A note to the reader: Ms. Kelleher is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Yeah, that's right. In fact, she's won two Pulitzer Prizes. And a Nobel Peace Prize and a National Book Award. And Mother of the Year. Repeatedly.
Welcome to one of my self-glorifying reveries. I am fibbing, of course. But while my lie is intentionally transparent, others are not.
* U.S. District Judge James Ware recently withdrew his nomination to a federal appeals court, admitting that his oft-told tale of seeing his brother gunned down by white racists in 1963 was a lie.
* A former superintendent of the San Jose Unified School Board resigned and refunded $7,700 in pay after admitting that he lied by placing a phony transcript in his personnel file, "documenting" a doctorate from Stanford University.
* Actress Fran Drescher recently told Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" audience a blood-curdling tale of slicing her finger open on Halloween. As it turned out, the story was not Drescher's but a friend's, from whom Drescher had lifted it.
Fabricating stories, embroidering accomplishments and even fantasizing blazing sagas of heroism (or victimhood) are common human foibles, according to psychologists and sociologists.
Telling these personal fables requires a certain recklessness, arrogance and a belief that the odds are against getting caught. Such Walter Mitty-style fantasies are, paradoxically, both good for us (they give us something to aspire toward) and potentially destructive.
Once a fictitious story is told, it becomes a land mine, says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, noting that people feel manipulated and deeply betrayed when they discover that an emotional tale is a lie.
Why would someone like Ware, who by all accounts already has stellar credentials, risk his reputation, even his career, with an apocryphal tale?
"People are rarely satisfied with their own life credentials, however remarkable they are," answers Rex Julian Beaber, a clinical psychologist who also practices law in Los Angeles. "Everyone, in some sense, aspires to be something he or she is not. . . . Our own narcissism and grandiosity always drive us to imagine that we are something substantially greater than we are or ever will be."
The proverbial search for better material isn't just a Hollywood pastime.
"If the truth isn't moving enough, we invent it," Josephson says. "Lying on resumes is similar. We only do it to look better. And it isn't just people with mediocre records who do this."
A case in point, says Josephson, is Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) who, while running for his party's presidential nomination in 1987, lifted lines from a speech given by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock during a campaign against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Tories. Kinnock had talked about being the first in generations of impoverished Welshmen to go to college. Biden used the same lines, replacing Kinnock's Welsh miner ancestors with his own Irish farmer ones. As a result of this plagiarism, Biden withdrew from the race.
"People get reinforced for telling a good story--wide looks of amazement and approval," says Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at University of Washington in Seattle, adding that the more credible the person telling it, the more likely the story is to be believed. "The pathological part is not that people do it, but that they do it with totally discoverable stories."
Still, told often enough, a story can meld into a person's biography. Indeed, "someone who continually tells the same story and has gotten away with it tends to start believing it as his own," says Cynthia R. Cohen, a research psychologist in Los Angeles who studies credibility and jury behavior.
Lying on resumes (statistics suggest 25% of all job applicants "embroider" their job histories) tends to be for financial gain. But "people usually lie for emotional reasons, not for extrinsic things like money," Cohen says. "They are sucked into the emotion of telling [the story]. They just transfer their emotions to the story and change the details to make it their own."
Telling stories about yourself is not all bad--especially if you don't share them with anyone but your goldfish. Self-glorying phantasms can have a positive psychological function, Beaber says.
"In some sense," he says, "some subset of the population struggles to meet the fantasies and fables. I believe that it is a functional principle of achievement that makes us live up to our fantasies. . . . No one will be great who has not had the fantasy of greatness."