Transcript

18:

Liars
Transcript

Originally aired 03.28.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/18

Act One. Lies.

Ira Glass

You know, if you think about it, the idea of April Fools' Day is just absurd, a day set aside in which we're allowed, basically, to admit that it's fun to deceive each other. This notion, this idea, is so profoundly disturbing that we have to quarantine it into its own day on April 1. But April Fools' Day is for amateurs. The biggest liars, the most disturbing liars are the people who lose their grip on what the truth is and cannot even tell they're lying.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, with April Fools' Day approaching, an hour of stories about deceptions perpetrated by compulsive liars. Portions of these stories have aired on NPR'S Morning Edition years ago. They get replayed here on Chicago's public radio station every April 1. Our contributing editor Margy Rochlin and I produced them. Margy narrates.

Act Two. More Lies.

Margy Rochlin

I've been talking to a lot of people about liars lately. Here are two things I've noticed. One is that everyone has a story about some nut in their past, not just a liar but a compulsive liar, somebody who told so many incredible stories about themselves that eventually people came to wonder if the liar even knew what was real. The other thing I noticed is how vividly people remember these stories. Maybe it's because something so basic was violated by the lies, some basic trust. They remember the details because they're still trying to sort it out.

Woman

He had the most unbelievable eyes.

Man

He didn't have an affect that hinted at the desire for me to believe it.

Woman

They were like this blue-gray, but they changed color.

Man

He had an affect that said, I believe this.

Woman

You could never tell he was lying by his eyes. He was so sincere.

Woman

She had shark-like eyes.

Woman

He is a very charming person, and I think a lot of compulsive liars are charming people.

Woman

Sharp teeth.

Woman

I mean, I think that he believed everything he told you. He passionately, firmly believed.

Woman

When she laughed, her eyes didn't laugh. Her whole face laughed, and she made the sounds of laughing. But she herself didn't laugh.

Margy Rochlin

Sometimes you know you're being lied to, but at first, you don't take it that seriously. You rationalize to yourself that everyone has their eccentricities. Maybe this is a temporary condition. Maybe they're just troubled. Maybe you can help them.

Woman

People kept saying to me, this guy's this. This guy's that. This guy's this. Can't you see that? And I was so busy protecting him that I said, OK, I'll show you what a good guy this is. I'll marry him. We went out, and we were together for a couple of years before we got married. And he would tell me these things, and things just kept not adding up. One of the instances that I can think of is that one day, my ex-husband came over. And he was crying, and he said that he was really upset. And he told me that his mother had died. And I gave him tea and sympathy for weeks. We didn't even really leave the house.

Then he moved in with me, and we started getting letters from where I knew his mother lived with his mother's initials on it. And he said, well, my mother had nine brothers and sisters, and this is coming from my aunt. And my aunt has exactly the same initials that my mother had. And one day, I just opened one of those letters. And I read it. It was like, "Dear son." And it didn't say, "Dear son, I'm writing to you from my grave." "Dear son, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Love, Mom." Hmm, this is interesting. What about these letters? "Well, these letters were written to me before she died." "Oh! She postmarked them from purgatory, wherever she is."

Oh, boy. He would get these boxes from somebody back east. And he said, this is somebody who was very close to me. But then getting nosier, nosier, nosier, I found a letter from her, because you can't hide everything. And here was this woman who said that in fact she was his wife. And how was he doing, and she was worried about him, and when was he going to come see her. And then he disappeared.

Then he showed up again. And he said that he had been involved with the mob and that he had to get out of it, and he really wanted to clean up his act. And I knew that he wasn't smart enough to be involved with them. But in fact, where did he go? And I wouldn't hear from him, and I wouldn't hear from him. I was becoming more and more worried and more and more concerned. And I felt like he had somehow been victimized and that was what was making him tell these lies.

And he showed up with nothing. A few weeks later, he got a box from the woman in Maine. And there were some of the clothes that he had left with. Hmm, this is interesting. You tell me you're in Chicago trying to get out of being with the mob, and they have you locked in a room. Well, he said that this woman was like a mafia princess. [LAUGHS] Which I really thought was perfect. Married to the mob. Real life. And that she would go to Maine to buy clothes, and her father was wealthy. I don't know. The story was so cockamamie. And I thought, if you're a mafia princess, why would you want to buy your clothes at L.L. Bean?

The one thing that I did not feel that he lied about is that he worshipped the ground that I walked on. And he would say, I think you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. And whether that was a lie or not, that was the kinds of lies you want to hear.

When I figured out that he had had who knows how many other lives, complete lives, one of the things that I realized is that he would create a person, and if that person didn't work, that he would just leave that person, leave that body, leave that location that he was living in, move to a new place, start with a new person, and build a whole new life and say, hmm, maybe this person will work, maybe people will like this person, maybe I'll like this person.

Sometimes you want so much to believe somebody, even if you know that they're a liar, that you try to keep from putting them in a position where they're going to lie. So you don't ask them anything. Then the only reason to ask a question is because it becomes like a comedy routine. It's like, what kind of story will I hear if I throw this question out? And sometimes when I would be in a sick mood, I would do that kind of stuff, just to hear, hmm, I need a little story.

When our second baby was born, he couldn't handle it, and he got into drugs. And I would say to him, the only way we can work on it is for you to admit to me and not lie to me and tell me, I have a problem. And he would say, I don't. And I'd say, you do, and you're lying, and tell me the truth or leave.

I think that what I noticed the most from the hour that he left was that I just kept sighing. I would just go [SIGHS] I couldn't talk to anybody without sighing. I was just so relieved.

People would say to me, well, you know, he's wrapped up in drugs, and he's not thinking straight. Do you think that he might come and hurt you? And I thought, maybe he's taking on yet another life. And he's gone through too many lives, and he is going to, in fact, come and kill me and kill the kids and disappear. And that was the only time I thought, suddenly all these lies, it's scary. I felt a lot of fear, and I didn't sleep. I didn't sleep, and I had bars put on all my windows and all my doors. It wasn't funny. It wasn't something I could deal with. And it wasn't something I ever wanted to deal with again.

One of the things that is very important in all of this, and why I sound calm, is that I really didn't love him. I wasn't in love with him. So that was my own lie. So I was lying too. I was saying, yes, I love you. Yes, I know it doesn't seem like it, but, yes, I love you. It would come out of mouth because you don't want to say to somebody, no, I don't love you, but I want to stay married. And so it was my own lie too.

In that self-deception, in thinking that I could make this work, that was the biggest lie of all. And it isn't other people's lies that they're going to tell me in my life. What I just have to constantly keep working on is not lying to myself, not deceiving myself. And it's difficult. It's really hard.

Margy Rochlin

Psychiatry, we're told, is a science. And given the fact that lying is so common, you'd imagine that someone had thoroughly disassembled this personality disorder, figured out why some people's reasonable truth mechanism gets jammed between gears. So we called up these two experts to find out what they knew, psychologist Paul Ekman, a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco, and Brian King, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine. Dr. King has surveyed the published psychiatric material online, and here's what he says.

Brian King

It's quite remarkable. There's been relatively little attention devoted to it. If you look at the world literature over the past 100 years, you come up with maybe 70, 80 cases.

Paul Ekman

There's been very little research on compulsive liars because they don't come into your office. They don't seek help, and they're not interested in cooperating in research. And there's nothing in it for them.

Margy Rochlin

And as for the scientific research that has been done, the results are pretty disturbing. For instance, studies have shown that most people cannot tell when they're being lied to. That's true even of people who are specially trained to detect liars. Then there are the case studies.

Paul Ekman

It's hard to offer a great deal of hope to anyone who's intimately involved with a compulsive liar, because there's very little reason to believe that they're going to change.

Brian King

Some people have written that lying is something that is very difficult to treat, that in order to have a treatment response, you have to have someone who is able to live with the truth that therapy is based on the ability to tolerate and explore the truth.

Man

I would categorize myself as a liar. Even in the safe confines of a therapist's office, you're still tempted to lie. In fact, you guys here have no idea whether or not I'm making this up or not.

Paul Ekman

No one can be exactly certain as to why some people become compulsive liars, but the two motives that are most likely are the power motive, the compulsive liar who lies because they want to control you. You see this in early adolescence, where kids will lie solely for the reason of demonstrating that they can beat the old man, that they can put one over on their parents. Well, some people never grow out of that.

Man

It becomes a game. In one particular store, they refused to give me a cash exchange for a particular piece of merchandise. I told them I was joining the Marines in the next couple weeks and being shipped off to Saudi Arabia. That was an instance where I thought, well, this would be kind of funny.

Brian King

Maybe there is a little bit of a charge that comes with the successful telling of a lie, the rush of duping someone else, particularly someone who is perceived to be more powerful than you are.

Paul Ekman

Probably more common than that is the compulsive liar who's like the name-dropper, but the name-dropper taken to the nth degree.

Woman

One day I heard him telling somebody his father was the CEO to Ford Motor Company.

Paul Ekman

They are trying to impress you.

Woman

Sharky started telling me all these things, how she had this uncle, and the uncle was the president of 20th Century Fox and that she had worked there as a film editor.

Paul Ekman

They get our attention. They get our interest. They get our admiration. And in a sense, you might think of them as being addicted to that type of admiration.

Man

For some reason, I seem to really seek approval from people, especially women. And generally, people will believe what they hear. And once I get that approval, whether it be, yeah, let's go to bed, let's have a relationship, let's have a drink, or just a smile, that was enough. That was my fix.

Brian King

Again, like an addiction to anything, be it alcohol, be it gambling, whatever, the drive is that the next time I engage in this behavior is going to be the one that's fulfilling.

Man

You really feel almost like you're protecting yourself, because if this person knew what I was really like and what my real desires were, they would be running like hell.

Brian King

When you look at the histories of these people, very often they come from childhoods where they were traumatized from situations where you would expect a young child to develop a sense that they didn't matter, that there was something wrong with them. And some compulsive lying may reflect attempts to rewrite history. If I can get this person to believe that I do have wealthy relatives and that I was pampered as a child and so on, maybe I can get myself to believe it too.

Margy Rochlin

Take this story. Most of it unfolds in one of those dorm rooms that's claustrophobically dinky, 10 feet by 12 feet, only enough space for two identical single beds, two identical desks, two identical dressers, one narrow window which doesn't open very far. It's the kind of room where interior decorating means a poster-sized blow-up of a New Yorker cartoon. And the walls, they came that way-- green, lime green. And in this room at a small college in Nebraska live two guys who are just getting used to a new social hierarchy. They're in a world where it's possible to live with someone you're not that close to.

Man

I never considered him my friend, really. He was my roommate. He'd grown up in this little, tiny, tiny town in Nebraska. As it will become clear later, he had lied to me in telling me that he didn't actually grow up there. He'd grown up off in Boston, exotic, distant Boston.

It was when he started talking about Boston that things really started getting strange. And the story was something like this, that his father was an executive for a company that made satellites. He never told me the name of the company. It was an important international corporation in Boston. And they lived in Boston, just down the street from the Kennedy estate. And as a child, he used to play with the Kennedy children. He told me that the first time he met them, it was by sneaking into the Kennedy estate through the hedge. He snuck in and found the kids in the backyard and got to know them. I don't really remember the names, but he knew all the names. And he would describe their personalities to me. His best friend in the group was one of Robert Kennedy's sons.

Eventually, about the time he was in high school, his father found out that he had a serious heart condition, and he couldn't work anymore. He had to quit. And not only did he have to quit, but he had to get away from this fast lane, high society lifestyle. So his father had decided to move the family back to the small town in Nebraska where he had grown up. So that was how he explained why he was in this small town, because on weekends, he would often go home to this small town to visit his parents.

He often used to tell me that he would go to Boston on weekends in his father's private plane. He told me that he was being supported by the Kennedys, that the Kennedys were paying for him to go to college. And I asked him the first question that I think would occur to anybody at this moment-- Ted Kennedy was the one who was paying for him to go to college. I said, if Ted Kennedy is paying for you to go to school, why are you in Nebraska? Why aren't you going to Harvard or Yale or someplace? And he said, well, I have to stay close to my father, because my father is so ill. That made sense. Although I could have said something like, well, couldn't your dad just send the private plane to get you at Yale or Harvard?

I basically believed it, or at least never really thought it was worth my while to doubt it. And it went on that way for about five months, until one Sunday night, he came back. He'd been away all weekend. And he was acting sort of funny, kind of sheepish, but yet grinning a lot, as if he had a secret. I could tell from his behavior that it was the kind of secret that he wanted me to ask him about.

So finally I said, what's going on? Why are you acting so funny? And he sort of grinned and laughed a little. He said, I did something really silly this weekend. I said, oh, what did you do? I felt like I was playing along. I really, by this point, had serious doubts about anything he said. And he said, I swiped my father's plane. I said, oh, really? You just took it, huh? He said, yeah, I took it, and I just went for a ride. And I said, really? Where did you go? He said, I went to Boston. I said, why did you have to go to Boston without your dad knowing about it since you go there all the time? He said, well, it was a surprise because it was Rose's 92nd birthday party, and I really wanted to go. And my father didn't want me to go.

And then it was a few weeks after that that I ran into, one day on campus, a woman who was a mutual friend of ours. There wasn't a romance between them, but she sort of wanted there to be one. And she said, well, I went home last weekend to the small town that she was from. And in the public library, she just happened to come across city directories for every small town in Nebraska. In these city directories for these small towns, they list who you are, where you live, what your occupation is, all the information you'd want to know about this small town. And so she pulled down the city directory off the shelf from the town that he was from and looked up his name and his family's name. And it said that his father was an electrician's assistant, not a retired executive, not someone who worked for this big satellite company, but an electrician's assistant. And at that moment, the lie seemed very sad.

I sort of felt like if I had confronted him, something terrible would have happened. He really just would have exploded, that he would have broke down, because someone would have kicked a big hole in this wall that he was trying to erect between himself and the truth.

I was kind of scared, to tell you the truth, because once you learn that someone is capable of just completely deceiving you about who they are, where they're from, what their family is like, then you never know what's going to happen, because I found this out sometime before the end of the school year, so I had to live with this man. I had to sleep with this man in a small university dormitory room where my narrow single bed was about three feet away from his narrow single bed. And here was a man who would look at me with his eyes just glowing, with this very earnest, sort of frantically earnest look in his eyes, telling me about his father's job and how important it had been. I think he believed it. I think he really thought that he had done these things.

You have to consider the fact that he was an only child. And have you ever been to a really small town? If you've ever been to a really small town and you're a different kind of kid-- it doesn't really matter in what way you're different. But there's a good possibility that while you're growing up, you might look around you and not see anybody your own age with whom you feel you have anything in common. He might have grown up feeling really lonely. And so how did he respond? He created this fantasy where he wasn't just friends with one kid, he made it sound like-- he would talk about going swimming in their pool where there would be a dozen of them running around.

You can imagine them playing soccer on the lawn together. And there was this whole little community. You could definitely see the desire behind it. I guess I could see it because-- although the town that I was from was nowhere near as small as the town that he was from-- I grew up in an environment where I looked around me as a kid and just never really felt like there was anybody with whom I had much in common.

At that time, I had never been to Boston either. And I went through a real Kennedy phase like a lot of kids do. I had a picture of John F. Kennedy on my wall, and the first biography that I ever read was a biography of John F. Kennedy. I even read Profiles in Courage.

John F. Kennedy

I'm asking each of you to be pioneers towards that new frontier. My call is to the young in heart--

Man

If you're trying to embroider a life, a life in America, what myth are you going to try to hook yourself onto? Who are you going to pick on? It seems to me like the Kennedys might be most people's first choice of a myth. If I were going to pick one, that's probably the one I would pick too. In a way, maybe that's why I was so responsive to this.

I could picture him at the wheel of his father's plane. I sort of had this picture in my head of him driving the plane. And when you think about flying from Nebraska to Boston, that's like a three-hour flight, I think. And you just sort of imagine him going over Iowa and Illinois and Ohio and Indiana. And I just sort of saw him in my head doing this. And then, maybe the Kennedys have their own airstrip or something. Did he go to Logan International Airport right in the middle of downtown Boston? If he landed at Logan International Airport, did he just park the plane there, and did Ted have a limo waiting for him? I thought about all these things. I just kind of played with the idea myself. So in a way, I guess I was having some fun with the whole thing too.

Ira Glass

You're listening to a special edition of This American Life, ah hour of true stories about compulsive liars.

John F. Kennedy

I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents.

Ira Glass

More lies in a minute when our program continues.

Act 2.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Most weeks, of course, on this program, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to tackle that theme. This week, however, as April Fools' Day approaches, we are taking a break from all that to bring you this hour-long special on liars, compulsive liars. Margy Rochlin narrates.

Margy Rochlin

The fact is, people want to believe in lies. People want to believe compulsive liars.

Paul Ekman

The lies they tell are usually appealing. And most lies told by anyone, most of them succeed because the person being lied to in some sense wants to believe in the lie. It's like you want to believe the magician. You don't want to believe it's a trick.

Margy Rochlin

And you could keep believing the lie forever, except for this fact. A compulsive liar is compulsive. They can't leave well enough alone. They keep adding to the lie.

Brian King

Pushing things to the edge. Maybe that's why you do it as a liar. Maybe it loses its punch when you've repeated the same story over and over again, and it's universally accepted. Maybe you have to embellish it a little bit so that it is interesting. Probably what's more likely the case is that, when your lie is believed and it doesn't solve your internal pain, that you have to crank it up a notch so that maybe this time, I'll feel better. Maybe this time I'll be acceptable to myself. And maybe that's what pushes people ever closer to the brink and ultimately to the point where their lies are preposterous.

Margy Rochlin

There's this thing that happens when you're involved with a compulsive liar. You go through this phase where you don't believe the things you're hearing, but you don't exactly disbelieve them either. You're in limbo. You think this person's nice, and the lies they're telling are so big that to think that they're lying would mean acknowledging that they're kind of crazy. So instead, you don't think anything.

It's like this response that some animals have to danger called tonic immobility. When they're threatened and they can't get away, they just play dead. Their instincts tell them to stay motionless, and the problem is, once they've put themselves to sleep, it's hard to wake up.

Girl

I loved my father dearly, and I didn't want to believe these things about him. So I would just try to put it in the back of my mind and not think about it.

Margy Rochlin

This teenager, she stayed in that limbo phase for about a year. Her mother watched it happen.

Woman

My daughter went along with this thinking that her father certainly wouldn't lie to her, though I had definitely told her that she had to be careful of this kind of thing.

Margy Rochlin

Here's what happened. She had a $1,400 college scholarship and sent the money to West Point, where she was enrolled. But she quit after basic training and switched to this other college in Virginia. Her parents were recently divorced and broke.

Woman

She was depending on the return of this deposit at West Point. It never came, never came.

Girl

I didn't know exactly when the check was coming. I didn't know when they were sending it, because my dad was receiving all my mail.

Woman

He kept telling her that the check hadn't come.

Girl

My dad just kept telling me different stories.

Woman

For months.

Girl

When he would tell me reasons why the check wasn't coming to me, I had trouble believing it, but I let it slide. I thought he loved me so much that he wouldn't do anything like this to me. And I just didn't want to not believe him. But I probably should have.

He told me that it was sent to my old address where my mom lived before she moved, and it had to be sent back to West Point to have a new check made. And then it was delayed up at West Point for some reason.

Woman

He told her that he had had various calls with West Point and that they had said they were deducting certain amounts for uniforms. The check never came.

Girl

Then another time happened where he said it was lost in the mail, and it never got there. And I didn't know what to believe. I was like, well, what do I say? But I didn't really think hard about it and think, oh, my dad's not truthful and he's this and that. At that time, I didn't think about that. I just didn't want to.

My mom told me stories about what my father had done to her.

Woman

I lived with this man for 19 years, and I knew that he lied. If he told me the sun was shining, I would have to look before I believed him. It got to that point.

Girl

When my mom told me the situation about what my father had done, I had trouble believing what she was saying. I would agree with her, but deep inside, I didn't know exactly how to feel, because I was split in between them a lot after the separation occurred. I was the person in the middle. And I had to go in between the two. And I didn't know what to believe of what I was hearing. And I just tried to blow off anything I heard so that it just wouldn't affect me.

Woman

Finally, he said, a check has come, and I have taken it to my attorney's office for safekeeping because there are thefts in our neighborhood, and I don't want someone to steal this check.

Girl

So he had it locked up in the lawyer's safe. And I thought, I guess that's understandable. However, it's kind of stupid. But I didn't want to not believe him with it.

Then he told me that the lawyer had to be called back into the military because of the Operation Desert Storm. They had to go back into the reserves. And he said that he was the only one who could open the safe. And I thought that was pretty stupid too, because what if he died? Who would be able to get into the safe then? There had to be someone who could open the safe. Either his partner or his secretary or someone could get into the safe.

So I finally got too suspicious and thought it was a very stupid thing he was saying to me.

Woman

And then finally I said, look, you really need to call the attorney's office.

Girl

And I called the lawyer's office and found out that the man didn't even know about it. And he was actually at home, had not been sent away. And when he got on the phone, I was just like, what? I could not believe it. I was in shock. I mean, I almost had trouble talking to him, because I didn't expect him to be there in the first place. And I had asked him about the check. And he said he had never heard anything about it, and he hadn't seen my dad in a long time. It was just like a load just was put on my shoulders. And I just could not believe it. My whole body just went limp.

So that evening, I called my dad. And I was crying on the phone. And I asked him what he had done with it. And he said that he had lost the check in the mail. And I just didn't believe him. Finally, I just got to the point where I just wasn't believing what he was saying.

Woman

She called me, and she said, you were right. And she's crying on the phone. It's just horrible.

I don't have to deal with him anymore. And that's what my younger daughter said. "This is worse for us than it even was for you, Mom, because you got away. And he will always be my father." And a man or anyone who lies like this is not in control. I don't think that he's in control. And that's the hardest part for me. I can't protect them.

Girl

I was Daddy's little girl, and everybody knew it. And I loved him more than anything in the whole world. Every once in a while I think that this could not have happened and that it can't be real. And I don't want to think about it and admit that it happened. And sometimes I try to put my mind on other things and try not to think about it, but it's always there. And it is always digging at me. It just hurts. It hurts in your heart. I feel like a part of my heart was taken out when he did this to me. It's really hard to explain, but it just feels like part of me is missing now that I don't trust my father anymore.

I'll never know why he did it. I don't think he'll ever admit it to me why.

Woman

She was Daddy's girl. She is no longer.

Margy Rochlin

When the big lie comes down, it makes you question the fabric of all of your experiences. You don't believe anybody. You don't believe anything. And the lies act like a weird kind of antimatter on all of your memories. You don't know what to think about the past. It shakes up your view of the world as a safe place.

So to restore some kind of order, you launch this private investigation. You make telephone calls. You look for clues in old letters. Then you combine the evidence with your own memories and start sorting everything into two different piles. There's a pile of real things and a pile of things that were totally invented. You think that if you can make this classification system work, then you can just throw out the pile of fake stuff, reconstruct reality, and go on with your life.

The problem is, it can't be done. There's all these tiny pieces of data which don't make sense but are too important to discard. So as a matter of convenience, you start this third pile and you call it "don't know." So now there's "true," "false," and "don't know." And unfortunately, the "don't know" pile, it's where almost everything ends up.

Woman

The best thing that could happen to me, the thing that would allow me to go to my grave probably more stabilized would be if he said, no, this is what the truth is really. This is what was true, and this is what wasn't.

Margy Rochlin

Sometimes you can spend years sorting out the truth. This woman runs a dance company. She had a fiance. He seemed to have a lot of money. They lived in an expensive apartment, and he bought her a car. They were together for three years.

Woman

Then weird things started happening. Citicorp Bank called me to say when I was going to make a payment. And I said, you've got to be out of your minds. I hate you guys. You have investments in South Africa. You screwed over a bank account of mine a long time ago. I wouldn't have a Citicorp-- "Well, you have three Citicorp accounts." And they're, like, $10,000 overdue.

So I call him up, and he's like, I can explain it. I'm like, good. He's like, send me the information. He has this way of talking to me that will calm me down and make it seem like everything you ever wanted could come true. And he also had this demeanor that, I'll take care of everything. Don't worry. I'll take care of everything. And I would believe that he would take care of it.

I figured out later how he did all of this stuff and how easy it is for anyone to do. Once a week, you get something in the mail that says, you have been preapproved for a gold card or whatever. Most people just pitch those in the garbage. Well, he didn't. He filled them all out. And since we'd filled out one credit card together, he knew all my information. Your next-door neighbor could be doing it to you right now, and you don't know.

There were three Citibank cards. They were starting repossession on my car. There was $8,000 on that. There was a gold card that had a $5,000 credit limit, and it was run up beyond its credit limit. All told, I owed, like, $65,000 to $75,000. I was making $26,000 a year. And I found out about all of this all in, like, 48 hours, because I found out that he had been seeing someone else.

We had had this really tumultuous thing where he called me up in a total fried state, and I didn't know what was wrong. And I mean, he was an emotional basket case. It turns out he'd been dating someone in New York, and she dumped him. And he called me for sympathy. And he couldn't really tell me why he was so distraught. So I called him back. I asked him about it, and the whole story comes out, that he'd been seeing this other woman. He was madly in love with her. She had dumped him and had just gone to Australia to marry someone else. On the one hand, I'm being the good friend. "Well, how do you feel about this?" And then I'm like, "What are you, crazy?"

I mean, I felt literally like someone had ripped my innards out, like my whole world was imploding, which is why I went to bed. Everything in the air was so heavy. It was too much work to get to the phone. It was too much work to put food in my mouth. It was too much work to get up, put my clothes on, and go to the office. And my friends said, you have to get better. Too many of us need you, which is always a good way to jump-start.

Unfortunately, I'm one of these people who needs to be needed. And even though I hate that role that I've carved for myself, it's like-- you know, your cat needs you. My cat has saved me from potential suicide twice. Ariel needs to be fed. She needs someone to clean the litter box.

It's so easy to be taken in. It's this fantasy that they create that you want to be in. I mean, part of it, I'm madly in love with this guy. And he said, you're an artist. You should be doing artwork. You shouldn't be dealing with your finances. I'll support you. I'll take over all the finances. And it was like God dropped out of the sky and said, "Here. You've worked hard. You deserve this. Here."

Money has always been a really stressful thing for me. My family didn't have a lot of money. You have to understand my history. I was the oldest child. When my dad died, I was 13. My mother didn't know how to deal with it. I had three kids under me. I became the second adult in the family when I was 13 years old. I started drinking coffee. I started going to parent-teacher meetings. I was always mother to everyone else. And I was the head dancer in a company, and then I had my own company. And here was someone who came along and said, "I'll take some of that weight off. I'll take care of you." And I've been one of these people who always had to do that for everyone else. So your deepest, darkest, secret desire is that someone, somewhere will do that for you.

The thing about him is, I think that he was probably really, really intuitive, because I think, perhaps, what he's able to do is become a mirror of your secret fantasy life, of your secret desires. And I don't know, because I'd like to be a fly on the wall and see if he does that with other people, whether the fantasies are always different, or whether he's so ingrained-- See, there's two things. Either he's this kind of person who's so intuitive that he can create a fantasy that mirrors whatever your fantasy life is, or he picks out people who will buy his fantasy life. And I don't know which one it is.

He had this entire fiction of his life. I believe some of it was fiction. I'm sure some of it was true, because I don't think he would have ended up the way that he ended up if some of the stories that he told were not true. When he told these stories, it was passionate. It was like the best theater you've ever attended. It was the best monologue.

He was from Ireland. He was an earl or a lord. I can never figure out what those people are. His father had been very prominent in politics. He had been given a different last name. He had been given the last name of the ancestral family because his father had singled him out as being the chosen son or whatever. And then his father totally mistreated him and abused him emotionally. And the IRA blew up their home at some point. It was this tragic existence, this really compelling tale of a person kind of drifting through life, looking for something they could hang on to.

He was a director. He directed commercials for one of the big advertising agencies. And then when his wife died, he made these brilliant commercials. And then he sold everything he owned. And he went down, and he became a mercenary fighter in border disputes down in South America. Maybe he did that. Maybe he didn't.

The problem that I still have is I don't know which were lies. I don't know what's real and what's not. I mean, I've sat and thought, well, that couldn't be true. But I went to Ireland. I went to the place where his house supposedly would be. And there is a house that underwent significant damage. If I really cared to make a life project out of this, I could research every aspect of what he told me.

Oh, he didn't completely disappear, though. He still will call me. I'll be cooking dinner at my house. My phone number's not listed. I've moved twice since he knew me. And he'll call. "How are you?" And I'll be like, "I'm fine."

People have said, do you think he really loved you? Or people have told me, he never really loved you. He just used you. My mother was key among that school of people. And this is part of what messes with my head still, because I don't believe that I could be so far off the mark. I mean, I believe that he truly loved me. When he looked into my eyes and he said, I love you, when he calls me back and says he-- there's no need for him, at this point-- if he really is trying to make this con go down, he wouldn't try to keep in contact with me. He keeps coming back. And I believe it's because he really did love me.

I think for a while afterwards, I created a new fiction. This is a bad dream. And I'm going to wake up, and he's going to come back. And he will have gotten this fabulous job, and he's going to pay off all these debts. And I'm not going to have to deal with this. It didn't happen. But he kept saying, I swear to you, I will pay you back. I will make this up to you. I really think he believed it. I think he had no basis in reality in general. And I really wanted to believe him. I really wanted to believe that he wasn't this horrible ogre who had done this to me.

I don't know. Am I not vindictive? Sometimes I'd like to kill him. Mostly I'd just like to have the dream back. I really wish that there had been someone out there existing in the world who was who he said he was. That would be great.

I think that he truly, truly loved me and probably didn't want things to turn out the way they did. But he was so deeply entrenched in that. He couldn't say, OK, erase everything I've ever said to you. This is the real story. This is who I really am. And he may very well have thought, this is going to be the one that I'm going to change. He talked about having children, long-range commitment kinds of things.

Because the house of cards didn't fall down for at least a year and a half. Bills were being paid. It was one of these catch-up games. So maybe he thought, I'm just going to get one more credit card and pay this off to keep it afloat, because I'm going to get this job. And I'm going to be making $80,000 a year, and we're not going to have to worry about anything. And just the next credit card. Oh, I've got to get one more. And I'll get one more, and I'll pay those off, just to keep it going, just keep it going. For the longest time, even after I said to him, look at what you've done, look at what you've done to me, he said, I will make it up to you. I will pay every cent back. I don't know.

Maybe he just sold me all that. Maybe he's the best actor in the whole world, Academy Award winner. And maybe he just creates this character, this tragic-- I don't know. It's like standing on air. It's like nothing is too far-fetched. Nothing is impossible. It's like a whole crisis of faith. What do you believe in? I don't know what I can believe in. Can you believe in things you see? Can you believe in things you hold? Can you believe in looking into someone? Can you believe when someone swears? Can you believe? What do you believe?

Margy Rochlin

Once I interviewed a parapsychologist, and this is what he told me about ghosts. The peskiest ghosts, the kind that do the most haunting, are the ones who left this world so abruptly that they don't even know that they're dead. He said it's like if two people driving in a car get into this horrible car wreck where the driver is safe but the passenger is catapulted through the front windshield and dies. The parapsychologist said that the soul of the passenger can be ripped from their body so quickly that their energy remains. The specter, it's confused. Everything happened so suddenly. And that's why it keeps bothering those it left behind.

Once you discover that everything someone has been telling you about themselves is basically nonsense, it's like you suddenly find yourself alone in that car. The person who was sitting next to you no longer exists. All that's left is this vapory memory. And figuring out what to think about the experience ends up taking people years. You're stuck for a while between several contradictory feelings about the liar-- pity, anger, sympathy. You don't know what think. You wait until you just don't care about it anymore. And the people I talked to, they say they view the world differently now.

Woman

Now I don't trust anyone. My husband says, you are the most suspicious woman I've ever encountered. It's like, I go through his mail.

Man

Ever since then, every time I meet someone who strikes me as dishonest, there's this moment of real fear when I wonder, what could they do to me?

Girl

See, it's one of the reasons why I live in this apartment alone, because I would never, ever move in with someone I didn't know. And even people that you do know, they don't turn out to be what you thought they were.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program on compulsive liars was produced by Margy Rochlin and myself, narrated by Margy Rochlin. Post-production by Peter Clowney. If you'd like a copy of this program, call us at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.