But we play the cards we’re dealt as children and we learn our lessons from whatever environment we’re born into. So it was with my perceptions of Skip (not his name, but it’s what I’ll call him here). Only after some reflection did I appreciate the great lesson he unwittingly presented to me.
I was walking along the sidewalk one day with a few other siblings and neighborhood kids when I caught sight of Skip. He was across the street, partially obscured by a tree. No one else in our group saw him, and he seemed to be waiting for us to pass. This struck me as suspicious so I kept my eye on him as we went by. I then saw him pick up a stone and fling it at our group. It struck one of the other kids and he began to look around to see where it had come from. When he saw Skip, he began yelling at him and calling him names.
Skip’s demeanor instantly changed. “I didn’t do it!” he screamed. “It wasn’t me!” His voice rang with utter conviction. The kid who’d been struck wavered for a moment, but I assured him that I’d seen Skip throw the stone. Skip then began screaming at me. “You’re lying! I did not! I was just walking down the sidewalk! I didn’t do it!” The episode quickly broke down after that, with our group yelling names and threats at Skip as he went the other way, denying responsibility all the while.
So what was the great lesson to which I referred earlier? It had to do with Skip’s ferocious denial of wrongdoing, even in the face of an actual eyewitness (namely me). His denials were so pure and passionate that they would surely have convinced many a person, or maybe even – ahem – a jury, of his innocence. I realized upon reflection that Skip possessed a facility for lying convincingly that attained a level of perfection I had never before encountered. I suppose you could call it an acting lesson. It was a vivid example of how a person could construct an alternative reality – a lie if you will – and turn it into a virtual reality through utter, passionate commitment and a pathological, though calculated, lack of honesty.
Understand, I was no stranger to lying. I would go so far as to say that every kid lies. Growing up with my 7 siblings, there were myriad opportunities to tell convenient untruths, many in the form of statements like, “I didn’t do it!” or “I didn’t even know you’d baked cookies today!” But lies of that sort are, in theatrical terms, Neil Simon comedies – anyone can produce them, and they may be transparent but are essentially harmless. Skip, on the other hand, practiced the art of lying as Grand Opera and Greek Tragedy – the stakes are much higher and their pull is much harder to resist.
I think of that incident whenever I’m watching a TV newsmagazine show (e.g., American Justice) that is reporting on a murder investigation. It serves as a reminder that the denials of the accused do not in any way constitute evidence of their innocence. I’ve heard people react to such stories by saying things like, “He sounds like he’s telling the truth,” or “A murderer wouldn’t say something like that.” The fact is that the denial of the accused is about the weakest sort of evidence you’ll ever hear. Give me hard evidence – witnesses, fingerprints, DNA, video. Those may be imperfect tools in their own right, but they count for way more than the protests of a desperate individual.
The other thing I wonder about is the ultimate fate of our neighbor Skip. It’s easy to assume that Skip is now doing time in prison somewhere, or that he is living a miserable, hand-to-mouth existence. While that may well be the case, it’s worth remembering that the traits I have described in him represent a sort of talent. There are a whole lot of us who’ve taken such gifts and managed to turn them to more positive uses. While it may be a long shot, I hope Skip has been able to use those talents to rise above the assholes, rather than using them to become an Alpha Asshole.