Lies, lies, all lies

A fake dead sister, alleged forged signatures, an imaginary doctorate, and non-existent leukaemia. The Carl Niehaus list of whoppers is growing by the minute.

Some people tell lies. Others make up a whole life, comments CyberShrink.

What is there still left for Carl Niehaus to lie about?

The pathology of tall tales
Generally, when people lie, they have a fairly clear motive. Either they want to avoid something unpleasant, such as blame or responsibility, or they want to achieve something desirable, such as celebrity and admiration. Or they want to make heaps of money by means of some fraudulent scheme. Niehaus seems to have achieved a hat trick here.

But some people just cannot help themselves.

There are pathological conditions which make people regularly tell tall stories.

Those who have Munchausen syndrome, for instance, tell very elaborate and fake stories about themselves taking great care to fake physical illness, in order to gain care and medical attention.

But then there are some curious conditions which could be more relevant in such a situation.

Pathological liars
These are people who tell lies compulsively, even when there is no possible benefit to them, and even when they are bound to get found out.

Their motives are obscure, and of course the condition is very difficult to treat, especially as these people rarely actually seek help, and when they do so, neither the psychiatrist/psychologist, nor even the patient, may be sure what is true in what they say.

They are often highly convincing liars, as though they first of all lie to themselves, so that their body language and emotional responses to their stories then all feel genuine and convincing to the onlooker or audience.

But because they lie so frequently, they themselves lose sight of the objective, external, verifiable truth. They could find themselves telling completely conflicting stories to the same person two days in a row, without particularly considering this a problem. It is hard enough to keep track of the truth, and exceedingly difficult to keep track of serial lies, or to keep them entirely consistent. Pathological liars do not deal well with being confronted, and seem to consider this simply unfair of others.

There are people who tell lies on an ongoing basis and then you find people who go one step further. They make up a whole life.

Pseudologia phantastica
This is a condition in which people tell very involved and complex stories, far beyond ordinary lies. Their lies are partly aimed at getting attention - if possible, approving or positive attention. A sense of importance, of significance, may be what they are seeking.

They tell involved stories in which they play a central and fascinating role, stories which are designed to grip the audience. I've seen, for instance, an old man who told gripping and indeed enthralling tales of his experiences during World War II in miniature submarines, while he was leading reconnaissance expeditions into occupied France. He wept as he remembered those of his comrades who had not come back with him, and showed us the scars on his leg from when he had got caught up in some barbed wire.

The problem was, when I checked up on him, it turned out that he had spent his entire period of military service in the Quartermaster’s stores at a large barracks, fitting uniforms to soldiers. He had never left Britain at any time in his life. He had found a story that brought an important sense of meaning and significance to his life, even though it was entirely untrue.

The SA sex blogger
In Niehaus's case the motives seem clear: financial gain, social status, academic standing. But then you find people whose motives are unclear.

Two years ago a controversy started with an annoying blogger, calling himself Skye. He announced that he was a male prostitute, and proceeded to tell lurid tales about a number of well-known South Africans. It got him into the news, but didn't bring fame or money. It brought ridicule.

A man called Juan-Duval Uys has since appeared in court on charges of fraud and crimen injuria. He alleged that he had been accused of 10 to 15 similar cases in the past – none of which led to court appearances. Among these were alleged possession of child pornography, and the murder of a friend in Kroonstad.

The prosecutor claimed that there was not enough information in the court affidavit to link Uys to the two charges. The case has been referred back to the Director of Public Prosecutions. He is in the news again now as the spokesperson for the allegedly recently-re-formed National Party, and their plans on rehabilitating gay people.

True or false?
But back to Niehaus. It all started with a tearful confession about an attempted forging of signatures in order to secure a loan. And then the skeletons started cascading out of the cupboard: the fake dead sister, the fake doctorate, the non-payment of rent, the supposed leukaemia. The list of whoppers is seemingly endless.

And the tearful confessions only serve to make one wonder what else is about to be revealed.

Lying on such a scale isn't likely to be rewarding personally in the long run in any of the usual ways. Eventually you will be found out and you won't get admired, and the fame won't be yours to enjoy. And you'd be attracting blame rather than evading it.

So, next time someone tells you about how they quelled rebellions, found a miracle cure, bought three sports cars, or single-handedly fought hand-to-hand combat with an entire army, you’d be well advised to take it with a pinch of salt. When it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, updated February 2009)

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