From Susan Shapiro Barash, the best-selling author of "Tripping the Prom Queen," comes a provocative look at the reasons behind female deception. "Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets" reveals how society doles out mixed messages to women, fostering the lies they tell. Here's an excerpt:
Ever since we were little girls, we have been encouraged to keep secrets.
I was raised a good girl, like most women in America, where instinctively we knew that a secret was sacred, I was taught to never betray a trust. The fact that a mishandled secret could endanger someone was shown to me by my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers, so I knew to believe this. I remember feeling special when someone shared a secret, and choosing carefully with whom I shared my secrets. By high school, secrets between girlfriends were a big part of the picture; who had a crush on whom, how far someone had gone with her boyfriend, who had been out all night while her mother thought she was sleeping at a friend’s house.
When I was a young wife, and friendly with other young married women, secrets had taken on another hue. We whispered about shopping excursions, avoiding our mothers-in-law, how we could put off pregnancy or accelerate getting pregnant, about how much money we made at work, how much our husbands made. By the time we had children the circumstances had shifted, and our secrets changed; now we had secrets about our children. We now lied to the kindergarten teacher about our children’s science project or to our boss about why we were late for work, careful not to disclose that it had to do with our child.
Throughout It all, I had the sense that these were lies of necessity, but not highly immoral. I believed that women lied to get through socially and as mothers, daughters, wives. These weren’t essential secrets and lies.
Or were they?
The first definition of a lie told by either gender, according to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive.” Webster’s definition of the truth is “sincerity in action, character and utterance.” If we take these definitions literally, would it mean that women are liars? Or is the value of the truth for women found in a version of a female lie?
In fact, every woman lies and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Women use secrets to facilitate their lives in a culture that encourages us to be deceptive. Out of the five hundred women interviewed for this project, from diverse backgrounds, ages and areas of the country, the same comments were made over and over again. “Of course I have secrets, women always have secrets,” my interviewees said. “Sure, I lie, women have to lie, don’t they?” these women asked.
Despite the great strides of the women’s movement and the ever-increasing options for women in the work world, in politics, in choices to marry or not, to mother or not, there is a sense of missing out, a lack of satisfaction in the lives of many women. That’s when the lie becomes part of the process; whether a woman benefits from her covert activities or brings harm not only to herself but to those close to her, the secret and the lie are irresistible. A woman’s lies to friends, children, husband, lover, adult siblings, and coworkers are societally induced — it’s a tool used when we’re missing out, when the life we dreamed of eludes us, when the going gets tough. It’s interesting how women recognize a lie coming from another woman (men often miss the lie, as do children, especially sons) and often endorse the behavior. Unless a woman’s lie deliberately hurts another woman, it’s as if we all belong to the same club, where the expedience of our lies proliferate and rule the day.
Women tell all sorts of liesThere are infidelity lies, financial lies, lies about children and their achievements, plastic surgery lies, and smaller, white lies about time and commitments that border on excuses. There are bigger secrets, the ones that require real work to maintain. Some are dark and haunting and demand a selective brand of secret telling, such as lies about domestic abuse, a drinking problem, or having a husband or child with an addiction. If women’s lies and secrets are used as a survival technique, it is also a means by which women get what they want. Where a man will lie for a secret as a quick fix and be sloppy in his lie, a woman will carefully guard her secret — this secret is a part of her existence, it can make her feel powerful.
For every book I’ve written, and for every study I’ve conducted, women have confessed their secrets. In my book on second wives; unfaithful wives; mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law; sisters, stepmothers, and mothers, I have listened to women reveal credit card debts, sisters admit to seducing their sibling’s boyfriend or husband, married women having secret trysts, and a lifelong pathology of family secrets.
What could be more riveting than a secret, defined by Webster’s as “working with hidden aims or methods”? In the classic film Belle de Jour, Catherine Deneuve’s character works at a brothel, which her husband knows nothing about, all the while feigning she is a pristine wife. And isn’t Daisy the one driving her husband’s car when she inadvertently runs down her husband’s lover in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby? Candace Bushnell’s novel Lipstick Jungle offers female characters who lie to get ahead and manage their lives. These dramas resonate with real life. Not only does it seem to be part of our nature to lie, but we’ve been taught by our grandmothers, mothers, and other female role models that a shade of gray is the standard, rather than white against black.
While I neither condemn nor condone the lies women tell, I recognize how central they are to a woman’s existence. For the majority of women, the hard work of the lie is the payoff — as long as we pretend to be good girls, cleverly covering our tracks.
Female lies are easy to spin
Women justify how they profit from a lie, using it as their armor and shield.
This falls into the “greater good” theory, a safeguarding of family or ourselves, and therefore has an ethical explanation. There are many instances where women feel comfortable not only with their secrets but with the lies begotten for these secrets. In a patriarchal culture, our secrets and lies can strengthen us, get us through ordeals.
Even though we are raised to be “good girls,” women are quite invested in having secrets.
When it comes to mothering, rivalry, and status, we’re willing to lie, to distort the facts, to twist the truth. Women choose this path when it aids them in their ambitions. Oftentimes our own mothers have taught us to operate this way.
Women are adept at having secrets and choose to have secrets.
A woman lies with intentional deception because she is convinced of the exigency of her lie. A woman instinctively perfects her lie, which offers the advantage of not being detected or criticized. A female lie appears much more satisfying than a male lie.
Revealing female liesWe are surrounded by women with secrets, from the intrigue we see on television and in film, to the barrage of weekly magazines, saturating us with the personal activities of Hollywood stars, to everyday women. In all of these cases it’s about public persona versus the private self. What is so striking is how my interviewees described themselves in a myriad of situations — facile at having the secret and committed to the importance of the lie. For example, Irene, a thirty-seven-year-old mother of two daughters, views her kleptomania not only as thrilling but as an experience she owns:
I walked into the store with my two children, one in the grocery cart, and began with the children’s clothing aisle. The place was crowded, on a Saturday, around lunchtime. I saw so many things that my husband would say we didn’t’ really need and that somehow gets me into this game. No one knows that I shoplift, and I have it down to a science. I dress so well so that no one is suspicious of me. I’ll take makeup, lotion, even clothes and it’s getting to be a bigger part of my life. I’d say I do it every time I go out now, every time I shop. I put stuff in the cart and walk out. My plan is that if I ever get caught, I’d act sorry and surprised. I’d be totally shocked and get away with it. I doubt my husband would stand for this if I got caught. He’s so particular, such a good citizen.
What I love about this secret is how it makes me feel. Even if sometimes I’m worried, usually I’m exhilarated that I got away with something, that I’m not what I seem. I feel like in this life you have to take things as you can, that’s how I see it. But this secret is so safe that I don’t have to lie about it, I just keep it my secret. I don’t’ believe anyone can find out, so I don’t’ have to cover my trail. I feel like I’m beating the system and I get a kick out of this. This secret is not on my time, not my boss’s schedule, not my husband’s, not my girls’. It’s all mine.
Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets was a natural segue after writing Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth about Women and Rivalry. I felt it was time to research the ways in which women use societal lies and clandestine acts as a means to an end. Since our society remains complex for women, still doling out the mixed messages — the myth of having it all, that motherhood is the ultimate female experience, that we marry for true love — I wanted to know how a woman’s omission or distortion of the truth has a loss/gain ratio.
With technology so much a part of our lives, we can have secret email accounts, block our cell phone calls, deceive others of our whereabouts, and create a private world, all the while posturing as a good mother/good wife/good employee. The fluid travel and increased opportunities for women only makes it easier for them to integrate their secrets, even exotic and daring ones, into their everyday lives. In Psychology of Women, Juanita H. Williams points out that “a central issue of the development of ideas about female personality has always been … the degree to which they are biologically or environmentally determined.”
In order to appreciate the ways in which women life, we have to look at how lies and secrets have sufficed both positively and negatively in our lives. Certainly, we’ve been raised to believe in honesty as inscribed in the Bible — “The Truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Yet for convention-bound women who shared their secrets, there was also an ability to dispel the truth. As David Livingstone Smith writes in his book Why We Lie, “Deception is a crucial dimension of all human associations …” but it’s a woman’s style of duplicity and the areas in which she lies that is outstanding and unique from men.
Excerpted from "Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets" by Susan Shapiro Barash. Copyright 2008 Susan Shapiro Barash. Reprinted with permission from St. Martins Press. All rights reserved.