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Why Do They Lie?

By Marjorie Williams
Wednesday, June 20, 2001; Page A27

He was a good friend amid the early miseries of college life, though he had that willed eccentricity in which smart, awkward freshmen sometimes armor themselves. I got to know him by typing his papers, 75 cents a page. He introduced me to olives stuffed with almonds, and to chilled vodka. He had a precious single room and a bathtub, where I took long, soaking refuge from my mob of roommates while he chatted to me from the other side of the door.

I understood very little of what I typed for him because his major was an abstruse one. But it wasn't hard to see that he was a brilliant guy. The stars in his field approached him at conferences to discuss his research with him, he told me with a becoming wonder. But I loved him as much for his warmth as for his brains. You could tell him anything, and he listened intently. Among all the flitting friendships one tries on at 18 or 19, I knew this boy was the genuine article.

So I thought of him when I read about the eminent biographer and history professor Joseph Ellis, who stands accused of concocting a series of puzzling lies about his past. Why would a man who has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his biographies of the Founding Fathers make up stories about having served in Vietnam, exaggerate his role in the civil rights and peace movements, invent a winning touchdown for a high school football team to which he didn't belong? Before Ellis issued a statement confirming the Boston Globe's account of his lies about Vietnam, his colleagues raced to his defense. "The idea that Joe Ellis would claim to have done something that he didn't do doesn't hold up," a colleague of five years protested. "He's one of the smartest people I know, and wouldn't have a reason to lie."

But this is where analysis of Ellis's history will baffle us all. The kind of lying with which he has been charged has nothing to do with reason. It is something different from simple resumé-padding, or fabrication for an otherwise unreachable goal. We will look in vain for a simple explanation of why a man so accomplished would stoop to little lies of self-aggrandizement.

I know this because my own friend turned out to be a habitual and helpless liar. He lied to me about his family. About his mother's death. About his studies. Eventually, once his friends began comparing notes, he was confronted with these pointless lies. And he had an explanation of sorts, reaching back to the ways that lying had served him in the strange family structure of his early years. His reasons made a crude, shrink-by-numbers kind of sense; they may even have been true. But more than two decades later, I really don't have the faintest purchase on what made my friend tell the tales he did.

We like to think -- our culture has trained us to think -- that the human psyche is ultimately transparent: Neurosis leads us astray, to be sure, but along well-beaten paths that can now be eliminated, or at least illuminated, by our understanding. People with glitches in their psyches either get better or they get worse, says the Popular Mechanics view of the human machine: They get help or they don't, and if they don't, their compulsions get the better of them.

But every now and then, a stranger truth brushes against us in the dark. When I ended the friendship, I told myself it was because I could never trust my friend again. But now I think it had as much to do with my fear of how well he functioned. My friend went on to attend an Ivy League medical school; he married a wonderful woman. All I could take away from his odd, wounding friendship was a respect for the final opaqueness of my fellows.

Mount Holyoke College, where Ellis has taught for 29 years, reacted to the allegations about him with a reflexive loyalty. Now that Ellis has confirmed the central charge in the Globe's story, administrators will have to face more squarely the fact that he made a habit of lying wholesale to the students he was trusted to teach. It doesn't speak well of the college that this possibility wasn't immediately taken seriously. But it's not that hard to understand, really, the shock of finding that the bare mystery of human character has tenure in your midst.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company