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Jewish Journal

Opinion: In praise of falsehood

by Gina Nahai

August 31, 2011 | 10:51 am

Gina Nahai is professor of creative writing at USC. She can be reached at ginabnahai.com.

Gina Nahai is professor of creative writing at USC. She can be reached at ginabnahai.com.

What is it with people telling the truth all the time? I don’t mean under oath, or even in response to a question that has been posed to them; I mean when they just come out of the blue and dish out a nice, hefty portion of truth because they love you too much to lie to you.

For years, the first thing I heard from some of my favorite aunts upon greeting them was, “You look awful.”

They said this no matter how hard I had tried to fix myself up, or how good I thought I looked when I came through the door.

“I’m telling you the truth because I love you,” they added. “You’re too thin, you must be working too hard, you should eat more, wear some makeup, cut your hair or something.”

I was wearing makeup. I didn’t think I looked so bad.

“Well, you’re wrong. And anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you. You really shouldn’t let your husband see you like this.”

How can you get mad at someone who’s telling you the truth for your own good? And besides, these ladies were older than I. Among Iranians, few transgressions are as grave as talking back to an older person, especially a family member. To say you disagree with them is bad enough, but there’s no way you can tell them to mind their own business and be able to hold your head up in the family afterward. So I tolerated the love talk for about a decade, then heeded the advice of my husband. He grew up in England, where he was taught not just respect, but also diplomacy.

“I appreciate your concern,” he suggested I tell these honest, loving people, “but what you tell me makes me feel bad.”

That might have worked for Diana. For me, it was a nonstarter.

“I’d rather you felt bad and fixed yourself up, than felt good and looked bad,” my loving elders said. 

That finally stopped when I became old enough that to look good, all I have to do is maintain a pulse. Nowadays, I feel pretty safe at “hello,” but it’s anyone’s guess what happens from then on. Truth telling, it seems, has become a national pastime, with all that reality garbage constantly on television, all those celebrities bearing their hearts out for Dr. Drew, and every middle-aged, unemployed man and woman signing up with some online university for a degree in marriage and family therapy, then graduating with honors and charging the world with their professional wisdom.

I had an hour of this last Saturday when I went to a Shabbat luncheon at a family member’s house. I arrived at 1:30 wearing heels and makeup and — tell me this isn’t making an effort — a red dress. It was a large gathering, and I didn’t know most of the guests, so I managed to get in a good three minutes without being told I was late or I looked awful or I had offended someone by failing to “convince” my kids to come with me, but then I got overly confident and made the mistake of approaching a cousin. She’s the effusive type and always full of compliments. She saw me and declared, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, “Now this is a good color for you!”

In case you’re too self-confident to grasp the nuance, the implication there is that whatever else I’ve worn over my lifetime was not a good color. This same cousin had told me, a week after my older son’s bar mitzvah, that the dress I wore to the party made me look “dead.”

“And your hair looks good, too,” she now added. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t like it before.”

Before what? I’ve had the same hair since I was 22 and had it cut to within an inch of my scalp.

“I hope you don’t mind my telling you this. I don’t like to lie.”

Me neither. So I left the cousin and went outside into 100-degree heat, hoping to find shelter among people who didn’t love me and didn’t feel compelled to tell the truth. I had spent five minutes making small talk with a stranger before a woman I barely knew came up and asked, without the smallest bit of preface, “How do you rate your books?”

How do I rate them?

“I mean, what do you think of them?”

I think they’re terrible — badly written and pointless — and so do the publishers and critics and the buyers, of course. 

“I ask because my daughter read one of them and didn’t like it. I hope you don’t mind my being honest.”

Among Iranians, the polite response to such honesty is to thank the person and acknowledge their feelings. Anything else would be considered rude, tag you as a shrew and ruin your children’s chances at marriage.

OK, so maybe strangers’ truths aren’t any better than friends’ truths, I thought, and went back inside, sat down with my Orthodox cousin’s five kids, all under the age of 6, each brighter and more beautiful and charming than the rest. A few minutes later another cousin, a newly minted marriage and family therapist, joined us. We talked about how cute these children were, how quickly they grow up. I said something about missing my younger son who just moved out of the house to go to college. I thought that was rather innocuous, but it seems Antioch University disagrees. My cousin boiled with outrage.

“Let him go!” she yelled like Moses at the Pharaoh. “You’re castrating the child!”

Really? Castrating?

“That’s the trouble with Iranian men: They’re all castrated by their mothers.”

I looked around at the dozens of castrated men and all the castrating women in the room. I considered telling my cousin that I had studied all about castration in Psych 101 a thousand years ago at UCLA, and that there’s a slight difference between loving a child and wanting to own him, but that would have been rude of me; it would have hurt her feelings, meant that I was an ingrate and a shrew. It’s a “Catch-22” I think anyone in a caring, close-knit community has experienced and I, at least, have no idea how to solve it or where to find the right balance. I can’t blame people, because I think they mean well, so I’ve decided the fault lies with the truth itself. I therefore recommend the following prayer before and after each social gathering:

Dear God, give us this day our daily dose of denial. Keep us safe from love, truth and honesty. Lead us out of the light and into the darkness; let us remain ignorant of our failings, unpopularity and good colors. If possible, impose some minimal requirements for becoming a marriage and family therapist. And whatever you did with my hair this past Saturday ... keep that up until further notice from my cousin.

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