Ugly Truth

The truth brings with it a great measure of absolution, always. — R.D. Laing

After I broke the news to my mother that David and I would be traveling to the East Coast to celebrate Thanksgiving with my in-laws, one might assume I would be amenable to any request Mom might make in the wake of such a disappointing announcement. But when she asked if my absence on Turkey Day intimated my presence on Christmas, my response was a simple, “No.”

Gone was the ceremonial song-and-dance I once would have given — the “I would love to, but” followed by excuses and legitimate-sounding reasons. I didn’t intend for the truth to spill out; it just sort of happened when I opened my mouth, the way light pours into the kitchen when I open the refrigerator door. I told my mother in a deferential but unyielding tone that I’m not interested in the drama and obligation involved with celebrating the holidays and that I’d rather sit this one out.

“What if you just came for dinner?” Mom asked. “It would be great if the whole family could be together.”

“Wouldn’t work,” I said. “And, anyway, the ‘whole family’ gets together for dinner all the time. Just because I’m not going to be there for Christmas doesn’t mean I’m not going to see you in December…like for your birthday and Jenny’s baby shower. Trust me, there will be plenty of family time.” At this, my mother conceded and let the matter drop.

Over the past few years, I’ve switched from a pattern of delicate circumvention to frill-free frankness, relinquishing my usual hemming and hawing to embrace forthrightness. As a result, I am an emancipated woman, freer than ever to live my life according to my own rules.

In retrospect, I realize how silly it was to fib in order to maintain healthy relationships, whether to spare someone’s feelings or to present myself in a more flattering light. Sure, some minor falsifications help aid social interactions — there’s a reason they’re called “pleasantries.” But more often than not, withholding the truth and serving up a dish of details you think your audience might find palatable is more harmful than helpful.

I stumbled into an awkward encounter a few years ago when, while traipsing around my neighborhood, I ran into a friend to whom I had, not more than an hour earlier, told I was too sick to join for dinner. When she saw the guy I was with, it was apparent that I had chosen to lie rather than admit to her that I was hanging out with a person I knew she found offensive. Neither of us mentioned my failed ruse, and after a weird moment of small talk, we went our separate ways.

Later, I kicked myself as I realized I could have truthfully declined her invitation in at least a dozen ways, such as, “Can’t tonight, but hope to see you soon.” Instead I opted to feign illness, that least creative of lies. As a result, I’m sure that since that day, she has questioned the veracity of everything I say.

Truth requires trust. When I readily impart a truth I know someone might find undesirable, I’m displaying my trust in that person to respect my thoughts and feelings. I wonder if this is why, in many cases, lying seems easier; granting someone a glimpse into the way your mind works is akin to handing that person power over you.

My mother raised me to regard being disliked as dread-worthy as a case of leprosy. Actually, leprosy could be considered the preferable of the two, for no one would fault me for having the condition. As a result of her tutelage, I have mastered the art of coloring information in my present audience’s favorite hue. If the goal is to be liked, it makes sense to avoid divulging what might be considered an ugly truth.

For years I practiced and perfected the art of deflection, but now that I have decided to stop prettying things up in a fallacious tone, I am trusting my family and friends with the inner workings of my mind. Just as I trust them with the truth, they trust me to come from a place of love — to not be brutally honest so much as simply honest. An interesting side effect of my frankness is that the more honest I am, the more connected and the less neurotic I feel.

I used to fear others’ reactions to my honesty and stress over how to portray my opinions favorably. But it seems as people pick up on my candidness, they are less likely to question my decisions or take them personally.

Recently I had another occasion to share an undesirable truth over a crowd-pleasing lie. For a few months, my sisters have been talking about going in together to purchase a place in Tahoe. When they first brought it up (while we were all hanging out at Mom’s house one Saturday), I remained reticent, save for mentioning that it might be a better idea to rent as needed than take on the responsibility of a mortgage. When the topic came up again, I realized this wasn’t just a passing fancy, but something they were seriously considering. Heather referred to it as the “Copake” of the West, invoking our New York City clan’s rural escape. When Mom mentioned it to me the other day on the phone, it was clear she thought I was onboard. As I was not, I felt the need to elucidate.

“Mom, I’m not interested in going on family vacations to Tahoe,” I said.

“But the whole family needs to be together,” she said, employing her “all or none” tactic.

“It sounds great for everyone else,” I said. “The kids can run around while you guys hang out and do whatever. But my idea of vacation doesn’t involve a cabin by the lake in the middle of nowhere, killing time to the backdrop of screaming kids.”

“We could play games,” Mom persisted. “It would be fun and relaxing.”

“Listen, I love spending time with you guys, which I get to do often,” I said. “But if I’m going to skip town, you can bet money that my agenda will include me, David, a nice meal, a bottle of wine, a giant bubble bath, and not much else. Kids are right out.”

Mom laughed. I imagined my bluntness was as refreshing for her to hear as it was for me to say. “Well,” she said, with a smile in her voice, “you can’t blame me for trying.”

“Not at all,” I said. “And Mom? Thanks for not blaming me for saying.”


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