I’ve been lying to my family: I never actually graduated!

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 4, 2008

I lied to shut them up but now I can hardly live with myself.


Dear Cary,

I need your advice on a problem of my own making. You see, I’m a liar: I’ve been lying to my parents, my sister and everyone I know, including my husband. I’m not lying about anything criminal or terribly immoral, but I have backed myself into a corner.

I don’t have a college degree yet. That is the source of my lies.

I lied to my family because they were asking me all the time if I had graduated and adding to the negative feelings I already have about not finishing. (It’s no exaggeration to say it came up in every conversation with my parents and sister for the past four years.) Long story short, my college career was basically cut at the knees when we moved from Boston to Phoenix for my husband’s job. This was good for him but not so good for me, as the only school here didn’t have equivalent courses for transfer, and to start over again was just too much in terms of time required, money, and so on. It was just easier at the time to get a job. I did, at one point, go back to my alma mater and complete one more semester, but it wasn’t quite enough to finish all requirements.

Now I’m tired of lying and deflecting questions. I’m tired of feeling like I have this awful cloud hanging over my head. I’m tired of hiding and feeling like a failure. So how do I tell my family the truth? And when I do, how do I face them with the admission I’ve been lying all this time? It’s so silly and stupid; I’m an intelligent, educated person and I realize that a piece of paper is not going to validate my existence. My fear is that they are going to lose respect for me, be disappointed, and, I guess, judge me as less-than. How do I face their recriminations? I fantasize about telling them all, but I just can’t seem to find the right moment. Will I ever?

Thanks for your time and any words of advice,

Liar

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Dear Liar,

The matter of how to tell them is simple. We will get to that. But the lying is complicated. A lie is a tool of power and control. We achieve a result. They stop asking us.

But then the lie pains us. We dread the future. We dread coming face-to-face. We dread their finding out who we are.

Here is who we are: We are changeable, fearful, inconstant, moody, irresolute, conflicted. We do the best we can. We do not always measure up; we take shortcuts; we are sometimes lazy; we forget things and our logic is not always clear. Sometimes we do not really like the things we say we like; we say we like them because it is easier. We are not everything you think we are. We are less and we are more but it’s too hard to explain. You wouldn’t understand if we tried. You wouldn’t even stay for the ending. You would nod and say you get it when you don’t. You don’t even begin to get it. So we lie to keep it short. We lie to keep you at bay. We lie because it hurts to not get what we want.

And what do we want? What would we want if we thought we could get it? That’s a good question. We would want, perhaps, acceptance with all our faults? We would want, perhaps, acknowledgment? What would we want?

Whatever we would want from the family we are lying to, let us face this truth: We probably won’t get it. What we want is probably beyond their power to provide. They don’t have it to give. They don’t know what it is. They never got it themselves and they get along fine without it as far as they know. They don’t even know how it feels to want it. So we can never get it from them.

OK, here is a truth you may find amusing. In 1978 my father gave me money for graduate school and I bought a few pounds of pot with it and put the pot in the trunk of the car and took off from Florida to California. Along the way I smoked a good bit of the pot. I became paranoid. In Georgia I was already so paranoid that I stopped at UPS and shipped the pot the rest of the way to California. The pot never got to California. A note from UPS came in the mail saying the package had been damaged and the contents had been destroyed. Ha ha. Up in smoke. Obviously my efforts at concealment had been insufficient. I was out of money. I had to work as a bike messenger while in grad school. For a long time I never told my dad this. Finally one day I did. He just looked at me funny.

OK, here is something else. After all that, after all he did for me, I never actually got the M.A. I passed my orals and had my thesis approved. There were 17 typographical errors to fix. This was in the era of typists. The typist cost money. I delayed. Plus I had one incomplete. Tuition cost money. Again I delayed. That was 27 years ago.

Recently a kind professor attempted to rescue me, to arrange for me to get the degree. She pulled me into the boat. I fell out of the boat again. I am unrescuable. I am full of holes and soggy with water. Though I have changed my ways, not everything can be corrected or erased.

My wife sticks with me. People come to my aid. Things happen slowly in my favor. But there will always be more lies, more lust for control, more fear of how I will feel if this person says that, if that person says this, if that person thinks this or that. What you see is what you get, a dreamer who cannot finish what he begins, a lurker, a stay-at-home, a shuffler down Mission District sidewalks dreaming of the perfect burrito, a halfway poet who inserts his lines into prose, a struggler, an effusive mime, a juggler going for the jugular, a dog-lover who forgets to feed them and recently forgot them in the truck almost overnight: What? Where are the poodles? I left them in the truck!

So what I demonstrate to you is my mode of confession. I do not tell all but I admit what I am, my flaws, my forgetfulness, my nature. I do not pretend I am much better than this. I leave the being better to others who are better. I am middling. I muddle. I applaud at the right places in order to not unduly embarrass those around me. I get by. I leave a trail of unfinished business. I track mud through the house. This is me. Or this is I. Which is it? I am supposed to know but I am not sure. I prefer, in fact, what is wrong. So it goes.

You have the chance here to just get real. Write them a letter and spill it. Don’t worry about what they think. You can’t control what they think. They are many miles away and it won’t help you. Here is how you do that. Find a quiet half an hour where you can work without distraction. Say, you make an appointment with yourself from 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and you sit down somewhere and do not answer the telephone and you get a good pad of writing paper and a pencil or a pen and you just write them a short note telling them the truth.

You mail it.

It’ll be fun. You’ll feel different afterwards. Your life will be a little more interesting. It will be something to tell.

One more thing before I go, as the dog is growing restless:

Thank heavens for time. Without time, everything we do and feel and say and remember would all be balled up right now in some horrid, intolerable present. As it is you can use time to your advantage by putting out the truth now and then allowing time to coat and soften the truth with its balm of forgetfulness so the truth comes not so much like a slap but like a series of little breezes blowing in off the ocean (and what is it that has brought these breezes together so?), or a series of communiqués, letters the relatives receive and ponder, and wonder should they say something to you about it or should they ignore it? The ball is in their court. You dare them, as it were, to take the next step. And then you stand your ground, the newly gained high ground.