Relationships: That Oh, So Toxic Deception

Duane Michals

I’m on a relationship bender these days for a few reasons. The main one is readers overwhelmingly respond to these posts, more so than my articles about the creative process, my remembrances or my film reviews. Forget the erotic stuff from a few weeks ago; that was a dud (but I’m glad I did it). The secondary reason is there is a lot of dramatic relationship activity going on close to me, and for once it isn’t just my own.

As I’ve written before, creative types tend to have more atypical relationships than ‘normal’ people. That stands to reason. While we might aspire to some degree of normalcy in the false hope it will bring us stability and a measure of acceptance and validation, it’s not in our makeup to conform to a preset mold, which means normalcy will not contribute to our happiness. The best gift we can give ourselves is to understand ourselves, to embrace ourselves for who we are and celebrate it, not to aspire to what is suitable for people who follow structured professional and personal lives, no matter how comforting being part of a majority might seem. A lone wolf is far more aspirational role model than a sheep, in my book.

Being deceitful is a particularly alien concept to me. Sure, I have lied in the past, mostly to save my ass. I’ve also either outright lied or embellished the facts to elevate myself in the estimation of the person I’m speaking to. But this happened only when I was younger and more insecure — I haven’t done that in over twenty years. It was almost exclusively about experiences I claimed to have had but hadn’t. For instance, someone might have asked, “You’ve been to Morocco, right?” And I would immediately reply, “Yes,” and would launch into as good a discussion about the country as I could sustain from having read or seen footage about it, when the truth is I was only in Casablanca for a brief stopover on my way to a family vacation in the Canary Islands when I was six.

My current relationship, with the person I call the Primary, is fraught with more complications than any I have experienced before, mainly due to his schizoid/avoidant personality and my past inability to shrug it off and just accept him for who he is, and accept the relationship for not being the same as everyone else’s. I’ve now gained a comfortable measure of acceptance to carry on.

One thing the Primary and I don’t suffer from is deceit. We are absolutely honest with each other. In four and a half years, I have never caught him out on a lie. If I compare that to some of my past experiences with lovers, particularly to the experience someone very close to me is going through right now with his own relationship, I will own the lack of deceit with the Primary as a positive attribute of a romance that even my ten-year-old niece has qualms about me being in.

I have a hard time understanding the need to be someone you aren’t. My need to be honest about who I am is compulsive, mandatory for all communication, especially online. I understand people needing to be anonymous, particularly if they are expressing views that are unpopular or might get them into trouble with work. I also understand that many feel the need to reinvent who they really are, to role-play, to create idealized avatars. Not being who I am just isn’t for me, so my understanding requires an amount of objective tolerance that isn’t natural for me; a weakness of mine is this solipsistic tendency to believe that if I don’t experience something, it either doesn’t exist or it is of lesser merit.

When the movie 300 came out, I was fascinated that it was marketed to fanboys through the role-playing community site Second Life. I went on and created a profile to explore the possibilities of building excitement for one of my company’s upcoming projects. The first step is to build your avatar, right down to the clothing. You can be whomever you please: you can give yourself wings, change your gender, be as buff as Hercules without ever spending a minute lifting weights; the possibilities for reinvention are endless. But I spent a good three hours making my avatar look exactly like me, right down to the hoodie, cargo pants and big shoes I preferred mucking around in at that time in my life. I just couldn’t imagine wanting to be anyone else. Perhaps it’s narcissism. I prefer to think of it as a healthy amount of self-appreciation. People spend a great deal of time and money on shrinks and motivational courses trying to achieve that inner security and self-love, which I’ve ever needed. So, yeah, I’m going say that my lack of a desire to don an avatar is healthy, not a symptom of a personality disorder.

My closest friend at the moment is a young man who is going through the dissolution of a five-year relationship. It’s been winding down for a while. I’ll call him Topher and his ex Jordan. It doesn’t matter what I call Jordan, actually; I could call him by the ‘real’ name I’ve always known because it isn’t real. We aren’t sure what that real name is. Jordan is a criminal, that rare thing, a gay gangster. Topher entered into the relationship deceived into thinking that Jordan was heir to a large fortune, but all the he was heir to was a host of complications and dangers, not to mention the Medusa’s head of deceits with which con artists entangle themselves in order to create the avatars that they must assume to survive.

Topher is a relatively innocent, wholesome Midwestern guy, or he was innocent before this experience. It wouldn’t occur to him to invent a completely new character and life narrative for himself, which made him all the more gullible to someone who would. Again, it’s entirely normal not to believe in something you haven’t experienced yourself.

I’ve been skeptical for a long time. For a start, Jordan wasn’t like someone I’d ever met from my socio-cultural background, which is populated with people born into entitlement and privilege. Specifically, he’s Australian, as is my mother. If I was the princess, Jordan was the pea under the pile of mattresses I was sleeping on, and he made me very uncomfortable indeed. For a start, unless we are psychopaths who get a thrill from it, very few of the sort of person Jordan pretended to be enter a life of crime unless our backs are to the wall, and even then it is usually white-collar crime; just the loss of social standing is deterrent enough. Jordan’s brand of criminality is far riskier, far seedier. There are so many easier ways to work the network than resort to that.

Other giveaways were details like the fact Jordan’s front teeth were fake because they were beaten in by people he either owed money to or had double-crossed. People in my world lose teeth all the time, but it’s either from an accident, like falling off a polo pony, or natural causes, like old age or getting smacked in the mouth by a drunk parent’s crystal whiskey tumbler. To wit, I once slipped on a rain-drenched rock walking home blind drunk from an event at the country club and bashed my face in. I could have lost teeth, but didn’t; I merely sustained severe soft-tissue damage to my nose and chin. Jordan was tied to a chair and whacked in the face with a baseball bat, his hands broken, too… not chic, not something you experience at the clubhouse no matter how drunk everyone gets. That’s a little… Russian mob, darling. Jordan’s excuse: It was the result of a home intrusion gone awry, which might be an acceptable story were he not in county lockup right now on several felonious counts.

We cannot forget Jordan’s terminal cancer, either, which he used to elicit Topher’s sympathy. The track marks on his arms and weight loss weren’t from chemo, of course; it was drug use. If he did have terminal cancer, by my count he should have been dead at least two years ago.

This is the end of the line for Jordan; he will likely be deported. Everyone around Topher is relieved. I know he is heartbroken, and that distresses me, too; while I don’t support the relationship, it’s horrible to see someone go through pain I’ve been through myself. I’m also a firm believer that nobody should tell you whom to love, and despite its bountiful dysfunctions this relationship is no exception. It has just attained a level of toxicity for Topher that is no longer acceptable in his life; any more of it might kill him. I’m also confident that the depth of his emotional commitment to Jordan is such that they will be lifelong friends. But if I were writing this real-life drama as fiction, with the characters being who they are under the circumstances they are in, I would have to say that the inevitable conclusion is that this chapter is well concluded and will not be relived.

As he sobers up and comes to his senses — physically removed from Jordan, unable to see him, in intensive therapy himself — Topher is transfixed with trying to figure out Jordan’s real story, who he has really been in love with for so long. It turns out Jordan is something of a Frank Abagnale, the basis for Leonardo Di Caprio’s character in Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. As with most pathological liars, Jordan has based his stories on a few grains of truth, just enough to confound anyone trying to discover the whole story, to throw any doubts about him into doubt. He seems to have taken elements from real families and situations that are being reported in the press, or available through Google search, and woven them into the narrative about himself.

Driven by the pain and shock of deceit of this magnitude by someone he loved so dearly, Topher is now somewhat obsessed with discovering the truth. I encourage Topher’s sleuthing as part of his process for closure. I experienced the same thing when I was in a far briefer relationship twelve years ago. In this instance, Charles — as I will call him because that turned out to be his real name, which was different from the one he gave me when we met and fell in love — was schizotypal; lying about himself was both a coping mechanism and a way to assuage his innate acute paranoia. If it seems that I am drawn to people with personality disorders — the Primary is schizoid, this one was schizotypal — that is indeed the case, and it is Charles who made me see that for the first time. My passion for him — he remains the best sexual experience I have ever had — plunged me into a fascination with mental illness that pervades my work. (It was rereading Henry Miller last year that made me see that being a magnet for the disordered is okay, perfectly normal for a creative person.)

I understand what Topher’s obsession with wanting to know, to finally achieve transparency; I will never know who Charles really was. Like Jordan, he pretended to be from my socio-cultural background; he claimed he went to Amherst, for instance, and I went to that college’s sibling school, Wesleyan. He spoke with a slight upper-class lockjaw and behaved very much like a former fraternity brother. I was so in love that I overlooked other details that should have given away that he wasn’t from an upper-middle-class background, but probably from the Florida panhandle — I will never know for certain, all I know is that’s where I found out his estranged parents and brother live, well after the relationship was over and I was trying to find out who I was actually with. I also found out he was not an alum of Amherst, nor did he get his graduate engineering degree from the University of Virginia. When I went to the address he gave me for his place of work, it was a Texaco gas station, not the offices of a branch of Texaco that did environmental engineering. A small consolation was that he turned out to be exactly my age, only a few weeks younger, not four years younger as he had told me.

I know Charles loved me, just as I know that Jordan loved Topher, perhaps still does. But the deceit becomes to burdensome to sustain; it continuously unravels and has to be put together again with more lies. Personally, I would want to get off the stage once the improv got too complicated to continue. I’m sure that is a major reason Topher and I were pushed away, although we aren’t innocent, either: We did a fair amount of pushing away ourselves. Once I found out, after consulting a psychiatrist, that Charles was likely schizotypal, it became increasingly difficult to be with him. Topher has also done his share of lashing back. But it is a reaction to what we face with a highly deceitful lover. We are shielding ourselves from abuse in a passive aggressive way, keen not to destroy the relationship, but also trying to stand our ground.

Topher’s need to get a clear picture of the man he loved too well for his own good is entirely acceptable. It stands to reason that if there is so much deceit, then the relationship itself was a lie, even if it wasn’t. And the reality is likely not as exotic as the liar would have us believe, which is the reason for the lie in the first place. I’ll never forget the words of one friend about Charles, “The truth of who he is probably isn’t as interesting as you imagine.”

Not just trying to make himself more than he really was, Charles had also created a real-life avatar skin for himself because he was alienated from his family — I pieced together that he refused to be institutionalized following his first psychotic break in his early twenties (he believed his boss was Satan incarnate), and after a while they gave up on him, like me incapable of the unconditional love these people need to be in lasting relationships. So Charles aspired to be a WASPy engineer who went to Amherst because he wasn’t satisfied with who he really was. He didn’t reckon that he would hook up and fall in love with the real thing in L.A., who would invariably call him out on his deception as time went by. Similarly, Jordan met the archetypal Midwestern golden boy, fell in love with him, but needed to cover up the extent of his criminality, the sordid truth of who he really was, which in his drug-hyped self-hatred he felt might repel someone who he knew was out of his league in every respect.

“I feel like I’ve been glamoured by a vampire,” Topher said yesterday when he and I were discussing this. I think it will be a few months yet before he gets enough objectivity to fully comprehend the level of abuse Jordan subjected him to in order to subjugate him — the deceptions were just a part of the web. That doesn’t mean the love wasn’t there. Jordan did it because he was in love, because he was afraid of losing Topher. But that doesn’t make it less toxic.

I do believe in the radical-honesty movement that is gaining so much currency in the self-improvement world. There are limitations to the value of honesty, however, and to me that is when you might hurt someone who doesn’t deserve to be hurt by the truth. A dalliance outside your primary relationship is the most important example; I always advocate a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy as being the most humane and logical for people who have trouble coping with the practicality of fully or semi-open relationships. If the dalliance becomes more important than originally intended, so far as to become a secondary relationship, then you need to man up, or woman up, and get a little French with it: Admit the affair and work it out with your primary. A dalliance is merely an activity, a pleasant brunch with a stranger, or with someone you’ve been curious to share a meal with. An actual affair is altering the interpersonal dynamics of your life and that is going to affect your primary relationship. Once a deception becomes toxic, or risks becoming toxic, then it has gone too far.

I don’t know many people who have experienced the level and complexity of deceptions that Topher and I have been through with Jordan and Charles. Most people experience little white lies from their partners, most of which are forgivable and fall under the “I was damned if I did, damned if I didn’t” category; in other words, the partner felt there was no choice but to lie. As much as possible, a healthy relationship shouldn’t be one where one of the partners feels so caged and terrified of hurting the other person that he or she has to resort to that logic. It is better by far to face the pain and consequences of truth than live with the slow-burning torture of covering it up.


Comment: 1

  • robertperez528 May 6, 20145:37 pm

    You know I had “a”, lunch,a cinco de mayo lunch,with a young 18sh,blond,Anglo,I thought it more of a”beginning”,than an ending,maybe it was the nachos and white cheese sauce,hmmm.

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