Taken on Trust

Just started Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell. I liked his other books, and I’m enjoying this one too. It does not – so far – appear to be about talking to strangers, however. He says that, often, people misjudge one another. Some of it is familiar material (eg from Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me), yet the examples he gives of people failing to spot spies in their midsts and the like are still staggering.

I’m particularly pleased because I have just got to the bit where he says people tend to err on the side of believing. This strikes me as an example of the bleeding obvious but I am glad to see it written down. My children mock me when I say to them that if people lie it undermines the very nature of communication: they roll their eyes and accuse me of delusions of grandeur. How can one believe anything if we don’t assume people tell the truth? What is the point of language then? Why bother to speak at all? I’m forever pointing out that we’re gullible: we tend to believe, and we have to. When we read anything in the papers on a subject we’re familiar with, we know it to be full of errors, yet when we read about other topics, we tend to believe the media and trot out this misinformation to others. (Even in this new era of fake news and deepfake, when you cannot believe your very eyes.)

When people lie, my distress is great. Especially when they lie TO ME.  My therapist tells me not to take things so personally.  Ha.

I work now in a place with a disproportionate number of people raised Catholic (like my ex). I am sure they are great advocates of not lying. Yet I observe in them an astonishing willingness to say things which are not true, beyond bible stories. My theory is that being brought up believing patent lies as told to them by their loving parents and elders and betters (at school, church etc) desensitizes them to it. Lying is mother’s milk and evidently sanctioned by those who know best. It makes me want to weep.

The other thing I notice is that while most people default to truth, a handful are not only wary but positively determined to find deception and malice wherever they look. The boss at work is forever accusing everyone of ‘game-playing’ and seems hell-bent on beating them at it. Similarly, the witch who moved in with me saw schemes left and right and was always deliberately fucking with people’s minds and distorting things just for the kicks it gave her. A friend annoys me by always attributing evil intentions to whatever anyone is ‘doing to her’ when it seems to me their motives may be quite innocent and not concern her at all. (Obviously this does NOT apply to me and is NOT what my therapist means when she tells me not to take things personally!)

It is no surprise that those people are the very ones who are themselves always up to no good. I suppose it takes one to know one. They attack because they feel under attack. Dog eat dog.

I get very agitated all over again when I remember that my ex looked me in the eye and for years lied to me every single day. He lived with me, slept with me, spoke to me about all manner of things. Alongside me he brought up our children to believe that lying is wrong. (Mind you I realise that he went along with me here, just as I went along with him in other ways. The children were not really his remit or strongpoint ). Every single day he was stealing from me and the kids and deceiving us. I believed him. I mean, I thought he was maybe deluded or gaga but I never thought he was deliberately lying to me or that things were remotely as desperate as they were. When the first little shards of truth emerged in a letter to my lawyer he said he knew this would ‘come as a bombshell’ to me. He also said (and maybe even believed?) that he was pulling the wool over my eyes ‘to shield me’.  What a coward. Looking back, it was striking how, normally a mild mannered and placid man, he would go mental if every accused of lying about anything at all. That hyper-defensiveness should have been a red flag. These days I would recognise it. At the time I took it at face value as yet another sign that he was, as I used to say, ‘as honest as the day is long’.

I saw a fascinating documentary once about a man called Michel Cohen. A French high school drop-out with a sense of adventure, he set himself up in NY. He swindled dealers out of more than $50m, then went on the run, escaped from prison in Rio and disappeared. He was tracked down by the director of the documentary, who met and interviewed him. Asked whether he blamed himself, he pondered and then said ‘well you know I try to focus on the future’. That was like my ex. The question: did he feel remorse? was met with ‘No, it didn’t affect [the victim’s] lives but it did affect mine. It’s not as though the money was taken from someone who needed it’. That was like my ex. Indeed Michel Cohen, again like my ex, was claiming, after doing a runner and leaving everyone high and dry, that what he had done did not amount to theft because he had intended to repay it.

And if you like the idea of the sheer audacity of this, look up the true story of Frank Abagnale, or watch its representation in the Leonardo di Caprio movie Catch Me If You Can. Now he was not like my ex!


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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

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