Aug 1997

The Liar

by Oren Shafir

Cistern at Chateau Noire by Paul Cezanne

Cistern at Chateau Noire by Paul Cezanne

This is an absolutely true story that happened to me when I was little. In fact, it's my first memory. When I was four years old—and I know, what you'll say: how can I remember something that happened when I was four in enough detail to make a story of it, but I do. It's my only memory from before I started school, and it's as clear as a summer's day. We we're at Auntie's house for Grandma's birthday, and I was left there overnight. I didn't have any special relationship with Auntie. She didn't have nay kids, and she was none too pleased with runny noses and other accidents of nature. I remember that. And I remember nobody told me I was going to sleep there. I just woke up next to her in what seemed the most enormous bed. She was naked. I woke up looking at her nipples. She said, "Good morning, sugar," like she was used to four-year-olds staring at her tits, and then I looked up at the head that was attached to the body. She had long hair, and I thought all women with long hair were pretty, but it was black and curly. Mama's was straight blond. Auntie—some kind of black-haired princess.

I remember running around after her all day, tripping on my shoelaces—her pissed that I couldn't tie them myself. She seemed particularly short-tempered that day, and I remember not understanding why I was there, missing Momma, but trying to be a big boy because I knew my brothers would find out and tease me. I remember eating pizza, which I didn't like, because she ordered it and made a big deal about getting yummy pizza, just for me, and she kept looking at me like she was about to jump and scream and who knew what because I didn't look pleased. So, I tried to say, "Mmm," and eat it. But, I pushed the mushrooms to the side, and she gave me a look like I was really stupid (But what kid likes mushrooms, right?)

And then, I was tired. It was time for my nap. I guess no one told her or she didn't care. Instead, she put music on—I swear to God, I remember the wild drums. I can still feel them. When she danced, she became someone else. She picked me up and danced with me, and she smelled good, and I could feel her happiness and her love. And then she put me down, and we held hands and danced, and she spun me. I giggled. Then, I got tired. I lay on the floor and watched her from squinty eyes as she whirled and twirled and twirled. The sun fell on my cheeks and on her toes. She had a butterfly tattoo on her ankle. Beautiful.

I awoke when my father picked me up and carried me to the car. I could hear Momma kissing and hugging her sister goodbye. They were crying. A month later, the day after Halloween, they told me she was dead. I can't remember feeling anything.


I'm a liar. It never happened. But it sounded nice, didn't it? I'm a pathological liar, actually. Diagnosed by a famous psychiatrist. He wasn't famous at the time though. Actually, my case helped make him famous. He wrote a nonfiction bestseller based on my case study. Big success; he never published again after that, but he's still considered an expert in his field: pathological liars. As a matter of fact, I could tell you the whole story about how I developed this illness, if you want to call it an illness. But, of course, now that you know I'm a liar, you won't believe anything I say. But, you know what, listen anyway, cause, what was it Picasso once said, "One thousand lies make a truth," or something like that. Then again, he painted women with eyes in the middle of their foreheads. So, I leave it up to you. You want to listen, listen. At any rate, this story happens to be one hundred percent true.

I was at university, an Ivy League scholarship, far from home. I'm from California, but that winter on the East coast, the sun disappeared as if it never meant to return. The wind blew turning my cheeks blue and making me deaf. I felt a constant pressure in my sinuses. I missed Momma. Alone and shy, I gave myself to my studies. I told myself I just had to hold out until spring, and I'd be alright. Besides, I needed every spare minute for studies because I had to get all A's to make Momma proud. My brothers all had wives and jobs and kids, but Momma was most proud of me because I got into an Ivy League school. She'd had a brother who died in a concentration camp during World War II at the age of 20, but he'd been studying architecture at some fine European university when the war broke out. She was the only child left, and she was never much of a student. So, she felt she was honoring her brother's memory through me or something I think.

Then, I had a nervous breakdown. I guess it happened gradually, I don't know. I only know that I was taking a test on The Great Gatsby when everything went blank. The professor pried the blue books from my fingers. Six blue books filled with the words, "I have no friends in the world. The only one I can trust is my mother, but my mother is dead." Written over and over, line after line in meticulously neat handwriting. I begged the professor not to notify my mother. I mean how would she take it? Your son seems to think your dead. Do you concur? The professor—a nice grey-haired man who always wore an old-fashioned suit with a bow-tie and was always soft-spoken but still somehow passionate about the literature— agreed not to notify her if I promised to get a referral to a psychiatrist. He recommended one.

Now, the psychiatrist, Dr. Deschamps, looked exactly like a young Jerry Lewis. Let me ask you, could you pour your heart out to Jerry Lewis? It was amusing. I had to keep myself from laughing. I thought that at any moment he was going to stick his tongue out, roll his eyes and trip over the rug or something. But here's the thing: unlike Jerry Lewis this man had no sense of humor. He wore the same black funeral-home suit every day. And, he never smiled. The only sign of humor were these hummingbird cufflinks he occasionally wore, which looked so shiny and absurd on that dull black suit. And he was a power freak. He let me know in no uncertain terms that if I stopped seeing him, he would have to notify the professor who had sent me to him and who, I knew, would notify my mother. Furthermore, unlike other psychiatrists, he did not care how much time we used. The session was not over until he said it was over, and he never said it was over until I gave him at least two somewhat embarrassing stories from my childhood. For a while, I managed to get by telling about petty rivalries with my brother and wanting to do well in school That kind of stuff. Then one day after about a month, he wouldn't let me go. There was silence. I looked up and down from his diploma on the wall to the shag carpet, which I secretly hoped he would one day trip on and hurt himself (nothing serious—just a broken neck or something), and I listened to the ticking of the clock.

"Isn't it time?" I finally asked.

"Don't worry about the time," he said. "I'm here to help you for as long as you need me. But I feel you're holding back on me Jay. I want you to feel that you can tell me anything."

The clock ticked louder. Then, I took a deep breath and told him about the time when I was five years old, and I shit in my pants and had to walk all the way home like that—and when I got to crossing a street, somebody yelled from their car, "Move it, you walk like you shit in your pants or something." I swear to God that was the first time I saw him smile. Then, he let me go. I went to the toilet and threw up.

I resolved to confide in the Professor and ask to see a different psychiatrist. The Professor would understand. Why wouldn't he, I thought, as I sat in his little office waiting for him to fix a crisis in the printing room or something. I perused the titles on his bookshelf: Wilde, Proust, Truman Capote, Richard Wright, etc. I examined a picture on his desk of a family vacation with bright-eyed children and well-groomed dog on a small yacht. In the picture, the professor looked different. No bow-tie, he stood bare-chested and tan proudly holding up a huge trout. Looking closer, I saw a tiny tattoo of a carnation on his forearm. How bizarre, I thought. Must have been a leftover from the sixties. My hand ran across the smooth marble of a miniature on his desk of Michelangelo's David. I picked it up absent-mindedly and on the bottom was surprised to read the engraving: "To Hugo, my love, Remember Rome, your own David." Hugo was my professor who at that moment appeared behind me saying, "Now, what's this you wanted to tell me about your therapy, Jay." I carefully put the statuette down and turned to see hummingbird cufflinks shining on his wrists. What could this mean?. Then, I saw a mental image of the name on the diploma in my psychiatrist's office, Dr. David Deschamps.

"I just wanted to thank you for helping me," I said and quickly ran off leaving Professor Hugo bewildered.

What a bizarre web of entrapment circumstance had spun. Stranger than fiction, as they say, and after all, do you think I could make up something as strange as this? It had to have happened, and it did. And what was I to do? Tell my professor that the psychiatrist he recommended, who I knew had to be his lover, was an asshole. I went into a daze becoming cool as a cucumber—in other words, I was in a state of shock. I went home, showered, ate, studied, went to bed.

Walking to my next shrink session, I still felt in control. I remember wondering why I felt so calm. I had no idea what I was going to do. Perhaps, I would kill Dr. David Deschamps with the sharp metal letter opener on his desk. Pierce it into his throat and then sit in a puddle of blood calmly waiting for the police as the clock ticked saying, "I'm not worried about the time anymore, Dr. Deschamps." But when he walked in, sat down and said "How are you, Jay?" I just opened my mouth and began lying my head off. It wasn't a very good lie. He noticed the inconsistencies. After that, it became like a game. I would tell a wonderful story, no longer having to bear my soul to this prick, and he would try to catch me in a lie with his clever intellect. Later, it also made for exciting reading in his book. After a while though, I had improved so much that he could rarely find holes in my stories. That's when he lost interest and let me go. He had, however, done his damage. He had helped create the disorder, which he could not cure. I remained a liar.


This next story is true, though. I had a strange experience—nothing earth shattering, but I just can't seem to get it out of my head. It happened just the other day. It was Saint Hans evening—the longest day of the year. I was walking down Istegade, that street of porno shops and tattoo parlors, drug dealers and whores, and the relatively few homeless of Copenhagen. Electrical workers had been hacking the streets up for months, and at the same time, there was an urban renewal project going on. So anyway, you had to walk on a kind of narrow scaffold built around the sidewalk. There was this woman sitting right in the middle of this narrow path on the sidewalk. You believe that? Right in the middle. And I was late for the train. I could see that she obviously wasn't Danish, and she wasn't right in her head. Long curly black and grey hairs shot out all over her unkempt head. She wore torn jeans and a really dirty T-shirt that said, "Summer Fun," in red neon letters. Bony arms jutted out of her sleeves. She mumbled to herself. A mentally disturbed refugee, maybe. Oh shit, I thought, looking for a way out. Then, I remembered my mother—my mother's friend Anne became mentally ill and lived on the streets of LA for a while. My mother actually helped her out a lot. Got her professional help. Got her off the streets and all—but that's another story. Anyway, I felt guilty, and I fished for some change in my pocket. As I got closer, I saw something on her arm. A tattoo. I don't know what it was of, but if you saw this lady, she just wasn't the tattoo type. She looked like, I don't know, somebody's mother, shoulda been in a kitchen making ethnic specialties not that I think a woman's place is in the kitchen or anything—but she was like—that generation. She must have just had some kind of horrible breaks or something. Anyhow, I forgot all about the change I was holding and just became fascinated by the fact that she had a tattoo.

"Where'd you get that tattoo?" I asked as I approached her.

Quick as a monkey, she snatched the coins out of my hand and spewed a load of guttural syllables out in some foreign language. Then, for a moment, she disgusted me again. I thought she deserved her fate. And again, I felt guilty. Almost as though she were connected to me or something.


Today, I happen to be the founding member of IPLA (the International Pathological Liars Association). It's true. You can check out our home page on the net ( if you don't believe me. As you can imagine, we have some interesting meetings. You can't believe a word anybody says. But we really understand each other because we know that there's a piece of painful truth in every word spoken.


Oren is a truly international person. His mother is American, his father is Israeli. He is married to a Dane, which explains why he's been living in Denmark for the last seven years. He has two amazing children and is expecting a dog in the near future, having just bought a house. He works as a writer/editor for a software company.