to run 10-13-95

Is there really such a thing as a pathological liar? If so, why does one become one? –Scott Riedel

Why not? Looking at Washington and the O.J. trial, you’ve got to figure it gives you a lot of career options. The term is, however, somewhat imprecise. The best definition was put forth 50 years ago by L.S. Selling: “a person having a constellation of symptoms … characterized psychopathologically by a very definite tendency to tell untruths about matters which perhaps could be easily verified and which untruths may serve no obvious purpose.” This enables us to distinguish a pathological liar from, say, a lawyer, whose distortions of the truth are easily detected by anybody not serving on the jury even as they serve the obvious purpose of getting his murdering slime of a client off. More generally, we may say that John, the adulterous husband played by Peter Gallagher in the movie sex, lies, and videotape, is not a pathological liar because his deceptions serve the obvious purpose of enabling him to get laid. Thus we see that habitual liars are of two kinds: on the one hand, pathological liars, who are pathetic losers, and on the other hand skilled liars, who constitute the national ruling class.

What makes pathological liars lie is not well understood, though it seems pretty clear there isn’t a single cause. Some people exhibit what’s known as “pseudologia fantastica,” presenting wild yarns as fact. Again, skill is a factor–do this well enough and you can get a job with the Weekly World News or, if you really have the gift, the Washington Post. However, if your lying is so inept that you don’t qualify even for journalism you may be suffering from brain damage and therefore condemned to a life in broadcasting. I have a report, for example, of a “35-year-old right-handed Caucasian male”–that’s enough to put you on your guard right there–who suffered from “pathological lying associated with thalamic dysfunction.” Apparently a brain impairment led to a ten-year history of repeated lying about everything from his personal finances to where he’d put the Kleenex. Years ago he’d have wound up in the gutter, but today, thank God, he can be a guest on Jerry Springer.

Not all cases of pathological lying are associated with a neurological disorder. Psychologists also blame such conditions as “superego lacunae” or “a need for the patient to produce narcissistic gratification.” I love the word “lacunae,” and because I love it I can say for a fact that anyone using it has no concept whatsoever. Seems clear enough to me that some people lie because they profit from it, some fib because they’re sick, and some do it because they’re lying sacks of shit.

It pains me to see that my adopted state of Wisconsin is about to turn its back on 150 years of sanity and bring back the death penalty. My question is, supposing we elect not to go the wimpy route of killing off our capital offenders via lethal injection but instead fry ’em or gas ’em in a more manly manner, where would we get the equipment? Is there an “Old Sparky Electric Chair Manufacturing Company” or a “Green Glow Gas Chamber Company”? –Scott Custis, Madison, Wisconsin

The great thing about a free market is that when demand arises, entrepreneurs patriotically rush to fill it. The electric chairs and such of generations past were largely homemade affairs, and it showed–often you could obtain equally elegant results by setting the guy on fire. After a few grisly incidents following the resumption of executions, prison wardens began looking around for somebody who knew what he was doing. They found what they wanted in engineer Fred Leutcher. As revealed by Susan Lehman in the Atlantic, Fred A. Leutcher Associates has become Death “R” Us, the U.S.’s only commercial supplier of execution equipment. He’ll rehab your old electric chair, make you a new one, or, if you prefer, sell you a lethal-injection system ($30,000), gallows ($85,000), or gas chamber ($200,000). Call today. Maybe if you buy one of each you can get a volume discount.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Cecil Adams

Cecil Adams is the world’s most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong. For more, see The Straight Dope website and FAQ.