I’m going to see “Shattered Glass” tonight, and I couldn’t be more excited. People like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair fascinate me, because in my life, I’ve been friends with two different people who’ve turned out to be compulsive liars. Each time, it took me months or years to unravel all their bullshit, and to this day, I still don’t understand why either of them did it.
The first time it happened to me was in High School. In my little Scooby group, Joe was the quiet, shy one. And then, in Senior year, he was the first one of us to have a girlfriend. (For the record, Joe is not the friend who just came out to me, who was obviously girl-shy for his own reasons.) Once Joe was dating, he underwent a complete social transformation. He was outgoing, self-confident, and he wouldn’t shut up about Ann. Ann did the funniest thing yesterday… Ann got him the nicest birthday gift… Ann’s favorite movie was “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”. Be excellent to each other, party on, dudes! Ann totally transformed Joe, and we couldn’t wait to meet her. But she was extremely hard to pin down.
See, Ann lived about fifteen minutes away. She went to a different school. She didn’t know anyone we knew or hang out anywhere we hung out. She was a year younger than us and didn’t yet have a driver’s license. Every time we wanted to meet Ann, there was always something preventing her from getting together with us. She was out of town for a family wedding. She was on vacation. She was hospitalized with a chronic knee injury. (And never at a nearby hospital. She needed to go to a hospital about an hour away in northern Jersey… you know, where they had specialists for her kind of ailment).
Every excuse was always meticulously detailed. The wedding was a Greek wedding, and Joe went as her guest. He described the food, the dancing, the plate-breaking exuberance of each of Ann’s colorful relatives. He knew specifics about her knee problem – how it happened in the first place, what she was doing when it started acting up again. Joe told very elaborate stories about Ann. He told us about all five of Ann’s younger sisters, the youngest being “the twins”. He knew all their names and ages, and he told us how her parents had desperately wanted a son. Ann’s mom was pregnant again, but this baby was also going to be a girl. Every weekend, Joe spent time at Ann’s house helping her parents decorate the nursery for the baby’s arrival. Joe told us about Ann’s friends, about how she wanted to study psychology in college, hopefully Princeton, and about how he was teaching her to drive.
This went on for most of senior year. We suspected early on that maybe there was no Ann, and we debated it endlessly when Joe wasn’t around. Something wasn’t right, and it wasn’t just Ann’s constant unavailability – or the fact that Joe still seemed to have plenty of free time to hang out with us. We couldn’t be sure, but we all suspected that a girlfriend would take up at least a small amount of a guy’s time. But given how often Joe was hanging out with us, we weren’t sure just when he and Ann were having all the adventures he was constantly talking about.
From time to time, we’d catch a small inconsistency in Joe’s story. He’d say that he went with Ann’s parents to pick up the new baby’s crib, and one of us would remember him saying something about picking up a crib a month earlier. He’d tell a story about Ann’s sister Erin, and one of us would vaguely recall that Ann’s sisters included an Emily, but no Erin – maybe. (With so many sisters, it was hard for us to keep their names straight, a fact which could only have worked in Joe’s favor.) Then he accepted another girl’s invitation to go to the prom. Ann couldn’t make it because she was going to… yes, another Greek wedding. Was he getting lazy? Was he reusing lies?
The case for or against Ann was entirely circumstantial, so when questioning her existence, my friends and I tended to rely mostly on pure logic. Again and again, we kept returning to the same agrugments:
ARGUMENT #1: There had to be an Ann, because Joe was incapable of keeping such an elaborate lie going for so long. The idea that somebody could make up so much and keep all their inventions straight in their head for such a long period of time just seemed too far-fetched. It would take some kind of demented mastermind.
ARGUMENT #2: There had to be an Ann, because lying was not in Joe’s character. He was no demented mastermind. He was a nice, shy kid who published his own personal newspaper and had a monogrammed bowling ball. He didn’t even curse.
ARGUMENT #3: There had to be an Ann, because what kind of an asshole lies to his friends like that?
ARGUMENT #4: There had to be an Ann, because the change in Joe’s demeanor was undeniable. There was no mistaking it: our meek, sullen friend was happy. Really happy, in a way we’d never seen him before.
ARGUMENT #5: There had to be an Ann, because what motive would Joe have to make one up? None of us had girlfriends, so there was no reason being single should make Joe insecure. (Yes, my friends in high school were all nerds. We knew it then, and I won’t deny it now.)
But as time stretched on, still with no concrete proof of Ann, we started to see the counterargument to each argument. Maybe Joe was a demented mastermind. Maybe he was an asshole. Maybe the change in his character wasn’t due to sweet, adorable puppy love. Maybe he was getting off on jerking his friends around.
The more complicated the Ann story got, the more complicated our discussions became. Someone would argue that there was no Ann because Joe didn’t have a picture of her. Who doesn’t have a picture of his own girlfriend? But then someone else would point out how easy it would be for Joe to dig up a phony picture if he wanted to. He could cut something out of a magazine or fish out a photo of a cousin from a family album. If Joe was going to such lengths to lie to us, why would he stop at producing a fake picture? In our twisted adolescent logic, Joe’s refusal to present a picture was testament to his honesty, making it less likely that he was lying.
Gradually, Joe got wind of our suspicions. But rather than retreat, he just got bolder. He would taunt us with our own doubts. “I don’t think Marcus exists,” he’d say, when Marcus was sitting directly across the table from him. Or he’d argue his case with a mixture of impatience and condescension. “So if there’s no Ann, then where was I last weekend?”
We became more skeptical as time went on, and one day, Joe told us that Ann’s family was moving. With the baby due any day, they had found a bigger house about two hours away. It was going to be rough driving up there all the time to see her – Ann still didn’t have her license, so there was no chance of her coming down our way – but Joe was happy for Ann’s family, and he described their new home, of course, in exquisite detail.
When I heard the news, I had an immediate question for Joe. “Did they just decide to move very suddenly?” I asked.
“No, they’ve been planning to move since Ann’s mom got pregnant. Their old house just wasn’t big enough.”
“Then how come a couple of months ago you were over at their old house decorating the nursery?”
Joe assured me I had misunderstood him. I don’t remember exactly what detail he claimed I had wrong — he was fixing up the nursery in the new house, not the old one, or he was merely shopping for nursery decorations, or I was completely wrong and he had never mentioned a nursery at all. What I do remember was the way he said it. Confidently, casually, emphatically. He didn’t behave at all as if someone had just caught him in a monumental lie, as I clearly had. He didn’t even flinch.
As far as I was concerned, I had my smoking gun. Our friend Dave remained unconvinced. Dave had been Joe’s best friend for the last five or six years, which was an eternity at that age, and he knew Joe better than anyone. He kept referring to Arguments #1-5, as well as what I’ll call “the Mikey Factor”. Mikey was Joe’s little brother, a twelve-year-old asshole who farted out loud and threw worms at people. His idea of a killer joke was to depants Joe when we went bowling. (I know, I know. I’m inviting the depantsing googles back again.) If there was an opportunity to humiliate Joe, Mikey would pounce. But Mikey backed Joe up on the Ann thing, insisting that he had met her. We all agreed there was no way Mikey would cover for his brother’s lie.
Now that I was convinced there was no Ann, all I had left to do was punch a hole in the Mikey Factor. I needed to get Mikey alone to grill him on the subject. This would not be easy, since we never saw Mikey without Joe at his side. One day, by fate, I got my chance. I was driving the gang around, and Joe needed to stop at home to pick something up. We parked in his driveway while he ran inside, and as my car idled in the driveway, Mikey ran up from the backyard to throw dirt at my car. See, wasn’t he a little punk? But instead of yelling at him or chasing at him like I normally would’ve, I just rolled down my window and told him I wanted to talk to him.
Mikey was skeptical of my intentions. He cautiously approach the passenger seat. “Yeah?”
I spoke softly and urgently, knowing we probably had less than a minute before Joe came back. “Have you really met Ann?”
“You’re not just covering for Joe?” Dave said from the back seat.
“See?” Dave said, smirking at me. That was all the evidence he needed.
“Wait a second,” I said. “Ann, Joe’s girlfriend? Ann Kay.”
“Who?” Mikey asked. “You mean Ann Murphy?”
Dave stopped smirking. Ann Murphy was a girl in our bowling league. (That’s right. Bowling league. I said we were nerds, didn’t I?) We had seen Ann Murphy earlier that day, and she and Joe were definitely not dating. She probably didn’t even know Joe’s name. “No,” Dave said. “His girlfriend’s name is Ann Kay.”
“He told me it was Ann Murphy,” Mikey said. We were all speechless, including Mikey. Even he knew what was going on. Joe had duped Mikey into assisting him. He told Mikey he was dating the girl from bowling league. Mikey had met that before because he used to be in the league himself. So when anyone asked questions, Mikey could answer truthfully while helping Joe lie. Ingenious.
Before any of us could respond, the front door of the house opened and Joe came jogging out. He was smiling and joking, in a great mood. He had no idea what we were all thinking. We hung out the rest of the day, and Joe continued to talk about Ann, about her new baby sister, and about how she was studying for the SATs – she had to do better next time if she wanted to get into Princeton. Her studying meant she wouldn’t be able to hang out with Joe next weekend, which meant he was free to go to a movie if we wanted. Did we want to go to a movie? We played along, not encouraging him, but not confronting him. We didn’t know what to say. It all just seemed so sad.
That was the last time Joe ever mentioned Ann. Mikey must’ve said something to him, because none of the rest of us did. After almost a year of deception, it was a little anticlimactic. Joe never told us a story about how Ann broke up with him, or how she moved to Zimbabwe, or how she died in a horrible fire or a freak tractor accident. The lie just went away, as if it had never happened. I try not to be mad at Joe for lying. I still don’t understand what motivated him to do it, but it has to be some kind of sickness. If I’m mad at Joe for any reason, it’s because he didn’t give Ann a proper farewell. Like with any great fictional character, I felt like I knew Ann. I’d come to care about her. I knew she wasn’t real, but part of me was still hoping she’d get into Princeton. I wish Joe had allowed Ann to have some closure. She deserved better.
The next year at college, Joe had a new girlfriend. Dave assured me this one was real, because Joe had a picture this time. Looking back, it makes me think of Homer Simpson’s line on lying: “It takes two people to lie. One to lie, and one to listen.” I think what keeps people like Stephen Glass and my friend Joe going is that it’s never hard to find someone to listen.
A few years later, Joe married a woman he met in a chat room. I love the thought of Joe meeting a woman on the internet, where everyone lies. I wonder what their first meeting was like, when she noticed that the guy she had been talking to didn’t actually resemble Antonio Banderas or stand eight feet tall. Maybe she was a liar, too, and that’s why they fell in love.
I couldn’t make it to Joe’s wedding, but I heard from my friend Greg that it was a really nice ceremony. A lot of Joe’s family was there, along with a real-life, flesh-and-blood bride who was a lot like Joe had described her and who definitely existed. Greg also met a lot of Joe’s college friends, who he said were really friendly and really happy for Joe. And without exception, each of Joe’s college friends had a question they desperately wanted to ask Greg:
“So… Joe doesn’t really have a sister, does he?”