The Long Trail of Deception
by Stephen Sherrill
From the June 2, 2003 issue of The New Yorker>>
I cannot tell you why I did it. That is going to require a long process of self-examination and, very likely, a large amount of psychotherapy. All I can do is try to come clean. An internal investigation has revealed that I have committed a profound betrayal of trust and done great damage to a sacred but fragile bond, that between a boyfriend and his girlfriend. The true extent of the damage I have done is unknown, although it clearly represents a low point in the fifty-thousand-year history of relationships between men and women.
This inquiry shows that I flouted the cardinal tenets and long-established rules of relationships, and that the fabrications, lies, fictions, and factual errors that I committed are more extensive than anyone could have known. Except myself, of course. The elements of my deception were a cell phone, the Kinko’s on Astor Place, and an energetic but perhaps overly ambitious desire to get attractive women to have sex with me.
First, Susan: I did not, as I claimed, graduate from Harvard. Nor was I ever enrolled there. This might have been made clear when you mentioned Cambridge, and I let it slip that I’d never been to England—though that last part, the investigation has shown, is true. But the warning signs were not heeded. Further, when you asked me to accompany you to the wedding of your incredibly boring cousin Leanne, in Ohio of all places, I was not, as I declared, obliged to attend the Oscars. Phone conversations with friends show that I spent that entire weekend in New York, watching a “Real World Marathon” on MTV. The goody bag I presented to cover my tracks was actually filled with items from the 99¢ Depot. My ruddy skin tone, consistent with a visit to California, was the result of an ordinary over-the-counter self-tanner.
Jessica: I did not, as I purported to, “serve valiantly” in Vietnam. Birth records indicate that I was only nine years old when the war ended, and discussions with my mother reveal that I am afraid of loud noises. The realistic and vivid details that I incorporated into my wrenching account of the war were lifted almost entirely from “First Blood.” Accordingly, the reason I was out of work was not, as I said, “because of post-traumatic stress disorder.” Psychologists interviewed for this article say that it is relatively rare to get PTSD from viewing “First Blood.”
Maggy: My name is Stephen, not Gianni. I am not from “Firenze,” and I am not a race-car driver. Sources close to me say that I do not even feel comfortable with a stick shift.
Kristen: I am not a “close personal friend” of Keanu Reeves. I have, in fact, never even met him. This trail of fraud began when you expressed your great admiration for Mr. Reeves, and I said that he and I “hang out” on frequent occasions. The person who subsequently phoned and told you to tell me “Keanu called” was actually Dave. That’s why the caller I.D. on your phone said “Dave-home.” My claim that this was because “Dave and Keanu are also really good friends and Keanu really likes Dave’s phone” was also, in retrospect, a falsehood. In addition, I slept with your sister.
Heather: I did not invent the phrase “What up, dawg?” Nor do I get paid money every time somebody says it. When you expressed doubt about this, the “Official Letter of Phrase Ownership” that I received an hour later from the Patent Office was actually generated from my Powerbook, and printed on your printer. Also, the reason I would not introduce you to my parents was not that I had murdered my father and slept with my mother. That account was plagiarized from another writer. My own parents are happily married and living in Phoenix. When reached by a reporter, they were surprised, and saddened, to hear this untruthful account.
In any case, I hope this can be a learning process for all of us. Yes, there could have been greater safeguards. And, clearly, there was a critical breakdown in communication. Some have suggested that my “considerable personal problems” may have been a factor. Others feel that a heightened vigilance and skepticism are in order. But I would caution that too much suspicion might interfere with the creative atmosphere that enables men to persuade women to have sex with them. That would be a tragedy.