport, Mississippi. I'd been on this sunbaked stretch of tarmac since before dawn, and what with the signs along the road warning of snakes and runaway jailbirds, the rest stop seemed the best bet for a pee.
That's where I met the hitchhiker.
"You heading toward El Paso?" he said. This wasn't him; it was a sanitation worker in an orange jumpsuit apparently doing the man's bidding. The sanitation worker explained that a truck driver's rig had broken down and the driver had been forced to hike five miles to the rest stop. Perhaps I could see clear to driving him to the central bus station downtown. It would be about an hour's trip altogether. I considered asking the sanitation worker why he was being such a Good Samaritan, but the trucker emerged from the bathroom before I had a chance. He was skinny and wearing acid-washed jeans and a Panama Jack T-shirt. He had a light-blue tattoo on his forearm that I couldn't quite make out, bad teeth, and steel-toed work boots. He was working on a cigarette and squinting in a way that suggested there was no truck. I must have appeared out of place in this lonely oasis, and perhaps like a target. Or maybe I just looked like a kindred spirit. I was wearing dirty shorts and a T-shirt from the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour. I had a goatee and rings in both ears. And Teva sandals.
"Let's go," I said.
I was 21, reckless and lost, an English major desirous of picaresque high adventure and experience. The damage to my personality caused by exposure to Camus and Sartre and Dostoyevsky and Hunter S. Thompson, not to mention Conan the Barbarian and Raiders of the Lost Ark and video games like Defender, can't be overstated. I understood "real life" in only the most vaguely Kerouacian terms and lacked the fortitude to summon these clichés into consequential being. But I was predisposed against almost nothing. For me, the answer was yes, whatever the question.
I'd left Los Angeles a few days earlier, after my last exam, hungover and in possession of a chubby gray tabby named Gordon. My 1986 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, a hulking brown beast with decorative wood paneling, had suffered a series of near-comedic mishaps in the months before my trip. A burglar had staved in the driver's window one night and stolen the Benzi box pull-out radio that I had stupidly hidden under the seat instead of taking inside. I replaced the glass only to wake one morning a few days later and find that someone else had broken the vent window and emptied the ashtray, in which I had left perhaps $3 in change, mostly pennies. I didn't get this one fixed, mostly because I liked the way it looked, me driving about with a shattered window, one arm dangling outside, cutting through the wind with a certain insouciant neglect. I also figured there was nothing left to steal, but I was wrong: Another morning I woke to discover the car gone. The police somehow recovered it a couple of weeks later, and it was in that Wagoneer—recently stolen, window smashed, stereo missing, Gordon mewling existentially from his carrying case—that I drove east through the vastness of the Chihuahuan Desert with the hitchhiker.
The hitchhiker let it be known that I should keep up his pretense of being a trucker, and so I did. He talked of the open road, the cities, the ladies, and the emptiness. He mentioned some difficulties he'd had with crystal meth, although he admitted it had its place if you needed to avoid falling asleep at the wheel. He talked about a stint in the Navy and one in prison and a kid he hadn't seen in a while. He kept saying that I'd done him "a solid." I told him my stories and invented a few better ones.
When I finally dropped him off in El Paso, he insisted that I accept compensation for the ride. He didn't have any money, but he did have some pretty excellent—his term—LSD. He gave me four tabs as thanks and wouldn't take no for an answer, although he would take $20. I watched him shamble off to the bus station, melting into the large crowd of drug users and vagrants milling around outside. I slipped the tinfoil package of tabs into my wallet, just under my driver's license, and headed back to the highway.
The next day, passing through Kerrville, Texas, I was pulled over for speeding. The police seemed unusually alert as they quizzed me on my particulars. It turned out that someone in the bowels of the Los Angeles municipal bureaucracy had neglected to update the legal status of the Wagoneer. The car, filled as it was with my messy belongings and a cat half dead from heatstroke, and presently making good speed along an interstate within figurative spitting distance of Mexico, was still reported as stolen.
I tried to play it cool, which is to say that I didn't play it cool at all. I stumbled through an explanation about the car theft and stuttered as they rifled through my belongings. I always liked to think of myself as a sort of undiscovered Steve McQueen, righteous and rebellious and unselfconsciously sexy. In truth I was much closer to Woody Allen in Annie Hall, liable to sneeze a tray of very nice cocaine across the room. Which is essentially what I did next: Asked to show my license and registration, I fumbled to retrieve my license from my wallet. It was stuck on something I couldn't quite dislodge, a thing about which I should have been careful. Finally I yanked it free, and in so doing, I literally flung the tinfoil packet of LSD at the police officer, striking him in the nose.
I was a white boy with an attorney, and it was easier for everyone to afford me the provisional benefit of the doubt.
I was cuffed and placed in the front seat of one of the cop cars. The arresting officer was one of those hangdog redheads with light-brown freckles and a permanently disappointed air. He drove with one hand, adjusting his sidearm from time to time. We talked as he took me to jail, or mostly he did, delivering a benign lecture on the evils of drugs and the benefits of right-flying and the like. (Poor Gordon was incarcerated too, at a local shelter.) Who knows what he had in mind. Perhaps he thought I could be saved—a slender gold crucifix poked out between the buttons of his uniform—or maybe he was just playing the role of someone who saved people.
"What do you reckon this stuff of yours is, son?" the officer asked at the peak of our chummy intimacy.
This isn't as odd a question as it might seem. I had inspected the goods in the tinfoil, and it didn't resemble the LSD I'd seen before. Instead of small squares of perforated paper I found tiny slivers of an amber-colored, gel-like substance, similar to fingernail-size shards of Neutrogena soap. I sensed an opportunity with the police officer and quickly invented a story that contained elements of the truth along with one very specific lie. I described my experience with the hitchhiker-trucker, although instead of admitting to the purchase of the narcotics, I said that the man had tried to sell them to me and I had refused to accept them. He'd then slipped the stuff inside a pack of cigarettes, which he'd accidentally left in the car when I'd dropped him off in El Paso.
"He told me it was LSD," I said, but since I had yet to sample the goods, and had never intended to do so, I couldn't say for sure. (This was true—I'd had bad experiences with hallucinogens and planned to give the drugs away.) "Far as I know, it could be Life Savers."
The officer smiled his cop smile. "We both know that's not true, don't we?" he said.
After a sleepless night in jail punctuated by the muffled cries of a hogtied prisoner too belligerent for the main holding cell, I was able to contact my mother and stepfather in Mississippi. My mother arranged a lawyer for me, and he passed my version of events along to the authorities. I have enough respect for the intelligence of Texas lawmen to suspect they found my story about a hitchhiker "leaving" some acid in my car to be an unimaginative brand of bullshit. 1 But I was a white boy with an attorney, and it was easier for everyone to afford me the provisional benefit of the doubt. My lawyer arranged my release (and Gordon's) on $25,000 bond and into the custody of my parents.
A deal was struck: I would pass the summer with my family, gainfully employed at my stepfather's auto-repair shop. At summer's end, I would return to Texas and undergo a polygraph test. If the test confirmed my tale, the charges would be dropped. If not, since LSD possession was a felony, I could serve up to two years in jail.
1 No one, and I mean no one, has ever believed me that the hitchhiker actually even existed.
My stepfather owned a repair shop in Gulfport. Randy was a big, sunburned man with an open and unassuming face, a workingman's calloused hands, and forearms swollen from cranking ratchets. He met my mother when I was 11, did the repair work on her VW Beetle, asked her out until she said yes. Quickly I developed a deep attachment to him. At the risk of cliché, I loved him like a father. It was an embarrassment to tell my mother that I'd been arrested; I was ashamed to admit it to Randy.
As the baby mechanic at the shop, I did oil changes and brake jobs, balanced and rotated tires, replaced spark plugs and belts, and made coffee. The other mechanics in the shop were African American, and the working dynamic resembled a cross between a Richard Wright novel and a male-centric telling of The Help. Bill (not his real name) was a Baptist minister and Army veteran, who rented a couple of lifts from Randy and took the overflow jobs we couldn't handle. Butch (a fake nickname not dissimilar to his real one) was a former semipro ballplayer and a deacon in Bill's congregation. He walked with a limp from an old basketball injury and mostly swept up and told stories in an African American Mississippi drawl so impenetrable that I couldn't really speak with him. Bill's cousin O. J. (actual nickname) did odd-jobs and minor repairs as he debated a future in college or the military. I played basketball with him one evening after work at a local recreation center. He was taller and quicker than I was, and he joked about white boys and their jump shots and we never did it again.
The undercurrents of racial, class, and male tension would surface periodically. Bill would complain that Randy gave him the hardest work to do. (Randy paid him by the job; complicated repairs took longer and therefore brought in less money.) It bothered Bill, but he also derived a certain passive-aggressive pride from it too. "Don't like to get your hands dirty, anymore, do you, Randall?" he would chortle. And he made sure always to call me " Mr. Taaaed" as he was instructing me in the rudiments of auto repair.
Likewise, Randy provoked in me a niggling sense of inadequacy. Growing up in Mississippi, I had never been able to match his muted machismo, physical strength, and husky presence. I flopped at football, knocked quite unconscious in one game. I flubbed being handy, wrecking whatever repair project befell me. I couldn't pop a wheelie, caught no fish, never stood up on water skis, and lost those fistfights I was unable, through cowardice, to avoid. Randy, meanwhile, was American in a way that Jews like my mother—born of that postwar generation caught halfway between model minority and mainstream privilege—worshipped, envied, respected, and desperately wanted their children to become. For her, and by extension for me, Randy represented a masculine aspirational ideal that I could never attain.
Still, I liked working at the shop, even if I wasn't any good at it. I enjoyed coming home at night and washing the grease from my hair, feeling the soreness in my forearms and shoulders. Actually, it's not really accurate that I enjoyed it. More than anything I liked saying that I worked on cars. I even toyed with the idea of staying on at the shop instead of returning to school, although I knew I wouldn't do it. Other days I kidded myself info half-believing that, if I failed the polygraph test in Texas, I would flee to Mexico, perhaps, and to a life of adventure and dissipation of the sort I recognized from my book collection. Or instead I would confess everything to the police in Texas and be sent to prison. A couple of years seemed a manageable punishment in this event; one that in the lamest terms possible, I figured would be good for me.
"I wasn't concerned that you were a druggie," she told me recently. "Just that you were a fucking idiot."
I don't remember the conversation when I told my mother that I had lied to the police in Kerrville and that, if I took the polygraph, I was bound to fail. Make of that what you will. I do recall her sending me to a psychologist to determine whether a sojourn at some form of rehab center might help matters. The therapist deemed me a "drug abuser" and not a "drug addict," and we left it at that.
"I wasn't concerned that you were a druggie," she told me recently. "Just that you were a fucking idiot."
My mother had left my father in 1976, when I was three, and we moved to Mississippi about five years later, when she was recruited by a local hospital to establish a medical practice. I split the ensuing years of my childhood commuting between the Gulf Coast and Greenwich Village, where my father remained. But even today, three decades after my mother came to Gulfport, the South keeps its distance from her. A five-foot-tall Jewish transplant from Queens, New York, she is possessed of a screaming Napoleon complex, an indomitable maternal will, and a flair for profanity—"I don't give a flying fuck!" was a common refrain from my youth. She was never meant to blend into the Bible Belt.
In Mississippi, a constellation of slightly askew personalities orbited around my mother. They gravitated to her domineering personality, helped resolve disputes, offered diplomatic assistance with the locals, fixed her computer. They accepted her mechanic husband with a bemused shrug and endured her fuck-up kids because she offered no opportunity for them to do otherwise.
This proved to be of use in the plan my mother hatched to keep me out of prison. An associate of hers, she told me over breakfast one morning, 2 knew how to defeat a polygraph test. He had briefed her on some basic techniques, which she shared with me.3
Self-hypnosis seemed to be the basis of it. Pick a focal point in the room and stare at it. Take care to control your breathing. Count back from ten a few times. Use these simple techniques to fix yourself in a lightly meditative state and remain there. Polygraph machines, she told me, cannot distinguish between truth and falsehood. They merely record physical arousals—elevation of heart rate and blood pressure, respiration, and skin temperature—brought on by the emotional stress of deception. Control these responses and for the purposes of the test you are telling the truth.
"Telling the truth or not telling the truth, you were going to take it," she recently recalled. "What were you supposed to do?"
The associate had been skeptical that the plan would work. "He didn't think you'd be good enough to do it," my mother said. But I guess she figured I could deliver a falsehood with a convincing air of truth. The associate suggested a practice run, to see whether I possessed a faculty for believable fabulism. He had connections at a security firm, discreetly located out of state in Alabama, and he arranged for me to face the polygraph there in advance of returning to Texas. If all went well, I would proceed with the real thing. If it did not... well, the plan stopped at all going well.
2 My mother, the doctor, earned the money in the family and still sent me and Randy off to work at the shop with a big breakfast.
3 This associate had helped secure my lawyer in Texas and had performed the same service almost exactly a year earlier, on the same trip, when I'd been pulled over for speeding in Kearney, Nebraska, and arrested for carrying two tabs of ecstasy. I pleaded no contest to attempted possession of a controlled substance, a misdemeanor punished with a small fine. The arrest was expunged from my record once I made it to 21 without committing further crimes against the Cornhusker State.
The practice test took place in Mobile, Alabama, in early August. Randy drove me. A summer downpour loomed, and the towering thunderclouds cast everything in a washed-out gray glow, like outtakes from an old black-and-white film. The sense of distance, of moving through a cinematic set piece, provided a welcome calm, but I tried to resist taking too much ease from it. I felt deeply tired, from the stress of the impending test and work at the shop and maybe the new allergy medicine my mother had prescribed for me earlier that week. She had also said no to coffee that morning, afraid the caffeine would provoke a false positive on the polygraph, and I kept drowsing into a light sleep.
The sun punched a hole through the rainclouds just as we arrived at the security office, and everything snapped into crisp focus. A wash of nerves spread down my back and into my groin, and I wondered whether I'd be able to pee before the test started. A buzz-cut security specialist with a blank face opened the front door and waved us inside. I stepped from the car and drew in a deep Gulf Coast breath: gasoline and cut grass. Randy clapped one hefty paw on my shoulder and squeezed.
"You ready, boy?" he asked.
I went inside without answering. The buzz-cut man directed me to sign in and then told Randy that there was coffee brewing and suggested he make himself comfortable. We left him in the waiting room and entered a room in the back, a blank box of papered walls, piercing fluorescent lights, and a couple of framed posters attesting to the state's fishing and hunting delights. The drop ceiling of acoustic tiles reassured me. Its corners and edges would serve well as hypnotic focal points. I could use them to help control my breathing and narrow my visual range.
The polygraph machine sat on a pressed-wood desk in the center of the room. It was a squat rectangular box festooned with Apollo-program vintage knobs and switches and, at one end, a spooled ream of graph paper and three ink-jet leads. Like everyone, I had been introduced to similar specimens in countless TV shows and movies. It was laughable in its familiarity.
I sat down, and the man began arranging the sensors about my body. These included a blood-pressure cuff around one arm, two respiration pneumographs around my torso, and a galvanometer fitted over one finger to check my skin temperature. He described the function of each sensor, told me a little bit about the upcoming interview, and added some disclaimers about false positives. I dismissed any thoughts about the lie at the heart of my story: I had paid for the LSD, but my freedom depended on the believability with which I could say I hadn't. He asked whether I was ready, and I said yes. My nerves had subsided, replaced by a light tingle of anticipation. I was eager to get started.
The first thing he asked me to do was lie. The polygraph machine, which the examiner referred to as "she," needed a falsehood to establish my reaction pattern. He read my address and asked whether this was my residence. I said no. The leads on the polygraph skittered across the graph paper, and we were on our way.
An eerie sense of detachment settled over me as I recounted the story of the hitchhiker. I stared at the ceiling until the edges of the tiles began to spin. The blood roared in my ears. My breath rose and fell in rhythmic measure. A wave of nausea and dizziness rushed in and then subsided, followed by an unnerving lightness, a sensation between flying in a dream and hyperventilation. Everything felt serenely comfortable otherwise. I told the examiner that the man had offered me LSD and I had refused it. He placed the tabs in a pack of cigarettes, put it in the ashtray, and forgot to take it with him when I left him in El Paso. The awareness that I was lying never left me. Yet the deceptions felt pleasantly wearying—gentle, somehow, not burdensome in any way.
"Well?" Randy asked when I met him back in the waiting room.
A few days later, my mother heard from the security company. I'd passed.
The basic premise of the polygraph reveals its core contradiction: Truth and self-control are the not the same thing.
In 1730, Daniel Defoe (justifiably better known for Robinson Crusoe) published a short tract titled An Effectual Scheme for the Immediate Preventing of Street Robberies and Suppressing All Other Disorders of the Night. "There is a tremor in the blood of the thief," he wrote; investigators would do well to "take hold of [an offender's] wrist and feel his pulse, there you shall find his guilt." One hundred and sixty-five years later, a pioneering criminologist and physician in Italy named Cesare Lombroso modified a hydrosphygmograph—an archaic piece of equipment that measured pulse via water displacement—and used it to monitor the physiological changes in suspects undergoing police interrogation. It wasn't until February 2, 1935, that polygraphic evidence was first used at trial, during a murder case in Wisconsin. (This year was the case's 80th anniversary.) A lie detector was employed to determine whether the defendant had—straight face—shot the sheriff.
The accuracy of polygraph tests, of course, remains deeply dubious. In 1984, a man named Gary Ridgway was questioned about the murder of a woman and passed a lie-detector test, while another man failed and was suspected, though not convicted, as the culprit. Twenty years later, Ridgway confessed to the murder; in the interim, he'd killed at least seven other women. In 1986, in Wichita, Kansas, Bill Wegerle was ostracized from his community after failing two polygraph tests following his wife's murder. DNA evidence later exonerated Wegerle and identified his wife's murderer as the serial killer Dennis Rader. Since the end of World War II, at least six spies for the US government successfully passed polygraph tests while working as double agents. The Supreme Court, in 1998's United States v. Scheffer, found that "there is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable"; and in 2003, the National Academy of Sciences deemed polygraph research "unreliable, unscientific, and biased." Despite all this, about 70,000 applicants to jobs with the federal government take lie-detector tests each year, and the FBI, CIA, and police departments including the LAPD use polygraphs to interrogate suspects.
Locating evasion and dishonesty within the body is a deeply weird concept. And so the basic premise of the polygraph reveals its core contradiction: Truth and self-control are the not the same thing. Yet the idea of lie detection nonetheless retains the high gloss of social credibility. The polygraph reveals nothing essential about honesty, but fail a test and you are a liar. It's a logical mess. To convince someone of your veracity, you must maintain the appearance of honesty; to do that requires deception; and that's dishonest, even if you're telling the truth.
My mother had taken matters into her own hands. She had drugged me so that I might more capably lie about my drug use.
Preparations for my return to Texas were under way when the lawyer called. The police laboratory in Kerr County had finally completed the analysis of the contraband seized from me at my arrest. The results were negative. The hitchhiker had thanked me for the ride (and my $20) by ripping me off. The LSD was as innocuous as the Life Savers I had mentioned to the arresting officer. Without actual drugs in my possession, I could not be charged with a crime. No need for a repeat polygraph. I was free to stop lying.
At the end of the summer, I left home for Los Angeles. Before I departed, my mother reminded me to stop taking the allergy medicine she had prescribed. It was no longer necessary, she said. I detected an odd note of self-congratulation in the way she spoke, as if there was something she wanted me to know but wasn't sure it was a good idea to tell me. I prodded, and eventually she talked.
Like the trucker's LSD, my allergy pills hadn't really looked like allergy pills, or none that I had ever seen. They were small, hexagonal tablets, light blue in color and embossed with a letter I. The letter, she now told me, stood for Inderal, a hypertension drug used as an off-label remedy for stage fright. Lacking faith in her nefarious associate's techniques to thwart the polygraph, my mother had taken matters into her own hands. She had drugged me so that I might more capably lie about my drug use.
I wanted to thank her, tenderly, to express my affection and respect and sympathy. Tell her that I understood that the truth demands deception and that she had wielded it like a weapon and an expression of love. But I had no language with which to make these things clear between the two of us. I left for college and banished the episode from my memory.
I once asked my mother what she would have done if I failed the practice test. Would she really have allowed me to go to Texas and face the real thing? Perhaps the better strategy would have been to retract my lie and try to make a deal with the police.
"No idea," she told me. "Maybe get you a better lawyer."