Looking for lies, and the baron

There is a sweet, fuzzy spot in my heart exclusively reserved for (some) liars. It started when I was a kid, as I was reading “The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen” by Rudolph Erich Raspe.

I fondly, vividly remember the baron’s stories. In chapter two, for example, the baron described his wintery journey from Rome to Russia. Overtaken by night, darkness, a road covered by heavy snow, and outmost tiredness, he fastened his horse to what seemed to be a pointed stump of a tree, and fell asleep.

He slept soundly until the next day when he awoke, astonished to find himself lying in the churchyard in the midst of a village with his horse missing. “On looking upwards,” the Baron tells us, “I beheld [my horse] hanging by his bridle to the weather-cock of the steeple. Matters were now very plain to me: the village had been covered with snow overnight, a sudden change of weather had taken place; I had sunk down to the churchyard whilst asleep… and what in the dark I had taken to be a stump of a little tree appearing above the snow, to which I have tied my horse, proved to have been the cross or weather-cock of the steeple. Without long consideration,” Baron Munchausen continues, “I took one of my pistols, shot the bridle in two, brought the horse [down] and proceeded on my journey.”

Unbelievable, absurd, yet humorous, entertaining, and charming, Baron Munchausen’s stories are all of that, and more: the Baron’s clever stories make us, the readers, feel smart, for we have always wanted to tell truth from lie, and an honest person from a liar, and with the Baron, this desire is fulfilled. At last, here is a liar we can expose, a liar whose pants catch fire as he fibs, whose nose grows longer as he lies.

My fondness for liars grew stronger when I realized that we all lie. We all lie! To ourselves and to others; big lies and small; mere bluffing and pure (B.S.); some people are just economical with the truth while others are pathological liars; there are horrible lies and kind, polite, white lies. And if I chose to hate liars, I would be left with nobody to love.

Several years ago, in a moment of weakness, I almost arrived at the conclusion that I had become a living lie-detector. For years, I had practiced my art in private conversations, at work, and while sitting in cafes, watching others. I had carefully collected cues from facial expressions and body language.

I had paid even closer attention to people who make a living out of gaining trust: politicians and car salesmen, bankers, lawyers, doctors and nurses. Just moments before I considered myself an expert at spotting liars, I stumbled upon a different attempt at understanding truth and deceit: Paul Ekman and Maureen O’Sullivan from the University of California, San Francisco, claimed, after studying more than 13,000 people for their ability to detect deception that only few of us (about 0.25 percent, or one in 400 people) can accurately detect lies. They called these people truth wizards.

According to the researchers, Secret Service agents, not doctors, were the most skilled at detecting deceit. To be honest, to tell the truth, I was deeply disappointed.

So disappointed was I in my abilities to detect lies that I adapted a policy of trust. In brief: as a doctor, I trust my patients. And still, at times, doubt creeps into my heart that some of my patients are not totally honest. Medicine has a name for almost everything, and patients who act as if they have an illness, by producing, or exaggerating their symptoms are divided into two categories: malingering, and factitious disorder. The difference is in their motivation.

In malingering, patients are motivated by external gains such as becoming eligible for disability payments, obtaining drugs and pain medications, or avoiding school, work, or military service. On the other hand, the motivation of patients with factitious disorder is obtaining reassurance, evoking sympathy, grabbing attention.

In 1951, in the Lancet, Richard Asher was the first to describe a severe form of factitious disorder: “Like the famous Baron von Munchausen,” he wrote, “the persons affected have always traveled widely; and their stories, like those attributed to him, are both dramatic and untruthful. Accordingly the syndrome is respectfully dedicated to the Baron, and named after him.”

When doubt creeps into my heart regarding the truthfulness of fellow humans, I turn on my rusty, clunky lie-detector and I listen to their stories. And as I recognize their motives, their weaknesses, their plight, I see the Baron traveling on his horse, in a stormy night, tying his horse to the cross of a church buried in deep snow.

Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist working in several locations in the Upper Peninsula. Contact him at smadjar@yahoo.com or at DrMadjar.com.