When my colleagues and I asked 77 college students to keep a diary of all the lies that they told every day for a week, we found something startling: the students lied to their mothers in nearly every other conversation they had with her.
That was a study of lying in everyday life. Most of the lies the students told to their mothers were fairly trivial and perhaps even predictable. “I told her I’d been studying hard,” for example.
In another study, we asked college students and people from the community to tell us about the most serious lies they had ever told as well as the serious lies that had been told to them. Those stories were entirely different. The community members who were parents told us about the truths they could not bear to tell their children – that their father was late for dinner every evening because he was an alcoholic who stopped at the bar on the way home, or their mother or their grandparent was grievously ill, or their pet had died and hadn’t just run away. Both the community members and the college students told us about comparable lies they told to their parents. A veteran, for example, withheld from his mother his entire life the fact that he was gravely wounded in the war. Another never told his mother he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A college student hoped her mother would never learn that she had an abortion. Just about everyone said the same thing about why they told these lies or kept these secrets – they were trying to protect the other person from the pain of learning a troubling truth.
We did not interview multiple people from the same families, but I wondered whether the parents who tried to protect their children from sad news created family norms that were passed on through the generations. Maybe it was their children who were hiding their own grave illnesses and scary life experiences from them.
I’ve been thinking about these studies from years ago because of an anthology I just read, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence, edited by Michele Filgate. I love anthologies – it is such a delight to sample from a whole collection of writers, each talented in a unique way – but I wasn’t inclined to read this one at first because I always thought my relationship with my mother was fairly straightforward. Then I saw the editor of the anthology and several of the contributors on C-SPAN’s Book TV. They read excerpts from their essays and discussed their experiences. I was intrigued. I got the book.
I know that one of the highest compliments about a book is supposed to be, “I couldn’t put it down.” I disagree. I am far more enamored of books that you just have to put down, because the author got you thinking, and you just can’t concentrate on the book anymore. I had plenty of moments like that while reading What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About. I realized that my mother and I did a lot of what the participants in my deception studies did – we protected each other from the hard stuff by just not talking about it.
My mother was married to my father for 42 years, until the day he died. It was the one and only marriage for both of them. Was it hard for my mother that I never married and never wanted to? Probably. But she never said a word about it until she was on her deathbed, when she said that she worried about me being alone. I was only a year or two into my singles work at the time. She would not have known that I never equate being single with being alone.
In the anthology, the fifteen contributors do not take turns describing the topics they avoided discussing with their mother. Instead, the essays are thoughtful, engaging, moving renderings of complicated relationships. Some described meaningful evolutions over time, sometimes in the relationship, other times in the authors’ understanding or emotional experience of it.
I particularly appreciated the book because I am always looking for serious, beautifully written accounts of adult relationships other than romantic ones. (Briallen Hopper’s Hard to Love is another wonderful example.) As one of the contributors, Melissa Febos, noted, “…we have so many narratives to make sense of romantic love, sexual love, marriage, but none that feel adequate to the heartbreak my mother must have felt.”
Febos is one of the authors who withheld deeply significant aspects of her life from her mother, only to come clean much later:
“How much are you supposed to tell someone who loves you that much, whom you want to protect? Is it worse for them to find out later, when you are safe on the other side? I hated to watch my mother sort through the past, solving the puzzle of my inconsistencies with the pieces I withheld. Lies make fools of the people we love.”
And yet, telling painful truths is always going to be a challenge.