While preparing to write this book, I asked friends and readers for examples of lies that had affected them. Some of their stories appear below. I have changed all names to protect the innocent and the guilty alike. Many people shared stories of family members who deceived one another
about medical diagnoses. Here is one: My mother was diagnosed with MS when she was in her late 30s. Her doctor thought it was best to lie and tell her that she didn’t have MS. He told my father the truth. My father decided to keep the truth to himself because he didn’t want to upset my mother or any of their 3 children. Meanwhile, my mother went to the library, read up on her symptoms,
and diagnosed herself with MS. She decided not to tell my father or their children because she didn’t want to upset anyone.
One year later, when she went to the doctor for her annual checkup,
the doctor told her she had MS. She confessed that she knew but hadn’t told
anyone. My dad confessed that he knew but hadn’t told anyone. So they
each spent a year with a secret and without each other’s support.
My brother found out accidentally about a year later, when my mother
had breast cancer surgery. The surgeon walked into the room and essentially said, “This won’t affect the MS.” My brother said, “What MS?” I think it was a couple more years before anyone told me or my sister about Mom’s
MS….Rather than feeling grateful and protected, I felt sadness that we
hadn’t come together as a family to face her illness and support each other.
My mother never told her mother about the MS, which meant that none
of us could tell friends and family, for fear that her mother would find out.
She didn’t want to hurt her mother. I think she deprived herself of the op –
portunity to have a closer relationship with her mother.
Such tales of medical deception were once extraordinarily common. In fact ,
I know of at least one instance within my own family: My maternal grandmother
died of cancer when my mother was sixteen. She had been suffering from meta-
static melanoma for nearly a year , but her doctor had told her that she had
arthritis. Her husband, my grandfather , knew her actual diagnosis but decided
to maintain this deception as well.
After my grandmother’s condition deteriorated , and she was finally hospi –
talized , she confided to a nurse that she knew that she was dying. However , she
imagined that she had been keeping this a secret from the rest of her family ,
her husband included. Needless to say , my mother and her younger brother
were kept entirely in the dark. In their experience , their mother checked into the
hospital for “arthritis” and never returned.
Think of all the opportunities for deepening love , compassion, forgiveness ,
and understanding that are forsaken by white lies of this kind. When we pretend
not to know the truth , we must also pretend not to be motivated by it. This can
force us to make choices that we would not otherwise make. Did my grand-
father really have nothing to say to his wife in light of the fact that she would
soon die? Did she really have nothing to say to her two children to help prepare
them for their lives without her? These silences are lacerating. Wisdom remains
unshared , promises unmade , and apologies unoffered. The opportunity to say
something useful to the people we love soon disappears, never to return.
Who would choose to leave this world in such terrible isolation? Perhaps
there are those who would. But why should anyone make this choice for another