1. God. In the story of the Garden of Eden, it’s the serpent who gets the blame for lying. But does he really deceive anyone? He just leads Adam and Eve towards the apple of sin. God, however, warns the happy couple that if they eat the fruit they will drop dead on the spot. Well, they do - and they don’t. God was being disingenuous, to say the least.
2. Odysseus. The protagonist of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey, Odysseus was a peerless sailor, warrior and lover. He was also a brilliant liar - a “master deceiver among mortals”. Odysseus lies in the pursuit of victory and love, sending a Trojan Horse into Troy, and telling fibs to the goddess Athene, his wife Penelope and Penelope’s aged father, Laertes. Homer contrasts him to Achilles, who hates all liars. But it’s Odysseus who is the true hero of the story, despite - or perhaps because of - his talent for deceit.
3. Titus Oates. In 1679 England was seized by anti-Catholic fervour in response to allegations of a French-backed plot to murder Charles II, replace him with his brother James, and restore England to Catholicism. The House of Commons condemned this “damnable and hellish plot”. Crowds took to the streets to burn effigies of the Pope. Many Catholics were arrested, and some were executed. It later turned out that the whole plot was the invention of a virtuoso liar called Titus Oates who had earlier feigned conversion to the Catholic church with the aim of wreaking havoc on it. Oates was convicted of perjury and put in the stocks.
4. George Psalmanazar. In 1704, the hottest book in London was a description of life on an island near Japan. Entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, its author was one George Psalmanazar, a “native of said island”. The book’s lurid descriptions of polygamy, human sacrifice, cannibalism and infanticide made it a sensation and its author a celebrity, courted by Samuel Johnson and other luminaries of the day. But Formosa didn’t exist. Psalmanazar had made it all up, and invented an identity for himself (he was actually from France). His true name remains unknown today.
5. Anna Anderson. In 1918, the year following the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks executed all surviving members of the royal Romanov family, to ensure that no campaign for restoration could rally around a surviving heir. There were soon rumours that at least one of the royals had survived, and several people came forward to claim royal lineage. The most celebrated was Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, and pursued her case through the German courts. Anderson became a celebrity, supported by many who believed her story. She did bear a resemblance to Anastasia. But, long after her death, DNA tests on a lock of her hair proved beyond doubt that her claims had been false.
6. Kim Philby. Shortly after the outbreak of the second world war, a British journalist called Kim Philby joined his country’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. His recruiters were unaware that Philby was a communist sympathiser, friendly with Soviet intelligence agents. Philby rose to become head of the agency’s anti-Soviet section, running operations against the Russians while passing secrets to his Soviet minders. He came under suspicion after his colleagues Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean fled to the Soviet Union, but he convinced the British of his innocence. At a press conference, he declared, calmly and confidently, that “I have never been a communist.” Philby became a Soviet citizen in 1963. That’s the trouble with spies: if you hire someone to lie for you, you can hardly be surprised when they end up lying to you.
7. Jonathan Aitken. After resigning from Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet to fight a libel battle against the Guardian, Jonathan Aitken declared: ‘If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight. The fight against falsehood and those who peddle it.’ The case, which stretched on for over two years, involved a series of claims made by the Guardian about Aitken’s relationships with Saudi arms dealers, including meetings he allegedly held with them as their guest in the Ritz Hotel in Paris while a government minister. As Aitken knew when he delivered his stirring battle-cry, the key allegations made by The Guardian were true. He lost the case, which destroyed his reputation and his career. Some of the lies Aitken told at his trial were entirely superfluous. He may have experienced what deception experts term “duping delight” - pleasure in deceiving others. Aitken has since become a reformed character who campaigns for better prison conditions.
8. Bill Clinton. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Clinton famously lied to the world - and his wife - about the nature of his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He was pretty convincing too, employing all the extraordinary communication skills he used in pursuit of more noble goals before and since. Perhaps more than anyone else, Clinton embodies the way in which lying comes bound up with our best characteristics as well as our worst. Contrary to stereotype, great liars tend to be highly intelligent, sociable, charming and empathetic.
9. Bernie Madoff. In 2008 Bernie Madoff confessed that his investment firm was “one big lie”. He had conned about $50 billion out of investors by pretending to invest their money while in reality using it to pay out ‘returns’ to other investors, and of course keeping some of it for himself. The scheme collapsed when he ran out of new dupes. Madoff had borrowed from Charles Ponzi, who had come up with the scam in the early 20th century, though Madoff took it to a whole new level. On one reading, Madoff was a man who practised a little dishonesty but then found himself caught up in an ever-expanding web of lies. In another, he was a psychopath with no sense of right or wrong, and planned the whole thing from the beginning. We may never know for sure.
10. You. We hate liars, and lying. But lying is something pretty much all of us practice, and on a regular basis. The psychologist Bella De Paulo asked her subjects to keep a diary of their interactions on a daily basis and concluded that everyone tells between one and two lies a day. This may be conservative: another psychologist found that strangers will tell three lies within ten minutes of meeting each other. We lie about how we’re feeling, about the meal we’ve just been served, about whether we’ve already sent that email. Of course, we think our lies are ‘white lies’ - but then, so does everyone else. It was the strange contradiction at the heart of our attitude to lying that led me to write ‘Born Liars’.
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