When news of (now expelled) Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) and his web of lies first came to my attention, I knew right away he was one of Them–one of ‘those people’ who can’t not lie. (Santos did more than simply lie a lot to get expelled. Lies are one thing. Fraud is another.)
And while as a society we may casually throw the term ‘pathological liar’ about, to actually know one is to see–first hand–how deep the pathology is, and how endemic lying is the pathological liar’s existence.
When I was in my early 30s, I met such a person.
I met Tommy at a party my brother and his roommates were throwing, though it’s more likely his roommates were throwing the party, and my brother just happened to be living there when it happened.
It was–for the three Newburn siblings of myself, my brother and my sister–a rare occasion. We were all in the same country and same city for a short sliver of time, and we’d decided to all wear the same flannel shirt our dad had recently purchased: one for each of us. (Longer story here, but for now, the fact we were all together at an event was, in and of itself, notable in our little family dynamic, and we made it all the more noteworthy by being dressed the same.)
I was in the always-crowded-at-a-party kitchen with my sister when we started yammering with two guys, two brothers–Tommy and Whatever His Brother’s Name Was.
That’s where it began.
Tommy was one of the funniest, most quick-witted, entertaining people I’d ever met. To this day, he ranks up there still. (I do tend to like a fast-paced speaker with a sharp wit.) We had a blast hanging out that evening, and I felt like Tommy and I had become fast friends. My sister, too. And the three of us started to hang out a bit, though Tommy and I (and my boyfriend at the time) hung out together more so than my sister did.
Tommy became a regular fixture at my house. He’d come over, regale me/us/whomever with hilarious stories; we’d laugh, have fun and call it good.
Now, I have lived much of my life with a keen ear and eye to synchronicities and the wonders of how This and That can happen in ways that seem nearly magical in their coincidences. My life is filled with amazing coincidences and wonderful experiences, so at first, when Tommy shared his amazing experiences and stories, I was quite delighted to hear them.
He seemed to always have a related or connected story to whatever I’d be talking about, and I thought that was wonderful. If I’d recently taken up swimming (indoor, as it was winter), he’d tell a story about how he swam laps earlier that day. He’d describe the pool, the temperature, how many laps he swam, what stroke … lots of details. If I’d taken a cooking class, he’d have done so too, and would–on the fly–tell an elaborate, detailed story of a cooking class he took, replete with hilarious scenarios and things that happened in his class. And on and on. It was always like this with Tommy.
hold on a sec
Tommy had told us he was friends with Versace. Yes, that Versace. Tommy’s family was Italian and Versace was a family friend, he’d said; the two of them were fairly close, he’d said. And there were other stories like this. Not all famous people, but all stories about people who had interesting lives, for sure.
When Tommy and I first met, cell phones were relatively new, few people had them and an incoming call was near-equivalent to the early “You’ve got mail” days of email. Calls were special.
Oftentimes when we’d be hanging out, Tommy’s phone would ring; he’d take the call and then he’d commence to have a conversation with the caller. His life was filled with friends and people who did interesting things and invited him to parties. (Little did we know then there was some feature or way Tommy could make his phone ring without an actual call coming in. He did cop to that later.)
I recall one night when a bunch of us were stuffed in a car headed to some party somewhere and Tommy’s phone rang. “Hold on a sec,” he said to us, and we all dutifully and respectfully shushed so Tommy could have his phone call on his not-yet-common cell phone. While we all listened quietly to his side of the conversation, we heard him telling one of his friends that he’d love to come up to New York for a party but he was already on his way to one in D.C. Maybe next time.
When he hung up, he told us more stories about the friend who’d just called, and how she has great parties with all sorts of socialites and such in New York, but hanging with them wasn’t his favorite scene; he liked us more. We were ‘real,’ which I–and others–took to mean more: we were salt of the earth, genuine, not pretentious. I didn’t think then it was a literal statement.
Tommy soon moved from an acquaintance to a fixture. He was over at my place easily a couple/few times a week. My boyfriend at the time liked him, too. It was hard not to like Tommy; he was one of the funniest people I’d ever known, and he always had a story or a quip or something to add to the conversation. His stories were wild and wonderful, but isn’t life sometimes wild and wonderful? It seemed plausible that someone somewhere would be having the experiences Tommy shared, so why not Tommy?
Though after some months, the frequency level at which Tommy always had a matching or related story to tell to on pretty much any subject mentioned started to feel suspicious. And for all the hopes of meeting these higher-social-circles-than-us friends he’d told us about and parties he always got invited to never reached or crossed our social circle. And suspicions started to creep in. We started to talk amongst ourselves. Is he telling the truth? Are his stories real?
And as we talked, and as we shared observations, the wonderful stories started sounding more and more like fabrications. Once the seed of doubt had been sewn, suddenly everything Tommy said sounded false; nothing seemed real.
My sister and I felt it was time to approach Tommy–to have an intervention of sorts, to tell him we knew he was lying and to ask him to come clean.
Truth be told, we were a bit scared. Would he lash out and get violent if we crashed his world by calling him out? Would he do us harm? We didn’t know. We hoped not, but we prepared–albeit abysmally–just in case. The day he was scheduled to come over for ‘the intervention,’ I had stashed a duller-than-dull paring knife under the sofa pillow where I was sitting, and my sister had an equally dull chef’s knife at the ready.
When he arrived, we calmly told him that we loved him, we knew he was lying, and we asked him to come clean
He couldn’t. He simply couldn’t. He couldn’t admit he had been lying.
Each exposed lie we said to him caused him to create more lies to explain why he had said what he said. The whole situation became rather comical after a while. My sister and I repeated that we cared for him, but we needed him to fess up and to start telling the truth.
He couldn’t. And that was the last time I saw Tommy socially. He couldn’t exist in our lives as his true self; he could only show up as the fabricated, embellished version of himself, and funny and fun as that had been, who wants to hang out with a pathological liar as a friend?
a thief, too?
My boyfriend at the time both came from money and had profound aptitude for understanding the markets and complex market situations, and for making money. For reference, the SEC had to change a very specific rule about a particular type of trade because said boyfriend-at-the-time found a loophole he’d been quietly exploiting every Friday around 3 p.m. in which he was raking in all sorts of ‘free money’ on this particular type of trade until the SEC, essentially, knocked on his door and said, “Yo, stop. Really, stop now.”
Anyway, dude had cash aplenty and he liked watches … a lot. He liked watches a lot, and he liked a lot of watches.
One of his prize watches had been stolen from his home a month or so earlier, and the only two people who’d been in his house (besides myself, and I know I didn’t steal it) were Tommy and an installer from a home-security company.
Now that Tommy’s whole life story had collapsed into lies, my boyfriend had no choice but to wonder whether Tommy was the thief. We decided to confront him and were rather stealth about it all. One evening, we drove to near where he lived, called from pretty much right outside his neighborhood (my boyfriend also had a cell phone in the early days) and told him we wanted to visit.
odd, so odd
We drove up to a substantial suburban home in a substantial suburban neighborhood in the substantial-in-some-places town of Rockville, Maryland. Tommy had said he lived with his parents, which was pretty obvious by the size and substance of the home, given our age then and the type of housing most of my peers lived in.
Now, I’ve been in different homes, and I’ve seen different ways that different people live, but to this day, Tommy’s house was one of the strangest houses I’ve been in.
Everything was immaculate.
Not just immaculate, but creepily un-lived-in immaculate.
The Washington Post newspapers for the last three days were neatly lined up on a table. A few pairs of men’s shoes (his dad’s?) were neatly lined up by the door. Everything was oddly neat with a no-person-has-walked-here-sat-here feel to the entire home. Not a single pillow on the couch seemed out of place. There wasn’t a little bin by the front door with spare keys in it, or a sweater thrown over a chair. The entire home was immaculately clean and orderly in an incredibly creepy and unsettling way.
Even though it was probably 10 o’clock at night by the time we arrived, or later, his parents, he said, weren’t home. It was just him there.
a small world
When Tommy went to the kitchen to get a Coke, I noticed there was no food — not even a ketchup bottle– in the refrigerator except for one lone plastic dish with unadorned noodles in it and, of course, a lot of Coke. Tommy drank a lot of Coke.
He took us downstairs to the finished basement. There was a couch, a small table, a lamp, a TV and a rather large structure of stacked, empty Coke cans Tommy had apparently built over time.
We were upfront with him about asking if he’d taken the watch, and he said he hadn’t. He offered to take us up to his room to show us the watch wasn’t there. We agreed.
As we walked upstairs in this substantial suburban home, we passed the master bedroom and two large bedrooms, and then we got to Tommy’s room: the baby room, the little kids’ room. That was odd. He just had one brother, best we knew, and his brother didn’t live at their parents’ home. Why was Tommy living in the littlest bedroom?
But inside his bedroom things were even odder.
Tommy’s parents had owned this home for a good 20 years or so, Tommy had grown up here, and yet in his room there was nothing. NOTHING. No art on the walls, or even a poster. No small desk to write upon. No personal knick-knacks or mementos from school, or a trip or special occasions. No personalization. Nothing that made the room his. Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Not a single thing.
The room contained a twin bed, a dresser and a small lamp. He opened the dresser drawers and inside were just a couple shirts, a couple pairs of socks, a couple pairs of pants and a couple pairs of underwear. Hardly anything.
Then Tommy opened another drawer and in it was one thing: a framed certificate of some quasi-military program he’d participated in in his younger years, and a photo from that event. The one thing that pointed to ‘his real life’–this certification and photo–was tucked in a drawer, not on a wall.
He showed us this certificate with pride, and my heart just sunk. This is all he has. All he knows himself to be. This memory from a dozen or so years ago.
time to go
We didn’t find the watch. We didn’t dig. And we didn’t stay long. What were we going to do, except ask and hope for the truth, which, given the person and circumstances, was the least likely thing we were going to get.
As I left — and even to this day when I think about him — I felt like Tommy’s whole life was an illusion. I don’t even know if his parents lived there with him. Maybe they had lived there in that house. Maybe they had died and he kept the house as it had been. Maybe they had moved to Florida and let their no-job-no-life odd son live in the home. I don’t know. But he didn’t live in it. Not the way I would, for sure. He didn’t live in the living room. He didn’t live in the family room. He didn’t cook (much) in the kitchen. The house was immaculate, untouched and un-lived in. More like a shrine to parents who once were. It was odd. The whole thing felt very, very odd.
Earlier in our visit, I had used the bathroom downstairs where Tommy watched TV and built his large structure of empty Coke cans. It was college-boy gross–not cleaned in a long time, hair everywhere, yucky. But the rest of the house? Immaculate. Oddly, creepily, strangely immaculate.
Each of us has things–challenges, quirks, oddities. Maybe a chemical imbalance. Maybe an OCD orientation. Maybe a personality disorder or an addictive nature. Everyone has something, or several somethings–whether they’re conscious of it/them or live unaware. Some people manage their orientations, proclivities and imbalances better; some less so.
I don’t know what causes someone to become a pathological liar where they can’t not lie. But in meeting Tommy, I’ve known someone who had this issue and in a rather big way. Tommy, for as bizarre as he was, was an interesting person to get to know for a brief moment in time. I’m grateful for the experience of knowing him and grateful for the relatively quick extraction from his life, as well. For the ex-boyfriend whose pricey watch went a-missing, he may not be as grateful, but I’m not him, and I found the whole experience rather fascinating.