"A White Lie," a therapist struggles to absorb her patient's deception, while trying to understand its meaning and remain in to with the patient.
“It was my birthday this past Saturday,” MaryAnn begins smiling, combing her fingers through her long, silky hair.
“Congratulations,” I respond enthusiastically, “Twenty, right?”
MaryAnn pauses, drops her head, then raises it again to look
directly at me. “Not exactly. I turned 18.”
I stare at her, startled. “But we’ve been working together for two years. You told me you were 18 when we started.”
“Yes, I did. I lied. But that’s the only thing I’ve lied about.”
“But you were a minor when we began working together,” I say, quite distressed. “I would have needed your parents’ permission to see you.”
“Exactly! That’s why I told you I was 18. Could you imagine my parents allowing me to see you and air all their dirty secrets. It’s no big deal, just a little white lie.”
I’m stunned. MaryAnn and I had what I thought was a close, intense bond, with a heated transference/countertransference relationship. I quickly became the mother she wished she had, not the socialite who left her daughter to be raised by a series of nannies while she spent her husband’s money throwing elaborate parties or meeting a series of lovers somewhere in the world. For my part, I usually felt motherly and protective towards her, unless her excessive demands made me pull back in either anger or self-defense. Her “little white lie” feels like a betrayal and I struggle to make sense of it.
“Come on!” MaryAnn says. “You look like I’ve committed some terrible sin! Why is it such a big deal?”
“Well, first you made me complicit in breaking the law – seeing you without parental consent.”
“But you didn’t know!!” she interrupts.
“Second, this is a tremendous breach of trust, of what I assumed was a good faith relationship between us.”
“Yes, I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal about it. I lied so I could see you. What’s wrong with that?”
“How did you pay me every month?” I ask.
“You know money isn’t an issue. There are huge amounts of cash lying around, or signed checks. Neither of my parents cares how much money I spend. They never check up on me.”
“So you were stealing money to pay me?”
“I wasn’t stealing. I told you. I can spend money on whatever I want. They never ask.”
Through what feels like my foggy mind, some thoughts vaguely occur to me. “You know, MaryAnn, one of your complaints about your parents is that they’ve always had relationships with other people, while continuing on with what feels to you like their sham marriage.”
“That’s not the same thing!”
“You’ve grown up in a household where lying and deceit was second nature. It’s not so hard to imagine you’d also lie to get what you want.”
“I told you, I had no choice!”
“Perhaps your parents would say the same thing. And, besides, if your parents are so indifferent to what you do or don’t do, how do you know they wouldn’t be fine about your being in therapy.”
“I told you, because they don’t want all their secrets out there! Maybe I shouldn’t have told you. Maybe I should have just said yes, I’m 20.”
“So that brings me to another issue, MaryAnn, maybe the most important issue in terms of our relationship.”
She sighs, exasperatedly.
I continue. “A lie keeps distance. Your lie kept distance between us, just as your parents’ lies keeps distance between them and between the three of you. Maybe, unconsciously, it was important that you keep a distance between us, maybe you couldn’t risk being closer to me than to your parents.”
“But that doesn’t make sense. I’ve always wanted more from you, wanted you to take care of me, had fantasies of your being at my wedding one day, meeting my children, all that.”
“That’s what you’ve wanted consciously, but I wonder if unconsciously it would have felt very risky to be closer to me than to your parents, maybe it would have felt like I was replacing them, doing away with them. However not ideal they’ve been as parents, they’re the only parents you’ve ever had or will have.”
“I don’t know, maybe. But what now? What happens between us?”
“What would you like to happen?”
“I’d like you to forgive me and for us to go on as before.”
“Now that I have what feels to me like a psychological understanding of what prompted your lying, I’m no longer so shocked or angry. As far as us going on as before, if that means do I still care about you and want us to continue working together, the answer is certainly yes. But relationships always change, MaryAnn, and this relationship will definitely be impacted by what occurred between us today. For sure I’ll be looking to see if there are other ways you create distance in our relationship.”
“I am sorry. But I’m still not sure I would have done anything differently.”
“I hear you.”